Why It's Exclusionary to Talk About a 'Climate Emergency'

Historically, using the language of national security and emergency has resulted in top-down solutions.

Based on a Labour Party proposal, the UK parliament has declared a ‘climate emergency’ in the country – a position a few towns had already taken in the past. The Labour Party’s action plan is to ensure that the UK has zero net emissions by 2050. This move doesn’t have any legal ramifications.

It does, however, raise some important concerns on the politics of exclusion that the policy of climate emergency will propagate. The debate around climate change has moved from from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC discussed climate change as a security threat for the first time in 2007 and then later in 2009.

This shift in location has been problematic for developing countries including India, China, Latin American countries, African countries, the Arab group and others. They have pointed out the exclusionary nature of the UNSC and the democratic nature of the UNFCC numerous times. However, what is more disturbing is the nature of this ‘climate emergency’ that is being pushed by developed countries.

Small island developing countries’ (SIDS) threat to survival from submergence is being exploited by developed countries in their bid to push for their own agenda. While it can’t be denied that climate change will have devastating effects on developing countries, especially poor populations, the push for emergency politics is not the answer. It will bring in exclusion and more control over resources by the governing elites of both the developed and developing countries, and the masters in the Global North will have more power than ever.

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Both the Kyoto Protocol and the latest Paris agreement on climate change had commitments on funds to be given to developing countries by the developed countries in order to assist them to adapt to, mitigate and tackle climate change by reducing emissions. However, with the discourse of climate emergency gaining momentum, these discussions are taking the backseat. An ’emergency’ entails no debate, it requires obedience to orders. And the orders will be given by those who control knowledge, resources, expertise, technology and funds.

There is no denying that climate change is a security threat to nations, as it will affect food security and livelihood security of the vulnerable. But the way this security discourse is articulated is a measure of exclusion rather than inclusion. Through their policies, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have already declared that they are prepared to tackle climate change by providing assistance. International funding agencies are pushing climate smart agriculture, a euphemism for genetically-modified (GM) crops, through the funding model rather than the aid model.

The debate on GM crops is well known, with farmers afraid of losing control over seeds, produce rights and farming practices as they become mere contract employees of a company. Any transgression can invite lawsuits, penalties and indebtedness. India is still struggling to get over its BT cotton fiasco, which has killed thousands of cotton farmers and pushed lakhs of others into indebtedness and misery.

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An ’emergency’ in any area usually triggers a top-to-bottom approach to dealing with it – and a ‘climate emergency’ is unlikely yo be different. This means that a focus on the individual and communities will be missing. This is precisely why the UN in 1994 had to come up with the idea of ‘human security’, and asked states to ensure and protect it as a policy. The shift in security discourse to ‘human security’ wasn’t only about individuals but also about communities and societies. However, serious efforts to decentralise haven’t worked as they should have, as decision-making remains largely in the hands of the powerful.

The crises of climate change requires a synergy between the top-down and bottom-up approaches. By talking simply in terms of a ‘climate emergency’, we are underplaying the developments that pushed the UN into accepting the idea of ‘human security’. By pushing climate change into the ’emergency’ realm and letting the politics of exclusion and control that dictate today’s security policy take over, we are being forced to think about our climate policies in a particular way.

Yes, there is an emergency. But we need to deal with it now how we have done with emergencies in the past, but with inclusive language, content and action. If not, the inequality perpetrated by our economic system – which is the cause of climate change too – will be further aggravated.

N. Sai Balaji is president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union and is researching the politics of linkages between climate change and agriculture.