This is an abridged version of an interview from the Big Green Politics Podcast, reproduced here with their consent. For the full interview, see links at the end of the article.
In November 2018, Carla Denyer, a Green Party councillor in Bristol, proposed a motion calling on Bristol’s Labour mayor to declare a climate emergency.
The motion passed unanimously in the Labour run council – and so started a wave of climate emergency motions. 822 cities, councils and jurisdictions have done the same, catching the public mood that environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion were taking to the streets and coming just as the IPCC’s grim warning that we had 12 years to act started to sink into the collective consciousness.
Julia: What inspired you to propose the climate emergency motion?
Carla: There were three climate emergency motions in the world before mine – the first was Darebin in Australia, and then there were two in the US – Hoboken in New Jersey and Berkeley, California. And I heard about those three from environmental activists in Bristol, right at the beginning of the Extinction Rebellion movement, when it was really only just getting going.
I saw that [the concept] had promise because it was very simple and I thought that that simplicity might help me to get other parties on board and appeal to the widest possible set of people when proposing our motion.
Green Party councillors have been proposing similar motions saying cities should be reducing their carbon footprint for decades. Why exactly my motion on this passed when other similar ones in the past hadn’t I’m not exactly sure. I think there was an element of zeitgeist. We’d just had that alarmingly hot summer in 2018, the IPCC report about the impact of 1.5 degrees of global warming had just come out and as I mentioned the early actions of the Extinction Rebellion movement had got going. And all of that had happened within a month or two of me proposing my motion.
Julia: So what exactly is a climate emergency motion?
Carla: The principle of declaring a climate emergency is that that’s the first step. So some of the criticism is that it’s just symbolic it’s just words. But the principle of declaring a climate emergency is that the first step is to declare [...] and then you take bold action to tackle it.
The way I think of it is actually similar to the 12-step programme that’s used by organisations like Alcoholics Anonymous, in that the first step is acknowledging that you have a problem and that you can’t deal with it on your own. I think humanity’s relationship with carbon is a bit like an addiction so it does apply quite well. The first stage is saying we are in a crisis, we need to change something in our lives, and then once you’ve made that declaration then all of your other decisions have to flow from that.
My motion called for four main things from the mayor – to declare a climate emergency, to commit to the city going carbon-neutral by 2030, to lobby national government for the powers and funding necessary to achieve that, and finally to report back within six months with a plan for how to decarbonise. Those deadlines of the 2030 decarbonisation and reporting back with a plan were quite important to me because they were what helped make the motion not just nice words, but that it would result in action.
Julia: Many councils around the UK have declared a climate emergency because at this stage they kind of have to – but the motions were often very watered down and they were also often followed by total unashamed business as usual.
The question is, how do we stop these declarations from staying just ‘nice words’, a means for politicians who don’t plan to act with any urgency on the climate to look good?
Carla: I agree there is definitely a risk of politicians jumping on this bandwagon because frankly they are being embarrassed into it by the Greens and by environmental campaigners outside of party politics. When I was writing my motion, it didn’t even cross my mind to think, what do we do if hundreds of Tory-run councils declare climate emergencies and then don’t look like they’re going to act on it. That was an unimaginable future.
Green Party councillors have a big role to play in keeping up the pressure where they’re not in the administration – they can still provide important pressure holding the administration’s feet to the fire on what they’ve said. If nothing else, the climate emergency declarations are a lever that Greens in the councils and activists outside can use to say: ‘you said this, why are you doing that’.
Julia: What did you think of the Bristol mayor’s report on how to reach the carbon neutral 2030 target?
Carla: My view on the Bristol mayor’s plan is mixed, to be honest. The Green councillors produced our own report about two months after the motion came out with our suggestions and we were pleased to see that some of those made it into the mayor’s plan. For example, we borrowed an idea we really liked from Oslo, which is run jointly by Labour and Greens. They have a carbon budget which means that any major decision that the city council makes has to be either reducing carbon emissions or at least not making them worse, and if it is making them worse then it has to go back to the drawing board. And that would be completely transformational.
However, ultimately, it just isn’t a sufficiently emergency-oriented response. It doesn’t go far enough and it doesn’t go fast enough. For a start it isn’t a decarbonisation plan, it’s a plan to produce a decarbonisation plan. It talks about setting up boards that will meet next year and commissioning strategies for decarbonisation next year. Now bear in mind that when my motion passed I reiterated the warning from the IPCC that we had just 12 years left to take bold action. Nearly one of those years has already passed and the mayor is proposing to wait another year before even deciding what to do about it. That’s just not good enough.
But the worldview of all other politicians is still so substantially different from that of Green politicians that sometimes we talk past each other and it’s hard to get across that acknowledging the climate emergency isn’t an extra thing that you add on top of your pile of priorities, it’s completely changing the lens.
Julia: Exactly – once you know and you face the challenge, it does change everything, you have to re-assess everything you’re doing.
Carla: Putting pressure on your politicians is the first obvious step. So if you live in an area that has already declared a climate emergency or is on the brink of doing so, please write to your elected representatives, your councillors and let them know how strongly you feel about it. I’d really encourage you to do that, you’d be surprised at how much impact it has. And if you’re in an area that hasn’t yet declared a climate emergency and it’s not on the horizon, then you can learn from what’s happened elsewhere.
Across the UK after my motion passed, there were basically two mechanisms for how it passed elsewhere. One was existing Green Party councillors on other councils heard about my motion through the press and social media, and most of them literally copy-pasted my motion, changed the town name and submitted it. I was very happy for them to do that!
The other mechanism is where there aren’t Greens on the council but there are campaigners working from outside, they would typically identify councillors – from whichever party – which they thought were most likely to be persuaded, they’d encourage them to put something forward, and then support them in lobbying the other councillors until they thought they had a majority.
Julia: It seems to me that this level of politics is very important for the Greens – we very still espouse this ‘think global act local’ view, though we bind that to acting nationally and internationally too. I think that ultimately change is enforced and takes places locally – and when this kind of change happens locally that’s when you get people on board.
That’s countering a really important trend of apathy and hopelessness that most people feel when they think about climate change – a paralysing disempowering feeling that doesn't lead to action. Having said that, at the end of the day, as your motion states, the problems are so vast and systemic – can one city like Bristol make a difference in this context?
Carla: The advantage that starting the climate action at the local level has is that although local government can sometimes have the reputation for being a little backward compared to national government, it actually sometimes is much more fleet of foot and has more opportunities for innovation. Because it’s smaller and more closely connected to the people it serves, it’s sometimes more possible for local government to run interesting pilots than a big national one that would probably require years of preparation and consultation. And then if it works at a local level, then other councils can follow suit and then sometimes government follows suit a little while later.
If enough local councils declare a climate emergency it puts pressure on the national government, which it has done here in the UK, although more still needs to be applied. And then there is plenty that local councils can get on with in the meanwhile. So it is both a symbolic lobbying action and a concrete ‘let’s change things here’ action at the same time.
Julia: What would you advise anyone interested in replicating this?
Carla: If you’re in the UK, the Association of Green Councillors has put together a really useful resource pack with my motion and some of the other motions that might be more applicable to a town or borough [...] and example press releases, speeches and decarbonisation plans.
Also feel free to check out Bristol Green Party’s website; if you type ‘climate emergency’ into the search box you’ll find all of the articles and press releases we’ve done on it in the past nine months, including the full wording of my motion. We produced a short report called Change Starts Now which collates a couple of dozen ideas that we’ve seen elsewhere, whether that’s reports by great organisations like the Centre for Alternative Technology, Zero Carbon Britain, C40 cities, or just what other cities have done. We think this is a great starting point.
For the full and audio version of this interview, check out the Big Green Politics Podcast, available on all podcast platforms including Soundcloud, iTunes, Google Play and Spotify. The Big Green Politics Podcast is a podcast about Green politics – news from around the world and interviews with key thinkers. @biggreenpolpod