What Declaring a 'Climate Emergency' in the U.S. Would Actually Do

It would have no effect on policy, but some activists say it's a necessary part of a society-wide "paradigm shift."
July 11, 2019, 2:39pm
A splitscreen of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders are both calling for the U.S. to declare a climate emergency. Photos by Zach Gibson/Getty (left) and Sergio Flores/Getty (right).

Earlier this week, when Senator Bernie Sanders and representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Earl Blumenauer urged Congress to officially declare climate change an "emergency," the sirens-blaring announcement was largely greeted with shrugs and eye-rolls—even by those sympathetic to the goal of rapidly decarbonizing the U.S.

The environmental site Grist compared it to The Office episode where Michael Scott thinks shouting "I declare bankruptcy" will make his financial troubles go away. Proclaiming an emergency, which many countries and U.S. cities have already done, doesn't guarantee any specific action. "I am starting to worry that things like a national resolution declaring a climate emergency are just kind of meaningless," said Alex Trembath, the deputy director of the Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute.

Tuesday's announcement was part of a long-running campaign, however, by a relatively obscure climate group whose approach is less concerned with the nuts and bolts of policy and instead focuses on society-altering mobilization, a controversial strategy that has been embraced by young climate activists around the world.


"Obviously using the words 'climate emergency' does not take carbon out of the atmosphere, but what we are doing here is creating a paradigm shift," said Margaret Klein Salamon, the founder and director of the Climate Mobilization, a Brooklyn-based advocacy group that worked with Blumenauer to help create and push forward the emergency resolution.

Klein Salamon, a psychologist by training, penned a manifesto of sorts with a 2016 paper titled "Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement." The argument was that society is stuck in "normal mode" when it comes to climate change. We see the destabilization of our environment and all life on Earth as just one of many priorities calling for our attention. "In normal mode, the individual or group feels relatively safe and secure, does not recognize any immediate existential or major moral threats—either because there is none, or because they are in denial," she wrote.

She believes the primary goal of climate activists should be to confront society with the terrifying dangers of climate change—such as the fact that a million species could go extinct in our lifetime. Knowledge of these horrors, along with a proportionately aggressive plan to address them, might shift us into "emergency mode," she wrote, a way of functioning "that occurs when individuals or groups respond optimally to existential or moral emergencies."


Klein Salamon later likened it to the flow state experienced by pro-skateboarders, big-wave surfers, and other extreme athletes giving their full physical and mental attention to a task with conceivably deadly consequences.

This is not the thinking favored by many mainstream climate groups, scientists, and advocates, who tend to operate on the assumption that frightening the shit out of large swathes of the population can be paralyzing and dangerous. "There's this idea that you can't scare people and fear doesn't work as a motivator," Klein Salamon said.

But over recent years a new generation of climate advocates—including the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and the school strikers inspired by Greta Thunberg—has embraced the idea that we need to acknowledge the enormity of our crisis in order to effectively fight it. The Climate Mobilization has helped support a campaign that's convinced hundreds of local governments and more than a dozen countries to declare "climate emergencies."

Klein Salamon sees this as a vindication for a more aggressive, uncompromising and, she hopes, effective, climate movement than previously has existed. "The declarations are like an announcement: 'We're here,'" she said.

Yet practically speaking these types of resolutions haven't actually accomplished all that much. One day after Canada declared a climate emergency, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved a tar sands pipeline expansion that could bring 600,000 barrels of additional oil per day to international markets. The UK's declaration came as local authorities supported plans to significantly expand coal mining.


Even if the resolution put forward by left-wing Democrats were to be adopted by Congress—not likely with Republicans controlling the Senate—it wouldn't have any legally binding effect on U.S. climate or energy policy. "It would put the U.S. on record as taking the problem really seriously and seeing a need for urgent action," said University of California Berkeley law professor Dan Farber. "From a lawyer's point of view I don't know that that accomplishes a lot."

"It would be one thing if the resolution or the goal of a climate emergency was to, like, nationalize the electricity and auto sectors and mandate clean energy and clean vehicle production," Trembath said. Instead, he thinks, "They're sort of declaring an emergency for declaration's sake."

But Klein Salamon thinks critiques like this are missing the larger point—the push for emergency declarations is just one tactic among many to encourage a massive societal shift in thinking. "We're talking about the deaths of billions of people and the collapse of civilization, we need to pull every lever," she said.

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Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.