25 July 2019

‘Leaving no one behind’ in the wake of climate emergencies

Over the past several months, cities around the world have increasingly been declaring states of “climate emergency,” providing political recognition of the urgency of climate change.

These municipal declarations are not strictly new – cities in Australia began passing them as early as 2016. However, there is a noticeable momentum building as more cities add their names to an ever-growing list of governments acknowledging our current moment as an emergency. Deutsche Welle has reported that, since just May 2019, over 45 local governments in Germany have declared a climate emergency.

ICLEI Members are among these cities. This includes Bonn, Heidelberg and Münster (Germany), Cork (Ireland), Basel and Zurich (Switzerland), and Bristol, Birmingham and Glasgow (United Kingdom), to name a few.

A shift in language

The language used to describe the changing climate has shifted over time. The phenomenon of a rapidly changing environment was once described predominantly as “global warming.” While “global warming” continues to be used to describe the long-term warming of the planet, the phrase “climate change” has become seemingly more common, as it encompasses the many effects of our changing climate, including warming, but also more extreme weather events, flooding, droughts, and other changes.

In September 2018, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres described the situation as a “climate emergency.” This is a marked shift in connotation from “climate change.” A change can be passive and gradual, while an emergency goes further, acknowledging the high stakes of our current situation. News publications have been re-evaluating their language use in this context. For example, in May 2019, The Guardian updated its style guide, encouraging journalists to use terms like “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” that “more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world.”

Are declarations alone enough?

Climate emergency declarations by local, regional, and national governments come in direct response to citizen pressure, prominently from young people leading the “Fridays for Future” movement. In this way, declarations can translate bottom-up action into political promises. However, the political responses take different forms, ranging from committing to specific actions and targets, to non-binding assurances that the government will consider climate change in policy-making.

Declarations of any kind that acknowledge a climate emergency can be a good starting point. However, symbolic words simply do not go far enough. Declaring emergencies will only be effective if they are supported by, and paired with, concrete action and measures, as well as robust policies and frameworks. “Declarations alone do not go far enough. However, these can be very valuable if they ignite activities, catalyse consensus or augment efforts within the City Council and administration. The alternative would be to remain in a state of emergency without an end and difference,” explains Carsten Rothballer, Coordinator at ICLEI Europe for Sustainable Resources, Climate and Resilience.

Some cities are indeed using a declaration of emergency to enact change. It will be imperative that this becomes the norm.

Cork, for example, paired its acknowledgement of a climate emergency with a political motion that calls for the foundation of a Climate Action Committee. Elected members of the committee will meet with civil society organisations to discuss measures to combat climate change. The motion also requires that a new “trees and biodiversity” policy be crafted and put before the Council for approval within six months.

In this and other ways, declaring a climate emergency can be an important catalyst for action. “There is a Dutch expression that translates to: ‘under pressure, everything will be liquid’. In other words, declaring an emergency can add pressure, which in turn opens up new possibilities for action. For this reason, ICLEI supports the acknowledgement of a climate emergency. We will work with cities, however, to support them in seizing these new possibilities for action,” explains Ruud Schuthof, ICLEI Europe Deputy Regional Director.

ICLEI President and Mayor of Bonn, Ashok Sridharan, echoed a similar sentiment in a press release announcing Bonn’s declaration of climate emergency. Mayor Sridharan explained, “...We [as a city] are...internationally active in various associations for climate protection... The proclamation of the climate emergency for Bonn is a symbolic act in this sense, which must now be followed by deeds. The administration will make concrete new proposals to do this” [translated from German]. Despite Bonn’s prior activities to fight climate change, the declaration is nonetheless prompting the city to put forth new, concrete proposals to continue working to curb the emergency.

‘Leaving no one behind’

This slogan, associated with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, must be considered with respect to our current climate emergency. Mr. Schuthof explains that perceiving our current moment as a “sustainability emergency” may in fact be a more accurate framing of what is needed moving forward. “We are in a state of ‘sustainability emergency’. Our transition has to be just and must be about quality of life for everyone.”

This sentiment has been reflected in a letter that German mayors – in their roles as the elected political leaders of major European city networks – recently wrote to Chancellor Merkel calling for national support of climate action. “A climate emergency mandate needs to be resourced by the national government to really unfold and to upscale comprehensive climate change action that is unquestionably required,” explains Mr. Rothballer.

The letter, sent earlier this month, urges the Federal Government to put into place policies that acknowledge the urgency of climate change. It points out how cities and local governments are at the forefront of climate action, will bear the burden of inaction, and require support from higher governing levels in the fight to curb the devastating effects of climate change.

Importantly, it also points to the social and economic factors that must be considered. For example, the mayors assert that: “The social and economic consequences of the transformation processes are also noticeable in our cities. Above all, the most vulnerable groups in society are affected. There is a danger that [due to climate change] they will become increasingly detached” [translated from German].

In a press release (in German) announcing the letter, Mayor of Freiburg and Chair of ICLEI Europe, Martin W.W. Horn, elaborated on this concept, saying: “As cities, we have a pioneering role in the fight against climate change to protect our citizens from the effects that are already noticeable today. Socially disadvantaged people should not be the victims” [translated].

Their letter calls for various specific measures – such as the introduction of climate protection as a compulsory task at all political levels, setting a passive house standard for buildings, and establishing a tax on CO2 emissions – as well as a proposal to set up permanent exchange with cities to ensure the role of municipalities is more widely recognised and taken into account in relevant policy areas. In sum, mayors require national support in the fight for a better future climate.

Mayor Horn addressed this need as well, stating, “As cities, we cannot enact the urgently needed efforts to combat climate change alone. Therefore we call on the Federal Government to step up cooperation in climate protection with us and to support our efforts more strongly” [translated].

Cities have demonstrated that they are motivated to “leave no one behind” and are keenly aware of which members of society are most vulnerable to the devastating effects of the climate emergency. Now climate emergency declarations must be translated into action that ensures a sustainable and just transition for all.