The 2020s are the Climate Change Decade: Can a sense of emergency be effectively sustained?

Protests, heatwaves, loss of arctic sea ice, wildfires, floods — 2019 was the year of climate emergency. In the last 20 years,  the Tyndall  Centre has helped change the way that public, policymakers  and the media perceive and act on climate change. We celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2020, the decade of climate action.  We will start  the New Year and the new decade of climate action with a series of think pieces about the urgency and emergency of climate change. This article introduces the concept of climate emergency from the point of view of the public in discussion with Tyndall Centre researchers and invited speakers.

The term ‘climate emergency’ may not be as effective protesters think, say members of a climate attentive public who joined with Tyndall Centre’s researchers for round table discussions.

Despite the UK government, local councils and universities all declaring climate emergencies, concerns were raised by people at the event that the term might be “too abstract” and unsustainable in the longer term. According to some participants, people can become fatigued and desensitized when in a perpetual state of emergency.

What does ‘emergency’ really mean and how can it become more tangible for most people?

The concern about its effectiveness is not just about the choice of words. Most participants thought that the declarations of climate emergency have not yet brought any change for climate policies or business regulations. There was concern that for some authorities declarations may be a political move in response to public momentum rather than a genuine commitment to the scale of transformation needed to tackle climate change.

Many participants also believed that the burden of climate action should not be placed primarily at the door of individuals. They agreed that developed countries and big businesses must be more accountable for their actions. This means the role of government is crucial in making better policies and putting more pressure on the private sector to do their share for the climate. This was not to say that individual actions to reduce our carbon footprint isn’t deemed important. Participants believed that change needs to be systemic and that steps must be taken by every sector at every level.

Participants discussed that whilst during periods of high media coverage awareness and intentions to act may be high, this can quickly ebb away as the news cycle moves on. According to our participants, if we want people to change their lifestyles, there needs to be incentives, regulations, and policies in place to help them. For example, having better public transport and bicycle lanes can help stop the use of inner-city cars. Participants also suggested a one-stop-shop where they can get information about climate science, as well as better communication platforms between experts and the public.

Awareness of the scale of the issue and commitment to personal lifestyle change was argued to be low outside the bubble of environmentalists and scientists.  It was felt that across broader society there is not yet a genuine sense of urgency.

There was broad consensus on the sense that climate action must be both top-down and bottom-up.  While a “climate emergency” might be effective in the short term to disrupt an incremental approach and target urgent and significant change – such change will require a campaign and plan that is based on a positive vision of the future that embraces fairness and climate justice.

This is a summary of the notes taken at round table discussions between Tyndall Centre researchers and climate attentive Norwich citizens at an evening event in Sept 2019. There were around 140 participants, half public and half Tyndall Centre, the discussions followed the views of speakers. We thank the speakers Corinne Le Quéré CBE, Royal Society Research Professor, University of East Anglia, Member of the UK Committee on Climate Change, President of the French High Committee on Climate Change; Andrew Boswell Climate Emergency Consultant; Laurie Laybourn-Langton, Associate Fellow, Institute for Public Policy Research; Richard Wilson, Environmental Strategy Manager, Norwich City Council; Sarah Mander, Reader in Energy and Climate Change, University of Manchester and public participants and Tyndall researchers.

Download this Tyndall Briefing Note here.

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