We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.
What should we call our global climate event? A crisis? Climate chaos?
What could happen if we called it what it is: a climate emergency? Could we take the kind of collective and individual actions suitable for addressing an emergency? Could we act urgently and decisively, rather than taking tepid half measures to address the problem?
The British Extinction Rebellion movement thinks we can, and will respond to the climate emergency once we recognize it as such. That’s why they’ve been successfully pushing governments — including New York City and the parliaments of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland — to issue climate emergency declarations.
Will this change of labels make any difference? Can the declarations be turned into policies and actions?
Let’s just say the extinction rebels are onto something: Words matter. Our response to an emergency is quite different from our response to, say, an issue, or a problem. If there’s an issue, it can be debated. If there’s a problem, perhaps it will go away on its own. Or, we can throw some money at it — in a future budget.
But an emergency requires immediate action. You don’t let Grandma flop around on the floor while you finish dinner. You call an ambulance — now. So, by reframing the climate crisis as an emergency, the (mostly) young extinction rebels have made a direct attack, and are making a direct impact on how our principal socioeconomic institutions, i.e., governments, address the problem — because we can now call them on their own words.
The British Parliament, for example, can no longer justify voting for a measure that increases fossil-fuel use — the expansion of the Heathrow airport, for example — when it has declared a climate emergency. It can take that vote, but it will immediately be challenged and embarrassed by a significant constituency, angry and vociferous, that takes it to task for contradicting its own words — and lying to the public about its true intentions.
Similarly, if it can be impressed on the public at large that we are in an emergency situation, individuals, groups of people and institutions not only will demand meaningful action on the part of their governments, but will start to take more strident steps on their own.
For example, a group of U.S. philanthropists, led by financier Trevor Neilson and Robert Kennedy’s daughter Rory Kennedy have recently donated around $600 million to support the Extinction Rebellion. The money will be used for everything from paying for leaflets and bullhorns to hiring professional staff to coordinate the Rebellion’s activities and expand its reach worldwide. In the weeks and months ahead, the groups founders plan to use their contacts among the planet’s wealthy to raise “a hundred times more” under the auspices of their newfound “Climate Emergency Fund.”
Neilson, who has long donated to environmental causes, had his “emergency epiphany” last year. “Something about throwing my two-year-old and wife in the car and evacuating from the worst fire in the history of Southern California brought the [climate] issue into a new type of focus,” he told The Guardian. The Climate Emergency Fund, he pledged, will back legal actions and “provide resources to activists who seek to disrupt in a non-violent way,” adding, “we do not have time for gradualism.”
As to authenticity, note that climate battle veteran Bill McKibben and "Uninhabitable Earth" author David Wallace Wells are on the Climate Emergency Fund’s board, and the Extinction Rebellion welcomes the support.
OK. You’re not a billionaire donor. So, what can you do? Perhaps just remember that the more you call the climate emergency what it is, the more others will do so at our ecological house.