Local and national governments in 28 countries have declared climate emergencies since Melbourne’s Darebin Council in 2016. Many now hope after this summer's bushfires, Australia may declare a national emergency.
On 5 December 2016, Melbourne’s Darebin Council made history.
Councillor Trent McCarthy put forward a motion that the council vote on declaring a state of climate emergency.
Though it would be merely symbolic, it was thought a declaration could still have practical use.
The vote was unanimous and made Darebin Council the first in the world to declare a climate emergency.
“Before the vote, residents were very much telling us climate change mattered more than anything else to them,” Darebin Mayor Susan Rennie told SBS News.
“We had a really mobilised community, desperate for effective action, who were speaking with councillors about how significant it would be if a level of government would acknowledge just how significant the problem is.
“We thought we were a council who could do that.”
More than three years on, the gesture continues to "really unite" councillors, Ms Rennie said.
“In embracing the language of 'climate emergency', we are saying we know business as usual is not okay - business as usual will doom the planet.”
Darebin Council's boundaries largely replicate the federal electorate of Cooper, formerly known as Batman, which has been held by Labor since 1969.
Use of the term ‘climate emergency’ has skyrocketed in recent years.
Oxford Dictionaries declared the polarising phrase its 2019 Word of the Year following a 10,796 per cent usage increase and the first-ever National Climate Emergency Summit was held in February in Melbourne.
Ms Rennie said she was proud to help kickstart awareness of the term.
“In 2016, 'climate emergency' was new language that people weren’t using a whole lot,” she said.
“I think it’s fantastic a concept that was new to many people, to see within three years how that has shifted and how people recognise more broadly 'this is a state of emergency and we’re seeing the consequences in our day to day lives' - that’s extraordinary.”
But, Ms Rennie said, declaring the first climate emergency also came with a big sense of responsibility.
“It’s one thing being the first to do something, but if you don’t follow it up with meaningful action then what sort of example are you setting?” she said.
“There’s a sense of sometimes pride, but equally, one of frustration of not being able to do things as quickly as is required."
“So I have many mixed emotions about that.”
What is a climate emergency?
There is no universal definition of what a ‘climate emergency’ is.
"Declarations differ and there are variations in each," said David Holmes, director of Monash University’s Climate Change Communication Research Hub.
Some declarations are about officially accepting that climate change imposes an existential threat, while others are legal acknowledgements of a crisis in order to access money to fight its effects.
But for most local government bodies, such as Darebin Council, it is often about committing to centring climate change when developing policy.
Since 2016, Ms Rennie said Darebin Council has begun work on a number of green initiatives, including programs to subsidise solar panels for residents and businesses, working to make all council operations carbon-neutral, introducing a food waste recycling program and resurfacing roads with recycled material.
Making the declaration in 2016 “set the council on a path” to develop a climate plan, she said.
“Staff in all different parts of the organisation understand that looking at their work through the lens of a climate emergency is critical and it’s a core part of their jobs."
“Our community expects action … so we also invite them to be much more vocal in what responses they want to see.”
Dr Holmes said using climate emergency declarations to help enable policy is one thing, but using it as a communication strategy can be “problematic”.
“It’s problematic at national levels in settings where you have a strong division over climate change,” he said.
“If you keep on pushing the language of a ‘climate emergency’ you will start to lose some people and entrench division.
“You find this in Australia and in places where there is a strong denial lobby casting doubt over whether climate change exists.
“Emergency declarations can work at a local government level where constituents are already climate-aware, but at a national level, you've got this problem of semantic fatigue.”
Where have climate emergencies been declared?
Ninety-four Australian jurisdictions have declared a climate emergency, according to Climate Emergency Declaration and Mobilisation in Action (CEDMA).
The ACT parliament declared a climate emergency in May 2019, becoming the first Australian state or territory to do so, while South Australia's Upper House followed suit four months later.
More than 800 million citizens across 28 countries are estimated to live in jurisdictions that have declared climate emergencies, according to CEDMA.
Britain, France, Portugal and Argentina are among the national governments to make climate emergency declarations.
Pope Francis also made a declaration in June 2019, while in November, more than 11,000 scientists around the world signed a scientific paper stating that the planet was facing a climate emergency, “clearly and unequivocally”.
Could Australia declare a national climate emergency?
In October 2019, an e-petition calling on the federal government to declare a national climate emergency reached a record-breaking 404,538 signatures.
It received more than three times the number of signatures on a petition which held the previous record, calling for the removal of GST on menstrual products.
The same month, Greens MP Adam Bandt brought a vote to the House of Representatives on whether to declare a national climate emergency. His motion was defeated 72-65, with Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor labelling it a "grand symbolic gesture".
Dr Holmes said a new vote looks unlikely to succeed in the near future.
It could also depend on the public’s response to the bushfire crisis and how much of the devastation is attributed to climate change, he said.
“We're still a way off within the next couple of years of declaring a national climate emergency.”
“I think there's already been a big change in discourse in government ministers, but it’s now a matter of whether they step up and move on from this very destructive debate we've been having.
“Even the fact of framing it as a debate has been destructive. It’s really about moving on from that and having policy that appeals to people.”
Ms Rennie said “it is really important” more local and state governments look at policy creation through a climate lens.
“Ultimately, we know the action we need will take place at a federal government level, but that doesn’t mean local and state government shouldn’t do more,” she said.
“A good place to start is for councils to look at their entire emissions profile and how they reduce that.
“We need to become a zero-emissions society, and we need that to occur quickly.”