New York City, the world capital of ambition, has never been shy about grandiose declarations. The City Council has passed or proposed resolutions demanding world peace, banning a racist slur and condemning all manner of federal policies where city government has no actual say.
But for a growing global network of activists seeking to change the way the world talks about climate, the city’s sweeping resolution in late June declaring a “climate emergency” is a major victory.
Saying that the heating climate is a crisis of imminent danger, they argue that getting people and governments to describe it in far more urgent language is the only way to produce the level of global mobilization required to stop it.
New York is now the largest city on earth to pass such a measure, calling last week for “an immediate emergency mobilization to restore a safe climate.” It joined London, Sydney and a total of 722 localities in 15 countries, according to The Climate Mobilization, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit group pushing the declarations.
And on Wednesday, Los Angeles’s City Council went further. It passed a measure that will formalize its own emergency declaration, calling climate change one of the most important issues facing the city. It also established a Climate Emergency Mobilization Department and laid out steps to make city agencies and the public take newly vigorous and coordinated action against planet-warming emissions.
Margaret Klein Salomon, a founder of The Climate Mobilization, an environmental advocacy group, said emergency declarations build political pressure to take stronger actions, like New York’s recent sweeping state and city laws to curb emissions.
“Because what are elected leaders supposed to do if not protect us from emergencies?” she said.
Do these words even mean anything?
By themselves, emergency declarations have no more force than other political proclamations. And just as no individual country can stop climate change within its borders, cities and states’ toolboxes are limited without the support of federal law and international agreements.
That hasn’t stopped states and smaller jurisdictions. New York City recently mandated that the owners of its largest buildings slash their emissions impact, and new legislation requires New York State to eliminate nearly all greenhouse gas output by 2050.
But questions remain about whether even these measures — with far more teeth than a council declaration — will achieve their goals.
Government agencies need to “start making things happen — and fast,” including acting against the interests of real estate, energy and other lobbies that traditionally wield political clout, said Pete Sikora, climate justice director for New York Communities for Change. His group supported the state and city laws but contends they do not go far enough.
Declarations have increased as public alarm has grown
The first local climate emergency was declared in Darebin, Australia, in 2016. The following year, Hoboken, N.J., became the first American city to follow suit. Groups like the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion, which calls for nonviolent civil disobedience to spur climate action, have made the declarations a centerpiece of their campaigns.
The movement has grown with extreme climate events that have been impossible to ignore: wildfires, storms and droughts, plus heat waves that set record temperatures in Europe last week and made June the world’s hottest month on record.
Last fall, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that keeping global warming at the minimum level to avert catastrophe would, as New York’s resolution put it, “require an unprecedented transformation of every sector of the global economy over the next 12 years.”
Six in ten Americans are either “alarmed” or “concerned” about global warming, according to a recent study by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, and the share of those choosing “alarmed” more than doubled from 2013 to 2018.
Young advocates drive the push to use words like ‘crisis’
“Climate change sounds gradual,” said Olivia Sommers, 19, one of dozens of climate activists in an overflow crowd at a City Council hearing on the measure, part of the public pressure that swayed the body to approve the resolution sooner than planned. “But to me it doesn’t feel like ‘change’. It feels like a crisis.”
Jilly Edgar, 20, a New York University student and member of the Sunrise Movement, which advocates for Green New Deal policies, said she struggled to think of the future. That should be a time, she said, when “the world is becoming my own, and moving forward in it” toward “marriage, graduate degrees, children.”
“But actually,” she said, “the world is dying. There’s just, like, a cutoff point. That does a lot to destroy the idealism of young people that usually pushes them to act.”
The ‘fear of fear’ is an obstacle to action, activists say
“The idea that ‘you can’t scare people, fear paralyzes people,’ has been a guiding principle of the gradualist climate movement for decades, and it’s horribly wrong and misguided,” said Ms. Salomon, 33, who trained as a clinical psychologist.
“The basic tenet of therapy is that facing hard truths is how you create transformative change,” she said. “You cannot skip the step of facing reality. It’s only when we have a national consensus that we are all personally in danger, when we feel enough fear, that we are willing to make drastic changes. Fear is literally how we translate perception of danger into action.”
The mobilization to fight World War II, she said, is the closest parallel in recent history to the scale and urgency of effort needed, she said: “Pull every lever, have all hands on deck, spend without limit to save as much life as possible.”
The young activists at City Hall said they had all been through a phase of “climate despair,” but that what gave them hope was, as Ms. Edgar put it, “deciding to push for change, and urge people with power to make that same decision.”
News media, too, are being pushed to use urgent language
Ms. Sommers, a Middlebury College student, was one of 70 people arrested outside The New York Times last month in a protest calling for the newspaper to use the phrases “climate emergency” or “climate crisis” rather than “climate change.”
The Guardian recently announced that it would adopt those terms. A Times spokeswoman said the paper devotes more resources to covering climate than any national publication.
“We should call it an emergency because that’s what it is,” Ms. Sommers said. “Tell the truth.”
Azi Paybarah contributed reporting.