It has become impossible to ignore the growing wave of protest and action against climate change around the world. Extinction Rebellion, the School Strike 4 Climate movement and Fridays for Future have burst onto the social movement scene with their demands for urgent and decisive action in response to the climate emergency. The arrest of over one thousand people across London last month marked the first wave of ‘rebellion’ undertaken by Extinction Rebellion. While there have been a number of critiques of the movement – including the friendly approach to interacting with the police, the short-lived ‘XR Business’ venture, and the lack of diverse voices or sufficient attention to climate justice – it is hard to deny the efficacy of their recent action, which gained sustained worldwide media attention and brought the discussion of climate change into many workplaces and homes.
One of the key demands of Extinction Rebellion is for ‘the government to tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency.’ Climate change is certainly an emergency, but I have significant reservations about this specific approach. While many of the current declarations appear to be symbolic and aimed at raising awareness and bolstering resources for climate mitigation and adaptation, this tactic raises urgent questions around what this ‘state of climate emergency’ will look like and – most importantly – to what extent it will allow for democratic participation.
The broader campaign for a climate emergency – a separate but overlapping movement with Extinction Rebellion – calls on governments around the world to ‘declare a climate emergency and mobilise society-wide resources at sufficient scale and speed to protect civilisation, the economy, people, species, and ecosystems.’ A large push for climate emergency declarations is happening across the UK and has had some recent success. Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon declared a climate emergency in her speech to the SNP conference on Sunday, and the Welsh Government immediately followed suit. There is growing support in the UK parliament for Labour’s call to declare a formal climate and environment emergency. The campaign leading up to the motion had been supported among others by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who made such a declaration along with other mayors in the United Kingdom and Canada.
Climate change is already here and we know we need to act now. I, too, feel frustration and urgency. It is difficult to comprehend how decades have gone by with little meaningful action on climate change. However, while a symbolic declaration of a climate emergency indicates the urgency of the challenges we face, actual emergency measures at the government level could compromise democratic participation and stifle climate activism.
In this context it is worth remembering that some in the environmental movement have argued for some time that democracy is a problem and that we need to curtail democratic freedoms in order to address climate change. Most notably, James Lovelock controversially claimed in 2010 that democracy may have to be put on hold to fight climate change, just as countries had done before when facing war.
Political philosopher Giorgio Agamben has theorised the ‘state of exception’ as a modern institution of governance that accounts for how a state may ‘remain lawful while transgressing individual rights’. In the face of an emergency or crisis (on such state of exception), a government or sovereign power may suspend laws, legislate new laws and expand its powers. While this may seem desirable in order to fight climate change, these powers – as John Schwartz has noted – have been known to remove or weaken environmental law and protections.
Fear of political and social instability can lead to the justification for narrowing of rights in response to a perceived threat of unrest, something that Kathryn Tierney has called ‘elite panic’. We only need to look to the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris during 2015 where the French government used wide ranging emergency powers gained following terrorist attacks to crack down on climate protestors, including banning public demonstrations and placing some activists under house arrest.
While the relationship between democracy and action on climate change is complex, there is some evidence in the academic scholarship that democracies are more effective at achieving environmental outcomes than non-democratic regimes. At the very least, as Hayley Stevenson and John Dryzek note, ‘there is certainly no evidence that authoritarian states do better than democratic ones’ on environmental issues. Aspects of democracies that are likely to improve awareness and action on environmental issues include a free media, participation in international agreements, freedom of association, and freedom for civil society organisation.
However, if we are to confront climate change and the political and social causes of this problem in a just way, we need to confront the limitations of our current democratic system. As Simon Niemeyer has stated, climate change is ‘pushing the limits of existing systems of governance to effectively respond.’ Those with power and wealth have distorted political processes to protect their interests and delay action. Bringing together an understanding of social and environmental justice issues highlights the interconnected nature of these problems and the power relationships that shape the disproportionate burden of issues like climate change. Those who contribute the least to the problem are those most affected and often, those with the least say, such as Indigenous people and communities in the Global South.
Rather than succumb to the temptation of technocratic and authoritarian solutions that reduce democracy and further concentrate power in the hands of those least affected, we need to transform and expand our current democratic systems. This aim should be a central priority for the current climate movement.
While Extinction Rebellion have called for a national Citizens Assembly to counteract the power of the state, it is not immediately clear what shape and scale this would take. We know there are challenges with scaling up deliberative processes and it is unclear exactly how citizens assemblies would work alongside state-driven, wartime-like emergency powers.
Critical engagement with the role and power of the state to suppress threats to the status quo is urgently needed. A symbolic declaration of emergency may be a useful tool for building momentum for action, but we must not let this strategy creep into sustaining emergency powers that constrict democratic rights. It is crucial that democratic participation remains central to building a collaborative and collective approach to climate justice and action.
Image: Extinction Rebellion protesters on Waterloo Bridge, London (Neil Schofield).