Declaring a Climate Emergency—what does that even mean?


At times, it can be difficult to understand what a Climate Emergency declaration signifies at a local, state and national government level. This article aims to go some way in clarifying what such a declaration entails and the cost of climate inaction (or action) to us all.

While there is no absolute definition of what action is required to meet such an emergency, the move has been equated to government being on high alert or in emergency mode with climate and the environment at the very centre of all policy and decision making, rather than being of lesser priority. Margaret Klein Salamon, director of The Climate Mobilisation invites us to  “Imagine there is a fire in your house. What do you do? … Your senses are heightened, you are focused like a laser, and you put your entire self into your actions. You enter emergency mode.”

On a global level, climate emergency declarations stand at 598 jurisdictions and local governments covering 74 million citizens.  On the 11 June 2019, Auckland Council declared a climate emergency joining 4 other councils in New Zealand. In Australia, jurisdictions representing roughly two million people and 8.3 per cent of the population have declared a climate emergency: 5 in Victoria, 3 in Western Australia, 10 in New South Wales, 3 in South Australia, and the government of the Australian Capital Territory. The City of Darebin is currently in the process of developing a climate emergency framework and guidelines.

More than 100 candidates in the 18 May Australian federal election had signed the Climate Emergency Declaration petition. On the 16 May 2019, the ACT parliament declared a climate emergency in the national capital, becoming the first Australian state or territory to do so and ensuring climate action is prioritised in its future decision making.

At national level, the Welsh Government, the First Minister of Scotland, and the Irish government have made climate emergency declarations and on 1 May 2019, the UK Labour Party got unanimous support for a non-binding motion in favour of a climate emergency declaration in the House of Commons, making Britain the first country in the world where a bipartisan parliament has declared a climate emergency.

With the release by the UN leading research body of the global biodiversity assessment report indicating extinction rates higher than we could ever imagine, now is the time for us to weigh up the cost of climate action or inaction.

Author: Sue Oliver

Timothy Shue