May 7th, 2019
Last week, Wicklow became the first County Council in Ireland to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency.
The resolution came hot on the heels of the Welsh, Scottish and UK governments own declarations of climate emergencies earlier in the week.
The declaration of an emergency was one of the key demands put to governments by the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion and schools climate strikers in a series of protests over the past two months.
However, on the very same day, the UK parliament declared a climate emergency there was a legal ruling saying a third runway at Heathrow Airport, the UK’s biggest carbon emitter, can go ahead.
So, what is a climate emergency, and does it have any significance beyond tokenism?
There are two key reasons why declarations of climate and ecological emergencies are highly significant. Firstly, if you do not accept that there is a crisis you will not act as if there is one.
As Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who joined Extinction Rebellion protesters last month said: “I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is”
By acknowledging that our house is on fire we can finally inject urgency into consideration of the best course to take.
Secondly, it provides leverage for groups like Extinction Rebellion, schools climate strikers and other environmental groups to say to our politicians and our legal system – ‘Well, now you have declared a climate emergency; you have to act on it and respond accordingly.’
Take the example of a new third runway at Heathrow Airport.
Friends of the Earth mounted one of five judicial reviews challenging the legality of the Government’s verdict to allow the third runway, but judges ruled against all of them because the UK had not yet adopted the Paris agreement into law.
However, now that the House of Commons has declared a climate emergency Friends of the Earth will appeal against the ruling because the decision is “outdated in an ecological and climate emergency”.
With local and European elections and the new cross-departmental climate plan due in the coming weeks now is the ideal time for Irish citizens to push our Government to finally acknowledge the scale of the crisis by declaring and climate and ecological emergency.
It is also a great opportunity to push our policymakers to put in place legally binding targets to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2030.
These steps would demonstrate that Ireland has the commitment to respond to the ecological and climate crisis with the seriousness and urgency that scientists have shown it needs.
By Dr Ciaran O’Carroll
Ciaran is a member of Extinction Rebellion Ireland and lives in North Dublin.