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By declaring a climate emergency Jacinda Ardern needs to inspire hope, not fear

There is no question that we must act, and act fast, on climate change. This week’s climate emergency declaration by the New Zealand government acknowledges the urgency of the climate crisis and the need to collectively confront it.

But a declaration is not the same as action. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been frank that the declaration is a symbolic gesture: “It’s what we invest in and it’s the laws that we pass that make the big difference.”

In saying this, she echoes the sentiments of some local councils during the first wave of climate emergency declarations in mid-2019.

For all that, it is wrong to imagine a declaration will make no difference at all. Language has power. Words like “emergency” have an impact in the real world, especially when endorsed by political leaders.

Political language frames how we interact with one another and the planet, and how we imagine our collective future. In that respect, the consequences of such emergency declarations — with their attendant sense of panic and fear — remain unsettlingly vague.

What does ‘emergency’ mean?

On one hand, a declaration is a way for campaigners to hold the government to account. For the young people in the School Strike 4 Climate movement who made an emergency declaration a key demand, it may prove a moment of inspiration and empowerment.

If it is taken as a sign that social movements can effect political change, reset the agenda and compel governments to listen, the declaration could embolden efforts to hold the government to its word — and to implement the laws and investments that will deliver emission reductions and adaptation to climate risks.

Read more: Mining companies are required to return quarried sites to their 'natural character'. But is that enough? 

On the other hand, the politics of emergency come with baggage, established in precedent and law, by which ordinary political processes are suspended to expand state power.

Jacinda Ardern with school children

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern meeting Strike 4 Climate students in Christchurch, 2019. GettyImages

An unsettling legacy

It’s important to recognise that this notion of emergency politics, like the idea of climate emergency declarations, was imported to Aotearoa New Zealand. It is another example of New Zealand’s “fast follower” approach to climate policy.

The low-emissions transition has accelerated under Ardern, but largely by way of policy transfer from the UK and EU, not by homegrown innovation. The climate emergency concept made a parallel journey via social movements such as Extinction Rebellion.

Yet the state’s emergency footing, where ends justify extraordinary means, is inherently problematic in the context of recent colonial history. Legislation such as the Public Works Act , for example, empowered the Crown to compulsorily acquire land for infrastructure development — land often owned by Māori.

Read more: How life-cycle assessments can be (mis)used to justify more single-use plastic packaging 

A climate emergency might only be symbolic, but its language carries this legacy of alienation and disenfranchisement. Moreover, it risks reviving those imperialist tendencies, by treating processes of consultation and consent as impediments to urgent action.

Where does democracy fit?

Emergency is also risky to democracy, especially when the crisis is not temporary but long-lasting, as the climate crisis is. Although many climate campaigners prioritise justice and equity as essential to the low-emissions transition, others treat democracy as a barrier to climate action rather than a vehicle for it.

The emergency response to the Christchurch earthquakes is a case in point. Limiting civic participation in the rebuild led to public ambivalence over the results, which were too often determined by the interests of the state rather than the aspirations of local communities.

Of course, it isn’t inevitable any tyrannical urges will be unleashed. Arguably, the meaning of climate emergency is still to be determined. From one angle, it is a blank page, an empty signifier, which means nothing in particular.

But the flipside is that the term has a surplus of meaning — that is, it means many things to many people. Some of these meanings are not easily dismissed, including those that conflict with justice.

Read more: Prepare for hotter days, says the State of the Climate 2020 report for Australia 

The long emergency

Campaigners for a climate emergency will continue to use this language to ratchet up ambition, but they should be aware of these tensions. If a climate emergency is to be compatible with other ideals like democracy and decolonisation, then it must be fought for on those terms.

For example, the School Strike 4 Climate demands a climate emergency declaration must “uphold our democratic values and obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi”.

Read more: Why our response to climate change needs to be a just and careful revolution that limits pushback 

If climate change is an emergency, it is a “long emergency”. It has taken decades, even centuries, to create — and will take comparable timeframes to undo. It requires us to reimagine the structures of our societies, cities, economies and our politics.

If Aotearoa New Zealand is to shift from being a follower to a leader or pioneer in climate governance, it must involve local knowledge, especially Māori knowledge and leadership, to respond in ways that reflect our local circumstances.

If action is to be sustained over years and decades, it requires behaviour that springs from hope, not fear.

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