Q&A: The Climate Emergency movement

The Climate Emergency movement has been one of the most striking developments in the fight against climate change, coming as scientists warn we have only 12 years to limit global warming before catastrophic damage occurs. Councils of all stripes have begun to pass motions to dramatically accelerate carbon reduction action. Green World talks to Bryony Edwards, one of the campaigners behind the first Climate Emergency declaration in Darebin, Australia, about the movement’s origins and its next steps.

Burning trees
Burning trees
Bryony Edwards
How did the declaration of the Climate Emergency in Darebin come about? How did you convince councillors from both sides to vote for it?

In Australia in 2013, central governments (state and federal) were going backwards on climate action. We realised that to get a ‘Climate Emergency foot in the government door’ we needed to turn to councils. There are over 500 councils in Australia – some of them had to be visionary enough to lead.

A few campaigners, including Philip Sutton and Adrian Whitehead, worked on the model of what a Climate Emergency response by a council would look like and then there were targeted efforts to getting that first motion passed.

We ran Climate Emergency candidates in council elections in Darebin. We had one-on-one conversations with the candidates likely to become councillors, and we got the Climate Emergency message out to constituents via leafleting and electoral communications. Meanwhile, the local climate action group asked all candidates whether they would sign a statement of support for a Climate Emergency declaration (CED) and interviewed them on climate and integrity issues.

The candidate statements of support for the CED are the lynchpin for Climate Emergency campaigning. The CED says ‘this is an emergency and emergency action is demanded’, and asks ‘do you support emergency action to avert catastrophe?’ Messaging around the CED devised by Margaret Hender and Philip Sutton (CEDAMIA – Climate Emergency Declaration and Mobilisation in Action) was much based on the WWII-style mobilisation communications.

After surveying the candidates on Climate Emergency and integrity, the local climate action group leafletted the majority of households, rating the candidates on their responses.

The result was that Darebin got an excellent council. The new council was far less partisan than the old one and everyone seemed to be willing to work together. The councillors were affiliated with Greens, Labor and Independent but none had a clear majority. Seven of the nine councillors had signed a statement of support for the Climate Emergency declaration, and we’d spoken to all of the seven about how to prioritise the Climate Emergency as a councillor.

We suggested to one of the councillors that a Climate Emergency motion should be the first motion of the new council, and it was passed unanimously. To many, that motion may not seem like much, but for Adrian Whitehead and Phillip Sutton, it was the culmination of nearly 15 years of relentless Climate Emergency campaigning.

How quickly has the Climate Emergency movement spread and were you surprised?

I suppose we expected more traction in Australia (now eight councils) before it jumped overseas. It first jumped to the US.

Philip Sutton sits on the Executive of ‘The Climate Mobilization’ (TCM), a wonderful US Climate Emergency group. In 2016, TCM succeeded in getting a Climate Emergency/mobilisation clause into the Democratic National Platform through Bernie Sanders, but the world lives with the outcome from that US election. TCM were crestfallen when Trump won but we got them abreast of what was happening in Darebin and the theory of change behind the council Climate Emergency strategy.

Very quickly, Hoboken, New Jersey, declared, then Montgomery County, Maryland, and then the City of Los Angeles. Then came successive Bay Area councils. It’s great there is a concentration in California – five or six to date – because it builds the upward pressure for a statewide Climate Emergency declaration for what is the world’s fifth largest economy.

Bristol, the first council in the UK to declare, was apparently inspired by the Bay Area councils. Bristol declared in November 2018, two years after the Darebin motion. The momentum in the UK has been incredible.

What sort of concrete steps can be taken at local level that can deliver substantive progress towards carbon emission reduction targets?

Ideally, the Climate Emergency council would:

  1. Pass a motion that acknowledges a) the ‘Climate Emergency’, b) that all levels of government need to act, and c) that ‘business as usual’ transition is not fast enough.
  2. Develop a Climate Emergency Plan (CEP). The Plan should:
    1. Set a target of net negative emissions in an emergency timeframe (10 years);
    2. Quantify what council can do towards reaching the target;
    3. Identify what the community can do toward reaching the target; and
    4. Identify what state/federal/central governments will need to do for the target to be achieved.
  3. Ensure governance prioritises the response, e.g.  prioritise the CEP in the Council’s Strategic Plan. The gold standard is Los Angeles, which has proposed a ‘Climate Mobilisation Department’ that would sit atop all other City departments.
  4. Build the capacity of staff around Climate Emergency and help then understand the why and how of the Climate Emergency.
  5. Continue to communicate the Climate Emergency and engage the community so the community can support the eventual CED and entry into emergency mode.

We categorise the areas of council responsibility for the Climate Emergency as:

  • Advocacy/leadership (advocating to central governments);
  • Education (including the community/other councils on the Climate Emergency);
  • Emissions reduction actions (improved cycling infrastructure, local shuttles, electric car charging stations, pedestrian zones);
  • Reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere (planting street trees, returning carbon to the soil through organic waste recycling); and
  • Resilience building (installing renewable energy provision that is less subject to fuel price fluctuations).

Leadership is the main point, because even if all of these councils got their emissions to zero at emergency speed, it wouldn’t have much of a leadership impact unless they share the recipe for their success with other councils.

It’s also important to remember that when central governments declare a Climate Emergency, which is the ultimate goal, councils will have to do this work across their portfolios anyway.

Will the declaration in Darebin have any impact in the face of resistance from national government?

The Federal MP covering the Darebin area, Ged Kearney, is Labor and Labor has traditionally straddled the fence on climate action, allowing new coal and fracking in some states, while promoting renewables to some extent – all things to all people depending on the location.

Kearney had signed a statement of support for the Climate Emergency declaration but admitted she was not up to speed with the Climate Emergency. Adrian Whitehead and the Darebin climate action group met with Kearney and spoke to her about the emergency, where the message seemed to sink in. At Labor’s recent national conference, Kearney put forward a Climate Emergency statement, which was passed, and she has since mentioned the Climate Emergency a number of times in the Australian Parliament. Optimistically, we believe she is caucusing her party on the Climate Emergency.

In an age of increasing misinformation, what can be done to win round sceptics and deniers?

We complain about hard climate denial but soft denial is far more pervasive and insidious. It is the soft denial telling us that there is still a carbon budget, underplaying the catastrophic risks and telling us that a 33-50 per cent chance of averting climate catastrophe is good enough – as if anyone would get on a plane with those odds.

Soft denial is pervasive among people who actually know better. Soft denial is held in place by psychological cornerstones such as ‘but how could I make a difference?’, ‘someone else will fix it’, ‘I don’t want to put effort into anything that might fail’, and ‘I’ll do something tomorrow.’

If nobody puts forward a vision to save the planet, the planet is not going to be saved

There are a lot of ‘climate’ campaigners out there saying ‘don’t mention the emergency! We’ll scare people off’. These people have most likely given up and don’t see a path to saving the planet. However, if nobody is saying and fighting for what needs to happen, then the required response will never happen. It’s as simple as that.

There are think tanks in Australia, the UK and US, and most likely elsewhere, with comprehensive plans for zero emissions across most sectors, ready to be implemented. When we communicate the severity of our current situation, we couple this with the solutions otherwise we induce despair. A big problem and a strategy to solve it leads to action.

All that is holding us back is the politics and defeatist thinking. The public needs to know this.  

You recently completed a speaking tour on the Climate Emergency in the UK. What reaction did you receive to the tour?

We had a great response! We met with groups or gave public presentations most days. A key objective was to meet with councils that have already declared climate emergencies to encourage them to mobilise for an actual emergency response.

We don’t want councils declaring an emergency and then saying they don’t have the resources to do anything so sit on their hands. At a minimum, they can continue sharing the urgency and potential responses with the community and work to deliver cost neutral and community responses, and advocate up because, as mentioned earlier, the ultimate goal is that the community demands an appropriate response from central governments.

What advice would you have for councillors and activists looking to put forward Climate Emergency motions in the face of opposition from other councillors?

Tell the councillors that human activity has set off a host of positive feedback loops that were theoretical but a few decades ago and we don’t know when they’ll tip – some or many of them may have already tipped. They probably don’t know this.

The models created by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) don’t take these positive feedback loops into account and are based on unacceptable levels of risk (e.g. a 50 per cent chance of averting climate catastrophe). As Bill McKibben from international climate campaign 350.org has stated: “Winning slowly means losing”.

Share with the councillors what’s been happening elsewhere, which cities have already got on board and the kind of solutions packages that think tanks have already provided.

Assure the councillors that the council doesn’t need to do it all but they need to advocate up for what they can’t do, for central governments to pull the big levers.

Ask the councillors, ‘Do you see safe climate restoration occurring otherwise?’ and remind them that if nobody puts forward a vision to save the planet, the planet is not going to be saved.

Also tell them that the public is ready and even desperate for this. Time after time we have seen people get on board when they are asked to support something that might just actually work.

What are your thoughts on the Extinction Rebellion (ER) group?

ER is exactly what needs to happen. ER’s demands are spot on. It is breaking the silence on the Climate Emergency and forcing the public to take note.

ER gives people a very real way to get involved, to put themselves on the line with results. Soon after ER came to Australia, we were getting calls from people wanting to get involved, people who had shunned the ongoing tedium of a political party or campaign but could see themselves getting arrested.

In Australia and elsewhere, protesters have undertaken civil disobedience specific to fracking, logging, and other causes, but this is generally in remote places. Then there’s urban climate marches but these are highly controlled and do not receive press. Now the civil disobedience is taking place in cities at inconvenient times and in a Climate Emergency frame. Cities now have to take notice and everyone, including NGOs, are forced to pick a side.

In Australia, we’ve had a national schools strike and the response was terrific. Adults cheering from the sidelines and kids feeling their power, perhaps for the first time.

Naturally, ER is just one prong of the Climate Emergency movement. The council campaign provides a less activist route to help save the planet that engages government from the inside.

Bryony Edwards co-founded Community Action in the Climate Emergency and will be running as a Climate Emergency candidate in Australian state and local elections.