South Australia became the first state to declare a climate emergency on 25 September, joining more than 1,000 jurisdictions around the world. It follows the ACT and 54 local councils across Australia, including most capital cities.
The push by groups like Extinction Rebellion for governments and institutions to declare a climate emergency has been positive. It provides long-overdue official recognition of the severity of the threat climate change poses to society and natural ecosystems, and the need for urgent action. But without action, these declarations risk becoming nothing more than an exercise in greenwashing. Usually, climate emergency declarations are non-binding, requiring no commitment to lower emissions, let alone achieve carbon neutrality.
For instance, South Australia’s non-binding declaration, which does call for the transformation of the economy to net zero emissions, was passed in the Legislative Council, where the governing Liberal Party lacked the majority to block it. But it has done nothing to stop drilling in the Great Australian Bight, end the destructive mining of uranium, scrap proposals for nuclear waste dumps or put an end to the environmentally and socially destructive arms manufacturing industry in the state.
The largely symbolic nature of these declarations explains why they can attract support from across the political spectrum. The first national parliament to declare a climate emergency, that of the UK, did so under the Conservative Party’s watch. Even the pope has gotten on board, using the phrase in his appeal ahead of the September United Nations Climate Action Summit.
Much of the work behind these declarations has involved lobbying behind closed doors. Unsurprisingly, success has been more easily achieved at the lower levels of government, particularly the council level. Councils have the least capacity to discipline the corporations most responsible for climate change and to ensure global warming stays below 1.5 degrees. Too often, the declarations have involved simply rebranding existing environmental policies. This was the case with the Melbourne City Council, which made use of the language of “crisis” and “emergency” to pat itself on the back for past actions aimed at reducing emissions and protecting biodiversity.
Failing to deliver real action is not the only problem with these declarations. Their wording is often ambiguous and can leave the door open to authoritarian responses to the chaos climate change will create. Climate Mobilization, a US-based group pushing for similar declarations, calls on governments to “initiate a WWII-scale mobilization to reverse global warming and the mass extinction of species in order to protect humanity and the natural world from climate catastrophe”.
War is a common, and understandable, reference point used by supporters to demonstrate that governments are perfectly capable of rapidly transforming the economy when they deem it to be in their interests. However, there is nothing to force governments to deploy such a response only to stop or reverse climate change. Instead, they could use the emergency as cover for authoritarian policies of border militarisation or crackdowns on civil liberties. After all, it’s easier to imagine governments repressing climate movements than tackling capitalism’s dependence on fossil fuels (witness the Queensland Labor government’s response to anti-Adani protests).
Stating the obvious and acknowledging the extent of the crisis through climate emergency declarations is a step forward. But it will not be enough to stop climate change. Meaningful action will require a massive fight. We need to keep organising.