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Written on 5 Feb 2021 by George Hayes

The climate emergency: pragmatism and fatalism in the policy arena

Climate policy should be aware of the issues that emergency rhetoric engenders writes George Hayes, MPhil Environmental Policy, University of Cambridge.

“12 years to save the planet? Make that 18 months.” “The heat is on: vanishing climate safety window.”

As these headlines illustrate, the dominant editorial rhetoric of climate change is urgent, often fatalistic. The narratives tend to invoke blinking red lights, exponential curves, and inexorable countdowns approaching global Armageddon (set at 6 years, 333 days, 18 hours, 52 minutes, 25 seconds at the time of writing[1]. Drawing on the trope of atomic scientists’ Doomsday Clock, and in no small part due to the tone set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the climate narrative is now broadly framed as a race against time before we as a species reach the point of no return: 2°C global warming.

Human-induced climate change is, without question, a defining issue for this and future generations. While deadlines, tipping points, and emergencies are powerful rhetorical devices that draw attention to the effects of human actions on the Earth’s atmosphere and climate, they can be unhelpful if they lead to ill-considered and hasty remedies and counterproductively reduce the scope for useful policy solutions.

Justifying the lurid headlines at the start of this article are comments from many respected figures. As Paul Gilding, the former head of Greenpeace, sets out his “One Degree War Plan,” Pope Francis calls for “emergency mobilisation.” Indeed in December, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called on every country to declare a “climate emergency.” Their rhetoric is driven by the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report[2] that tabled a 1.5oC global temperature target in Paris and subsequent literature that threatened ‘hothouse’ scenarios and climate ‘cliff-edges’ (Steffen et al. 2018). The climate crisis should not be understated, but nor should it be sensationalised.

Declaring a climate emergency invokes emergency responses such as “the suspension of normal governance, the use of coercive rhetoric, calls for ‘desperate measures’, shallow thinking and deliberation, and even militarization,” as Professor Mike Hulme (2018; 2019) has argued. For example, James Lovelock in his 2009 The Vanishing Face of Gaia, calls for the suspension of democracy to stage a war on emissions, while Shearman and Smith (2007) blame liberal democracy as “the fundamental problem behind environmental destruction.” All climate change responses have social consequences; hasty solutions that suspend the systems of governance we rely on will surely affect justice, democracy, and equity in ways that are dangerous and regressive.

Climate deadlines not only incubate the political opportunism of emergency declarations, but can incite cry-wolf responses that undermine the credibility of climate science when the world does not immediately change. Andrew Simms’ warning of a 100-month climate tipping point ran out in 2016[3]. Prince Charles’ diagnosis that “we have 18 months to stop a climate change disaster” was made in 2008[4]. The effects of climate change will be felt incrementally over diverse geographies, and there is no way of accurately predicting, let alone experiencing, a ‘tipping point’. These claims risk disenchanting onlookers as environmentalists’ warnings are neither heeded nor realised. 

These rhetorical devices have painted policy makers into a difficult corner. Emergency situations require emergency responses, which may not be appropriate, fair or even successful. Of the solutions tabled by the IPCC, solar radiation management (SRM) is perhaps the most problematic. The process, which involves injecting sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect radiation thereby mimicking a volcanic eruption, is unjust and potentially dangerous. Installing a global thermostat raises questions of distributive justice: which countries will set global temperatures and at what level? Meanwhile such measures have no off-switch: cessation would lead to a jolt to the climate system and rapid, harmful change. This is not the pragmatic response that climate change demands.

Tempering the rhetoric of the climate debate – particularly with respect to the policy arena – would lead to more level-headed pragmatism. Just as business-as-usual is unacceptable, emergency measures threaten inappropriate responses. Striking a balance between these two pitfalls is possible: manifested in considered and just responses that emphasise social investments to alter development trajectories; investment in renewable and nuclear technology; and holding major polluters, namely oil and gas companies, to account by cutting fossil fuel subsidies. Structural change to society is needed, not quick-fix science fiction methods.

Of course, the rhetoric of emergency and deadlines plays an instrumental role for local and regional activism, spurs action within civil society and captures the attention of policy makers. Indeed, framing climate change as an emergency can in part be credited for much of the political action (or at least talk of) in the international policy arena today. The efforts of environmentalists such as Extinction Rebellion or Sir David Attenborough have helped to foster a popular movement and have forced policy-makers to pay attention. But emergencies, deadlines, and tipping points can entrench desperate measures and justify hasty ‘Plan B’ work-arounds. Policy making would benefit without a Sword of Damocles hanging over its head.

Emergency rhetoric is a useful tool of mobilisation, not an approach to policy. This is an important distinction if climate change is to be addressed in an equitable and democratic manner. Fundamentally, however, there is no deadline to stop climate change, rather the world needs immediate, pragmatic, and sustained action, now and well beyond 6 years, 333 days, 18 hours, 45 minutes, 12 seconds in the future.


[1] https://climateclock.world
[2] https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/syr/
[3] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2008/aug/01/climatechange.carbonemissions
[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-48964736

  • About the author

    George Hayes

    George Hayes is a student in the MPhil Environmental Policy at the University of Cambridge. He is a Peter Wilson Estates Gazette Scholar and holds an undergraduate degree in Geography from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. His current research interest lies in the renewable energy transition and communicating climate change.