An emergency response to climate change

Local councils across the country have declared a climate emergency. This has happened in response to increasing social pressure including from the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests. But what does it mean?

The Civil Contingencies Act places a duty on public bodies and emergency services to plan for and respond to emergencies. Cambridgeshire County Council, for example, has an Emergency Management Plan which over 121 pages describes how they will respond to a local emergency. This is based on the Joint Emergency Service Interoperability Principles. These give the following principles of joint working; collocation [of those responding to the emergency], communication, coordination, jointly understanding risk, and shared situational awareness. It includes a joint decision model built around a central aim of working together to save lives and reduce harm. The five parts of the joint decision model are gathering information, assessing the risks and developing a strategy, considering the policies and powers [which can be used], identifying options, and taking action and reviewing what happens.

Climate change is a very different challenge to most emergencies. It is much bigger and more complex so actions will involve many more people so can’t be dictated from a central control centre. The consequences of carbon emissions happen across the world and will be worse in the future than they are now so action may not feel as necessary or urgent as other emergencies. But try telling someone who has had loved ones drowned in a flood or burnt alive in a wildfire that this isn’t an emergency. It is an emergency and one for which we are all, in part, responsible.

But just declaring an emergency is not enough. We have to dramatically change and accelerate what we are doing. In May Carbon Neutral Cambridge organised a Zero Carbon Futures Symposium with Cambridge City and South Cambridgeshire Councils to start to work out how more action can be taken in our local planning system. The mood was collaborative and constructive, a significant step forward. Now we need to work out how to dramatically accelerate action across this and all other sectors.

One way forward could be to adapt and adopt the principles we already have for emergencies. Local organisations could use an adapted joint decision model to work out how we can decarbonise Cambridge as fast as possible. If the lives being lost to climate change were on our doorstep we’d be doing this already. It’s time to start acting like this is an emergency.

This article by James Smith was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 9 June 2019.