Is Climate Change Not an Emergency?

EDITORIAL COLLECTIVE – No. It is not. Not in the sense we are accustomed to. The emergency is in the very meaning and experience of change. Change is changing.

The planet’s evolution to this point has gone through catastrophic upheavals. Some occurred within a relatively short period of time. Some were sudden. Others took place over tens and hundreds of millions of years. Most, with the exception of the last ice age, happened long before Homo sapiens even appeared. Earth’s climate has always been changing, but never, as long as humans have been on Earth, has it been at the galloping pace we are experiencing now.

As human population increased, we farmed to feed our growing numbers, built cities, and set ourselves on a path of exhausting Earth’s natural endowments and processes. We moved from living indigenously, as in “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place,” to living extractively.

Is it an accident that the biblical myth of The Fall is connected to leaving a garden, where one gathered food, to the beginnings of agriculture, where food is eked from the ground, not only through sweat, but now by fossil-fuelled machines?

In the blink of a mere 150 years, we overshot the limits of our intimate relationship with the place where we naturally occurred, and ended up in the present Climate Emergency.

We call it an “emergency” because it challenges or disrupts humans’ supremacy in the big scheme of things we call Nature. Hence, locally, the Declaration of Climate Emergency issued by Peterborough City Council in September 2019.

Communities and whole nations write management plans for big emergencies. These plans always aim to return to the status quo, to restore us to the ways things were before what is regarded as an exceptional occurrence. But thinking that we can ‘manage’ disasters is now dangerous. It paints climate change as a temporarily disruptive “event” like a major fire displacing people, this May’s derecho storm, a train wreck at the Havelock level crossing, even the Peterborough Flood of 2004. These disasters are thought of as ‘events’ having well-defined beginnings and endings. The local ones are seen as individual, one-off occurrences, to which officials can respond over and over, forever, with their well-equipped, rational, “keep everyone calm”, annually rehearsed, Disaster Management Plans. Trust us to bring you back to normal.

Change itself is changing.

But this business-as-usual thinking is blind to the alteration of the very meaning of the term “change.”

The magnitude and universal character of climate change shows us that “change” is no longer confined to one place. and it can go on indefinitely because everything about climate is interconnected. It brings cascading impacts over long time periods and everywhere, since all the planet’s systems –

from weather to the economy – are interconnected. And they are, in too many cases, damaged to the point of no restoration. Can we “fix” the decaying ice sheets that control sea level rise, or dispatch fire trucks to droughts? Or respond to local food shortages with a municipal Emergency Command Post vehicle? How do broad, systemic, climate scenarios like this fit into the training of disaster responders?

Managing climate change cannot be about returning to or maintaining the status quo. Even “managing” is an absurd concept when faced with the climate’s scope and duration. Only adaptation and mitigation fit the bill.

Now, the word “change” itself needs new understanding and definition. Now, change is complex and at a never-before known scale with impact on all Life. It will be with us a very, very long time and appear in forms we’ve never had to deal with before – both abrupt and prolonged. Can routine municipal emergency exercise scenarios deal with that? Are local climate action plans cast in terms of very long times and increasingly complex consequences?

We may be able to point to the time a particular climate change emergency scenario began, but we can’t be certain when it will end, as we can in our current understanding of ‘emergency’.

So preparedness now means envisioning many possible futures and describing alternative present times. We need to share stories of how we want it to be when the inevitable catastrophes do arrive. It will not be about returning to the status quo, but preparing how to live after it ends.

We don’t usually experience Time this way. We’re awfully uncomfortable with endings of things we’ve known and loved. We’re complacent about far-off things we don’t immediately experience (like sea level rise or prolonged drought in Africa), until those things directly affect our cost of living, what and how much food we can buy in the supermarket, or accommodating those who comes to settle on our land, because theirs is no longer habitable. Ironic, because most of us are settlers ourselves.

So, we begin to see that “emergency” is something not so bound by chunks of time or our local geography or our past experience. Rather, the long climate emergency becomes an ongoing experience of adapting to and minimizing consequences. Most needed through it all will be our ability to keep on living together in mutual aid and support through this new kind of emergency that gives “change” a whole new meaning.

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