The Quiet Extinction

The UK’s declaration of a climate emergency is little more than a move to quiet a growing fury about global warming. It is a quiet extinction we must prevent.

This week, three events occurred in the UK, though history will only remember one. Firstly, Boris Johnson became the UK’s Prime Minister. Secondly, on his way to the Buckingham palace, climate protestors temporarily halted his motorcade using human barrier tactics and holding up a banner saying, “climate emergency.” Thirdly, the UK saw it’s hottest July temperature on record, breaking 38C (100F).

There are no prizes for guessing which one history will remember.

In a previous article, I wrote about the UK’s recent weather and how it narratively relates to global warming, but it is worth reiterating that at a time the UK has declared a, “climate emergency,” the UK press have been talking up these record temperatures as if they’re an achievement. Even when they haven’t, the relation to the climate crisis has mostly been found lacking.

This dissonance is jarring and raises several questions that should have been asked at the point of declaration and should continue to be asked. Fortunately, these questions can be summed up briefly into one: what does a, “climate emergency,” actually mean?

The UK owes its, “climate emergency,” status in no small part to the direct action taken by Extinction Rebellion, a global protest group demanding transformative action on climate change. In April, as part of a direct-action campaign, the group staged protests in cities across the globe, generating large media attention for their week-long shutdown of parts of central London. The group has three demands:

  1. Tell the truth: demanding politicians, business leaders and other powerful individuals be honest about the severity of climate change
  2. Establish citizen assemblies to accelerate the pace of the green transformation
  3. Declare a climate emergency

It is telling that of these three demands, only the latter achieved acquiescence. However, acquiescence at all is intriguing, from several angles. From the arguments of the right-wing press to, “treat Extinction Rebellion as terrorists,” and presumably not negotiate with them, to the fact that those people the group were disrupting were the same policymakers they needed to win over, this apparent (and it is apparent) victory for the group is surprising.

These two curiosities, of acquiescence, and acquiescence to a single demand, can be explained rather plainly: the declaration of a climate emergency sounds good to the average citizen without necessarily having to mean anything.

A recent poll of UK citizens found 71% considered global warming more important than Brexit, and so any savvy politician should realise they cannot ignore the climate conversation. The estimated cost of decarbonising the UK economy, however, was recently put at £1 trillion, reducing investments in other projects. The political costs of tackling global warming then — in the UK alone — are too great for most politicians.

But what does the climate emergency mean? We all know how it sounds — expedient, serious, brave and bold and important — but what does it legislatively entail? Here’s an extract of the motion:

“Increase the ambition of the UK’s climate change targets under the Climate Change Act 2008 to achieve net zero emissions before 2050, to increase support for and set ambitious, short-term targets for the roll-out of renewable and low carbon energy and transport, and to move swiftly to capture economic opportunities and green jobs in the low carbon economy while managing risks for workers and communities currently reliant on carbon intensive sectors.

“It further calls on the Government to lay before the House within the next six months urgent proposals to restore the UK’s natural environment and to deliver a circular, zero waste economy.”

In short, very little. The government is bound to produce proposals for tackling the climate crisis, but these proposals could range from broad, sweeping changes to the economy down to a promise to commission further reports no one will read. The rest of the language isn’t much better: “increase the ambition;” “to move swiftly;” “increase support.” Even where a target is set — 2050 — this is only slightly different to the government’s previous target, and certainly doesn’t match the ambition of 2030 or 2025!

Where are the citizen assembles? Where is the £1 trillion for decarbonisation? Where’s the money for new research and media publicity of climate information? The reality is, declaring a climate emergency is nothing more than a political expediency designed to produce the quiet extinction of Extinction Rebellion.

All of this brings us onto Mr. Johnson, the UK’s new Prime Minister. Boris Johnson to-date doesn’t have an extensive environmental plan, though as Mayor of London he failed to tackle air pollution, being told he had done, “too little, too late,” and as an MP failed to vote against the third runway expansion of Heathrow after earlier pledging to back the campaign against it. Clearly, the climate emergency is in good hands…

The polices’ clearing of the protestors blocking Mr. Johnson’s convoy was noticeable not simply for the seemingly instinctive force used by the authorities, but because it demonstrated in the most poetic sense the power of political expediency to paper over such disruption. The protest is notable only because of who it disrupted, and the act it disrupted. And for those of us who say these protestors should not be ignored, that their efforts and the continued efforts of Extinction Rebellion are not only admirable but essential, we will be met with the protestation, “but we’ve declared a climate emergency, what more do you want?”


I want the demands to be met. I don’t believe they will — possibly by no government, and certainly not by Mr. Johnson’s — because why would politicians volunteer to increase their accountability while devolving power to the unwashed masses? Once more, Britain’s discomfort with devolution and fetishistic centralising of power rears its head…

Climate change cannot be ignored, and Extinction Rebellion will not allow themselves to be ignored. They continue to protest, and we should continue to support them. The UK’s climate emergency is a PR fix for a real-world problem. Action should be judged on the substance it produces, not based on it’s having happened, or supported with the meaningless claim, “we’re doing more than everyone else.”

As Boris Johnson’s motorcade drove past the crumbled human barrier which symbolically demonstrated the unavoidability of global warming, a new symbol familiar to all of us revealed itself: the power of the powerful to ignore those they deem unnecessary to notice. The climate emergency was a start, but it also served as an end, as a justification for no further action to be taken. But it is not a justification, it is a political stunt masquerading as real change.

There is a sad irony to all this: if protestors are not the barrier on which the political will breaks, soon enough a new barrier to prosperity and progress will emerge. The one we all claim to see, the one politicians claim to treat as an emergency. This barrier will not acquiesce; before that time, neither should we.

Behavioural Science Fellow at the LSE. Personal Blog.

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