Climate emergency: the democracy fork

Reinvigorating democracy has to be as urgent a demand as cutting emissions. The latter can only be sustained insofar as the former is also achieved.

Dougald Hine Duncan McLaren
11 December 2019, 11.06am
Extinction Rebellion climate activists reach NYC declaring a climate emergency, April 2019.
Michael Nigro/PA. All rights reserved.

Last month, the European parliament became the latest legislative body to declare a ‘climate emergency’, while the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary declared ‘climate emergency’ their word of the year for 2019 – two reflections of the momentum which has gathered around this concept over the past twelve months.

Against this background, we want to encourage a conversation about the role of democracy within a politics of climate emergency. It seems to us that any declaration of emergency in response to the climate crisis requires a position on democracy; indeed, that if such declarations prove to be more than symbolic gestures, they are likely to mark a fork in the road for our existing democratic systems. Beyond this point, the choice is either more democracy, or less.

Emergency powers

Movements and NGOs organising around the goal of securing climate emergency declarations would doubtless insist on their commitment to democratic values. Without an explicit call for more democracy, however, there is an implied endorsement of the current system, which not only has democratic deficits, but seems incapable of delivering accelerated climate action.

Indeed, the historical and legal connotations of the language of emergency point to this incapacity: emergency measures are called for when the ordinary powers of the state and its institutions are insufficient for the urgency and scale of a threat from natural disaster, civil unrest or external attack.

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Within the climate emergency debates, there are voices arguing for ‘emergency powers’ or promoting top-down emergency plans. This is not new: before the rise of the current ‘climate emergency movement’, wartime analogies had been deployed to describe the threat from climate change in an attempt to inspire a proportionate response. In the British context, it may be possible to appeal to nostalgic wartime fantasies of rationing, land nationalisation and the state planning of industrial activity. However, proponents of these analogies should remember other aspects of the wartime ‘emergency powers’: the ejection or internment of foreigners; the labelling of minorities; the execution of ‘traitors’. In the impatience of those who would empower the state to act swiftly on climate change, there is a danger of laying the ground for eco-fascist plans to expel migrants, or the extension of surveillance under the pretext of tracking energy use in homes and travel. It is striking that – alert to this risk – in the Climate Emergency resolution brought to the US Congress and Senate, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez explicitly stated:

“ nothing in this concurrent resolution constitutes a declaration of a national emergency for purposes of any Act of Congress authorizing the exercise, during the period of a national emergency or other type of declared emergency, of any special or extraordinary power.”

It might be possible to defend emergency powers in the name of climate justice, if oil companies were forced to fund the development of carbon removal, or wealthy landowners required to provide land for tree-planting. Yet however virtuous the intentions, we should be wary of the creation of an ‘us-and-them’ dynamic overriding the inbuilt protections of a functioning democratic system, when the functioning of that system is already threatened by more cynical applications of similarly divisive rhetoric.

We should be wary of the creation of an ‘us-and-them’ dynamic overriding the inbuilt protections of a functioning democratic system, when the functioning of that system is already threatened by more cynical applications of similarly divisive rhetoric.

Since the logic of emergency is to lead to the suspension of existing processes and protections in the name of effective response, it carries an in-built tendency towards ‘less democracy’. For this reason, we suggest that those organising to call for declarations of climate emergency cannot rely on the good intentions of their movements or their general commitment to democratic values; they need to make a positive case for an emergency response which is characterised by ‘more democracy’.

The language of speed

There is clearly a case for more urgency in climate policy than we have seen up to now. Yet demands for urgent action, especially when couched in terms like ‘panic’, can also undermine democracy.

In the classic situations for which ‘emergency powers’ are understood to be required, the threat is too swift or imminent to be engaged with through ordinary democratic or legislative processes. Hostile invasions and serious terrorist threats arguably fit that definition: action cannot wait for weeks while lawmakers debate and craft legislative and regulatory responses. In the case of action on the climate, urgent as this is, it can wait for weeks or months for democratic legitimacy.

For interventionist policies to secure popular support, they need to be seen to be legitimate and to be fair, so that everyone is pulling their weight. Under these conditions, support for significant lifestyle changes can be expected to move beyond the minority that already seek to make voluntary changes. Such legitimacy is essential, if publics are to support and comply with strong climate policies.

Undue haste has other problems: it can focus attention on second-best solutions which may drive rapid short-term change, but fail to deliver the social, cultural, economic or technological transformations needed for full decarbonisation. Quick wins can be achieved by fuel-switching from coal to gas, driven by a carbon tax. But developing genuinely large-scale renewable power supply requires not only targeted support to bring new technologies up to commercial competitiveness, but a transformed infrastructure and transmission system that interconnects decentralised generation and storage, rather than simply distributing centralised power. Panicked policy responses could easily lock in inappropriate options, undermining the long-term goals of the movement, even seen purely in terms of carbon.

Misplaced panic might even stimulate a rush to adopt solar geoengineering responses. Despite scientific and philosophical warnings about ethical and practical shortcomings such as negative impacts on rainfall patterns, or the risk of becoming ‘locked-in’ to its use, the idea of reducing global temperatures by creating a shroud of reflective particles in the stratosphere is still sometimes portrayed as a quick but dirty fix for rapid warming. Advocates say this would buy time to reduce emissions. Others worry that it would reduce incentives for politicians and businesses to act, postponing the main problem while introducing new ones, and exacerbating human hubris of planetary control. Introducing solar geoengineering as an emergency measure, and then failing to take action to cut emissions would be the worst of both worlds.

Introducing solar geoengineering as an emergency measure, and then failing to take action to cut emissions would be the worst of both worlds.

A further reason to be suspicious of panic is that it may be disempowering, in that in emergencies we typically appeal to experts, or submit to external forces. If we panic because the house is on fire, we call the fire brigade – which comes and in a cool-headed and rational, expert (yet rapid and forceful) way, puts out the fire, and (maybe) also tells us what we can do better to prevent future fires. Our experiences of emergency are contained, temporary incidents, which don’t necessarily change our lives. If we have a health scare, and panic and go to the emergency room, it’s because we expect a medical expert to handle the problem in a cool-headed and rational way. Again we might also get lifestyle advice and the emergency experience may give the advice more salience.

A time for panic?

If we want collective, democratic responses motivated in part by emotional engagement, panic is not obviously the best emotion to evoke. On the other hand, as with the lifestyle change triggered by a health scare, adequate rapid cultural change might depend on the sort of dislocation engendered by an acute recognition of an existential threat. As one of us has argued elsewhere, the distinctive characteristic of the new climate movements which have emerged over the past eighteen months is that prominent figures give voice to their own encounter with climate change:

“not as a problem that can be solved or managed, made to go away, or reconciled with some existing arc of progress, but as a dark knowledge that calls our path into question, that starts to burn away the stories we were told and the trajectories our lives were meant to follow, the entitlements we were brought up to believe we had, our assumptions about the shape of history, the kind of world we were born into and our place within it.”

The ability to integrate such experiences within an activist mobilisation is what distinguishes these new movements from earlier waves of climate activism as well as from cultural movements such as the Dark Mountain Project. In this context, ‘panic’ may sit within the range of emotional responses that accompany an existential encounter with the climate crisis. Yet even here, it may not form a helpful basis for action. The speed induced by a sense of panic does not allow for the work of ‘coming to terms’ with the realisations arising from such an encounter. In the absence of this, the experience is in danger of simply reproducing the pattern Kathryn Yusoff describes within the wider discourse of the Anthropocene:

“If the Anthropocene proclaims a sudden concern with the exposures of environmental harm to white liberal communities, it does so in the wake of histories in which these harms have been knowingly exported to black and brown communities under the rubric of civilization, progress, modernization, and capitalism.”

If the temporality of panic is allowed to dominate, there is no time to let ourselves be changed by the ‘dark knowledge’, and we try to hold on – at all costs – to our burning stories of who we thought we were and where we thought we were heading.

More democracy

So far, we have observed the rise of a language of ‘climate emergency’ and, in particular, a mode of political organising around declarations of emergency. We have suggested that ideas of urgency, panic and emergency may drive suboptimal technical policies (especially in modern, technocratic, neoliberal societies where the nuts and bolts of policy delivery are increasingly delegated to technical experts, notably economists, whose predilections for market-based measures are well known).

At the same time, we have recognised a role for these ideas in triggering cultural change which supports more radical climate action. If we are right to see the situation in these terms, then the call for ‘more democracy’ becomes central to hopes of a just and sustainable outcome.

Among the new movements which have been associated with the language of ‘climate emergency’, one stands out for its explicit commitment to the need for more democracy. Extinction Rebellion has been the subject of a range of critiques, some of them well-aimed. In the UK, where it originated, the movement makes three demands on government. The first of these demands is to declare ‘a climate and ecological emergency’, the second is to set an extremely ambitious goal, ‘to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025’; the third is to ‘create … a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice’ with a commitment that government ‘be led by’ the decisions of this assembly. This sequence of demands represents the clearest example of a movement making a positive case for an emergency response to the climate crisis which is characterised by ‘more democracy’.

We argued earlier that democratic legitimacy will be essential for strong climate policies to secure the popular support which they will require if they are to be sustained. Yet the failure of existing democratic institutions to produce and implement such policies has contributed to the demand for declarations of emergency. Forms of deliberative democracy, such as citizens’ assemblies, offer to do more than grant legitimacy to climate action: deliberation has been shown to improve the outcomes of a process, introducing diverse knowledge and experience, triggering new ideas and innovations.

In response to Extinction Rebellion’s call for a Citizens’ Assembly, some commentators have asked a difficult question: what if such assemblies don’t endorse the sort of urgent programme which the underlying science suggests is probably essential? Aren’t current consumers likely to be too self-interested and conservative to recommend sweeping change? There are multiple answers to this, the least satisfactory of which would be: ‘Then so be it … at least they are deciding democratically on suicide!’ However, we believe there are more reasons to be hopeful, even if the assemblies cannot directly involve future generations.

There is evidence for the capacity of citizens’ assemblies to produce radical solutions that lie outside of the expectations arising from conventional means of gauging public opinion. Participants in such deliberative processes are engaged in collective reasoning, rather than simply reproducing consumer logic. The potential support for radical policies is easily underestimated, since measures of willingness to take voluntary action when fellow citizens are not obliged to do the same are misleading: there are common expectations of fairness and collective action, and a deliberative process can unlock this hidden potential in a way that the electoral competition for votes or the tick-box choices of a referendum would not allow for.

On the other hand, there are important critiques of the citizens’ assembly model in particular: for one thing, if citizenship is the criterion for participation, then how do immigrants without citizenship have a voice, or other countries affected by the decisions an assembly makes – let alone future generations? Decision-making on the scale of countries like the UK risks perpetuating resource colonialism by the rich world in the name of climate action. These problems are not introduced by the citizens’ assembly model – they are already present within our existing democratic system – the concern is that this model of deliberative democracy may not offer a way beyond them. For this reason, we would suggest that Extinction Rebellion’s demand for a Citizens’ Assembly is approached as a marker of the direction of travel which is called for if there is to be something like ‘emergency democracy’ in response to the climate crisis, rather than a destination in itself.

We would suggest that Extinction Rebellion’s demand for a Citizens’ Assembly is approached as a marker of the direction of travel which is called for… rather than a destination in itself.


These reflections began in a conversation between us a year ago, during the first public actions of Extinction Rebellion. We write this in the middle of a British election campaign in which the Labour party is committed to a climate change policy more radical than anything that has previously been put forward by a mainstream political party in the UK, arguably in any of the major western democracies. Jem Gilbert has suggested that Labour’s adoption of the Green New Deal might be seen as the most significant achievement of the Extinction Rebellion movement. (Its adoption is also a reflection of ‘more democracy’ within the processes of the Labour Party, enabling activists to shape policy through proposals at conference.) Yet the conditions in which this election is taking place reflect the strains under which existing democratic institutions are operating.

Since one of the sources of strain on the institutions of democracy in the UK are the unresolved consequences of the 2016 referendum on membership of the European Union, there will be those whose reaction is that the last thing anyone needs is further constitutional confusion caused by more direct public involvement in democratic decision-making. For some Remain supporters, the main lesson of the referendum seems to have been that their fellow voters are not to be trusted. To many Leave supporters, the main lesson so far has been that the politicians are not to be trusted.

Far from worrying that the referendum with its binary choice represented too much democracy, we would argue that both the process and the outcome reflected a desperate lack of meaningful citizen involvement in UK democracy. By contrast, the current focus on the citizens assembly model owes much to the process of the Irish referendum on abortion in 2018, where the role of such an assembly in framing the terms of the popular vote demonstrated the potential of deliberative models to overcome the polarisation of debate, mute the effects of media distortion, generate popular legitimacy and inform the wider public conversation.

While this degree of focus is recent, there are decades of work behind such models.

While this degree of focus is recent, there are decades of work behind such models. As Extinction Rebellion emerged in the autumn of 2018, it was striking to note that talk of citizens assemblies was being floated as a way beyond the toxifying deadlock left by the Brexit referendum. Such proposals may yet have their moment.

Democracy is not healthy: caught between the disempowerment of neoliberal globalisation and the false allure of authoritarian nationalism. In this context, declarations of emergency and calls to panic come with very real risks. Reinvigorating democracy has to be as urgent a demand as cutting emissions, and to us at least, it seems obvious that the latter can only be sustained insofar as the former is also achieved.

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