Why is it important to declare a climate emergency or crisis?

So often today we see governments and businesses declaring a climate emergency. But why? What is important about taking this action or making this statement? Let’s take a step back and identify what a climate emergency is first, then we can discuss the reasons for a government’s decision to take this step.

The phrase climate emergency or crisis involves both climate change and its consequences. It is often broadly used to describe the global risk of climate change and the dire effects that may well occur without strong, effective mitigation strategies. Mitigation strategies are plans and/or approaches to reduce both the impacts of, and emissions from, greenhouse gases. These strategies can range from renewable energy sources such as solar or electric thermal storage, to protecting carbon sink regions such as wetlands. Mitigation strategies differ from climate change adaptation in that adaptations refer more to actions that are taken to adjust to or prepare for the present and future effects of climate change. Adaptation strategies range from actions such as ensuring adequate disaster plans are developed and put in place or establishing protocols for more intense wildfire seasons.

The declaration of a climate emergency is an acknowledgement by a government, institution, organization, or business that the planet and humanity are in a climate emergency or crisis. It is also an admission that the climate crisis is human-driven and therefore humans must look for solutions or mitigations. Additionally, that there is a demonstrated link between the concentration of greenhouse gases and the average temperature globally.

A declaration acknowledges that the crisis is present now rather than at some future time. It is a reaction to the wildfires, severe weather events, permafrost melt, sea level changes and erosion that scientists and individuals are seeing on a daily basis. Additionally, the climate change will continue to impact basic human needs such as access to food, secure housing, safe transportation and affordable energy costs. In addition, a declaration recognizes the need for a reduction in emissions that will limit global warming to 1.5°C as outlined in the Paris Agreement. This type of resolution is also implicitly stating that the current manner in which humanity is engaging with the global environment is not only ineffectual but damaging. Finally, and most importantly a declaration is a call to action.

How does a government or other entity declare a Climate Crisis or Emergency? The very short answer is after, for example, a Federal government has come to an agreement within its legislative bodies it will develop a document stating something to the effect of “we acknowledge that there is a Climate Emergency in . . .” followed by a list of points for acknowledgement, ie: climate change is negatively impacting human existence, a target date to decrease the effects of climate change in the region, and the framework for short and long-term actions. The first such declaration was enacted in 2016 and since then more than 38 countries and thousands of local communities have declared a climate emergency. These numbers include Yukon First Nations, the Yukon Government and City of Whitehorse.

Establishing a climate emergency resolution will only make real change if there are concrete plans enacted and acted upon. Therefore, once this resolution is established and published there are a number of potential benefits that may be realized. The first of these is that a government is able to lay out a plan and determine the priorities to mitigate climate change. Additionally, it allows for governments to enact policies and strategies to reduce emissions. As part of this process a government will also need to outline and prioritize the actions to ensure a decline in emissions. Furthermore, the passing of this type of resolution will raise awareness not only with community members, businesses or countries but externally with other cities, corporations and the international community. This awareness creates internal and external pressures on other levels of government and businesses. By enacting a resolution as an emergency, there are legal avenues open to governments, in particular, to create legislation and act more quickly on strategies.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres recently stated, “the climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win.”

Helping Northerners Deal with the Realities of Climate Change