Unpacking the climate emergency and crisis discourse

We convened a virtual panel at the 4S 2023 conference on the theme “The Paradox of Crisis: Interrogating Emergency and Crisis Framing in Climate Infrastructures,” featuring presentations that exploree the complexities of climate emergency framings and its implications on climate governance. 

Madeline Kroot, PhD Candidate, Clark University, presented a paper on Public Deficits in the Backyard: Decarbonisation vs. Democratisation in Energy Infrastructure Conflicts’, which examined the dual crisis of urgent decarbonisation and the need for participatory energy governance. Using a case study of community opposition to new high-voltage transmission lines, she discussed how technopolitical mechanisms seek to delimit public participation in energy systems, navigating the intersection of decarbonisation imperatives and democratic governance.

Dr.Paul Edwards, Director, Program in Science, Technology & Society, Stanford University, presented a paper on Crisis Time: Human Experience vs. Climate Temporalities in Attribution Science. Paul discussed the paradoxes inherent in the compression and expansion of time scales within ‘climate crisis’ discourse. His historical account of attribution science explored the rise of ‘event attribution,’ a scientific technique connecting individual extreme weather events to anthropogenic climate change.

Salah Hamdoun, Phd. candidate, College of Global Futures at Arizona State University, presented a paper titled ‘Risk in Order: From Lisbon to Silicon Valley, A Historical Exploration of Finance and Science in the Emergency Imaginary’. Salah’s historical exploration scrutinised societal reactions to crises, emphasising the role of financial institutions in shaping collective risk perceptions. Drawing parallels between historical events like the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and contemporary challenges such as the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank, he provided insights into how financial responses intersect with governance structures during emergencies.

Here are some of the key takeaways and insights we developed through this insightful session. 

An All pervasive ‘emergency framing’ and emerging governance challenges: 

As an institution deeply concerned with climate justice, our attention has been directed towards understanding how climate justice concerns are articulated, configured, and implemented in climate action policies. The global urgency surrounding the declaration of a climate emergency has prompted us to question the discourse surrounding it and explore the implications of its framings. The concept of crisis has permeated policymaking, shaping collective responses, and influencing the very foundations of knowledge production.

The urgency of declaring a climate emergency is not without its challenges [1]. Academic scrutiny has raised questions about its effectiveness, potential psychological impacts, and governance implications. There is a risk of disconnect between conveyed urgency and observable effects, potentially leading to scepticism or disengagement.

The shift from climate risk to emergency framing marks a significant evolution in climate governance. While emergency declarations may signal intent, challenges arise in retrofitting emergency approaches to the multifaceted and long-term nature of climate change. Concerns about emergency powers leading to authoritarianism and rights infringements, as seen in historical examples, add complexity to the governance landscape [2].

The framing of emergency, often used to spur immediate action, presents both opportunities and challenges. At the local level, where many declarations are already enacted, there is potential for experimentation and innovation in climate action. However, the declarations’ effectiveness risk being perceived as ’empty signifiers’ with diverse and sometimes conflicting meanings [3]. Moreover, emergency approaches may inadvertently exacerbate issues of climate justice, consolidating state power and risking regressive politics. 

The scale and temporality of the climate crisis further complicate emergency responses, potentially leading to depoliticized discourses, civic inaction, and a sense of hopelessness, as exemplified by case studies that are emerging from New Zealand, where studies have explored how local governments perceive and navigate the possibilities and limitations of climate emergency declarations [3].

Examining emergencies through a climate justice lens exposes stark inequalities, particularly between the Global North and South. Amplifying the voices of marginalized communities facing acute impacts while contributing the least to climate change is a pressing challenge.

Madeline contributed insights into the tension between decarbonisation imperatives and democratic governance in energy transitions. Her emphasis on the crucial role of public participation challenges the notion that it impedes ‘fast policy,’ enriching the emerging discourse by highlighting the necessity of balancing environmental goals with democratic processes.

Paul Edwards brought attention to the paradoxes within ‘climate crisis’ discourse, particularly focusing on temporalities and the social utility of event attribution. His contribution expands the understanding of climate crisis framing by emphasising the need to bridge abstract time scales with the immediate experiences of dangerous weather events, adding depth to the ongoing discourse.

Salah Hamdoun’s historical exploration provided valuable connections between past financial disasters and contemporary challenges like climate change emergencies. By demonstrating how financial institutions shape collective risk perceptions, Salah’s work contributes a historical dimension to the emerging discourse, illustrating the influence of financial structures on societal responses to crises.

Future Research:

The panel aimed to explore, not dismiss, the emergent framing of climate crises, acknowledging both its pitfalls and potential strengths in translating declarations into action. Examining case studies from Melbourne, Australia, and Auckland, New Zealand, revealed the operationalization of the climate emergency mode as a potential avenue for strengthening responses [4].

Scholars studying this operationalisation highlighted a potential paradigm shift in climate governance, advocating for broader institutional changes and justice considerations in emergency plan implementation. However, a danger existed in emergency declarations becoming tools for the state, potentially reinforcing existing power structures and limiting crucial political spaces for climate justice.

Further empirical research was crucial, especially at the local scale, to inform effective strategies for addressing the climate crisis within emergency governance. Recognising inherent risks in both emergency and non-emergency frames, the paper encouraged critical engagement rather than outright rejection. It emphasised the need for ongoing investigation into ethical quandaries, trade-offs, and risks in real-world climate emergency program implementation.

While acknowledging that not all climate justice objectives may have been met within a climate emergency context due to trade-offs, the paper contended that climate emergency mobilisations could still advance many of these objectives [5]. The crucial question of whether and how such mobilisations were possible demanded systematic attention from scholars and climate justice movements.

This nuanced exploration underscored the challenges in achieving climate justice through emergency actions, emphasizing the ongoing need for critical inquiry and constructive engagement. As we reflect on the insights from our panelists and the broader discourse, the need for further empirical research becomes apparent. Future studies should focus on the adaptation and impact of emergency approaches in climate governance, especially at the local scale. This nuanced exploration calls for ongoing critical inquiry and constructive engagement to navigate the complexities of achieving climate justice through emergency actions. Beyond this panel and conference, we aim to foster a deeper understanding of where emergency action and climate justice can align, where tensions persist, and how to soften these tensions for a sustainable future.

[1]. Climate Crisis? The Politics of Emergency Framing

[2].  Risk? Crisis? Emergency? Implications of the new climate emergency framing for governance and policy

[3].  Retrofitting an emergency approach to the climate crisis: A study of two climate emergency declarations in Aotearoa New Zealand

[4].  The making of a climate emergency response: Examining the attributes of climate emergency plans

[5].  Climate emergency and securitization politics: towards a climate politics of the extraordinary

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