Should we stop talking about a climate emergency/crisis?
I’ve been enjoying my Thursday morning Sustainability Professional Zoom chats hosted by Penny Walker and Susannah Roffe. At last week’s meeting, I posited the question: given the Covid-19 crisis, should we stop talking about ‘the climate crisis’ or ‘the climate emergency’? I thought it might elicit the response “well, duh, yeah” but the ensuing conversation was very nuanced.
I’ve long felt uneasy about these two terms. I understand the reason behind their introduction, and I do use them under certain circumstances. Yes, we need to start taking climate seriously and fast – “our house is on fire” as Greta Thunberg memorably put it – and crisis/emergency gets that across. And one of the most effective uses of the phrase comes when an organisation has declared a climate emergency and you can beat them over the head with “You say this is an emergency, but you haven’t done anything in the last 6 months!”
My worry arises when it comes to the general public and decision makers who don’t ‘get it’. For most people, a crisis or an emergency means an imminent, tangible threat. The difficulty with communicating climate change has always been that today’s actions have implications decades down the line, not tomorrow. That conflicts with the “watch out for the sabre-toothed tiger!” way humans have evolved to assess risk.
This worry has escalated with the Covid-19 crisis. With a death toll already in the 100,000s within a couple of months, this feels much more like a crisis the way most people instinctively think of a crisis. As we crawl back into society from our lockdown, many mourning lost loved ones, it would come across as crass to start shouting about a climate crisis. I’m not one for preaching at the best of times, but as a member of my Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group put it, we should definitely leave grieving time for people to come to terms with the Covid-19 aftermath before yelling about a climate crisis.
That’s not to say we should sit on our hands. We should be quietly be working to keep our new found love of teleworking and active travel going, getting paused low carbon projects up and running, and look at ways of exploiting the crisis in the oil industry to further wean ourselves off fossil fuels. Actions speak louder than words, after all, and once we show progress, we can start raising the public profile of the climate change threat again.