Canadian politics

Canada should declare a climate emergency

NDP motion seeks to reframe the climate discussion ahead of a federal election in which the perilous state of the planet will figure more prominently than ever before
Photo: Province of BC
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NDP leader Jagmeet Singh will introduce a new climate motion today in the House of Commons that urges Canada to join a growing number of jurisdictions around the world in declaring a climate emergency.

The Canadian Press reports that Singh’s motion will also call for Canada to cut greenhouse gas emissions “almost in half over the next decade,” language that sounds close to meeting the timetable demanded by a coalition of environmental and civil society groups that last week launched a Pact for a Green New Deal.

“Global warming” was once the main term used to describe the alarming alteration of the planet’s climate. What happened?

The NDP motion will be debated in Parliament just over five months before a federal election in which the perilous state of the planet will figure more prominently than ever before.

This news comes less than a week after the Green Party’s Paul Manly won a by-election in a riding formerly held by the NDP. The motion comes on the heels of a dire UN report on biodiversity outlining the threat of mass extinctions and in the midst of a global surge in climate activism featuring youth leadership and an unparalleled sense of urgency.

Singh may also have had some inspiration from like-minded parties and politicians in other jurisdictions. In January, Vancouver city councillor Christine Boyle successfully moved a motion to declare a climate emergency in the municipality; Ottawa, Victoria and other Canadian cities and towns have since followed suit. And just last month Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party managed to push Parliament to pass a declaration acknowledging the climate emergency, making the United Kingdom the first country to take that step.

The crises of climate and inequality must be tackled simultaneously, lest we allow migrants or any other working and poor people to be doubly victimized by an emergency they did not cause.

Some may argue that this is a debate over mere semantics, that it doesn’t matter whether we refer to “climate change” or to a “climate emergency.” The best response to that argument is to recall how today’s default terminology came to dominate discussion of an issue that is, we can now say without exaggeration, key to the long-term survival of life on Earth.

“Global warming” was once the main term used to describe the alarming alteration of the planet’s climate. What happened? In part, there was a conscious intervention by right-wing political operatives to adopt softer and less alarming language.

In 2002, Republican consultant Frank Luntz urged president George W. Bush to substitute “climate change” for “global warming” in official statements, press releases and speeches. In a memo to Bush, Luntz explained his rationale: “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.”

Of course the climate science was overwhelmingly settled back then, and it’s even more settled now. So there is no reason to continue to use language that soft-pedals the urgency of the issue.

In addition to right-wing spin, a certain organizational conservatism reflected in the communications strategies of environmental groups also played a role in downplaying the existential threat posed by the climate emergency. The thinking was roughly that it was important not to scare the public — or donors.

Perhaps the most significant intellectual response to this prevailing common sense was made by Margaret Klein Salamon in her essay “Leading the Public into Emergency Mode: A New Strategy for the Climate Movement.” Drawing on her education in psychology, her experience in climate movements and historical analogies such as the transformation of the U.S. economy in response to World War II, Klein Salamon presented a compelling case that calling the climate situation what it is, a global emergency, would lead to more effective collective action:

Emergency mode occurs when an individual or group faces an existential threat, accepts that there is a life-threatening emergency and reorients by:

1) Adjusting their hierarchy of priorities so that solving the emergency is the clear top priority

2) Deploying a huge amount of resources toward solving the crisis

3) Giving little priority to personal gratification and self-esteem enhancement for their own sake, and instead seeking them through engagement with the emergency. People seek to “do their part” to solve the crisis and build their skills to contribute more effectively.

Terminology, of course, can only do so much. We also need programmatic steps that reflect the adjustment of priorities that our society urgently requires. That’s why it’s so encouraging that polls show a large majority supports a version of a Green New Deal in Canada. Even better, the numbers go up if taxing the rich is proposed as a means of funding the transition off of fossil fuels. The crises of climate and inequality must be tackled simultaneously, lest we allow migrants or any other working and poor people to be doubly victimized by an emergency they did not cause.

Regardless of whether the NDP’s motion passes in Parliament, it may well help shape the way we talk about climate and environmental issues in Canada as we head into a crucial federal election.

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