No one likes a trip to emergency. I have been ushered through those doors once or twice with my kids in my arms, and I left the hospital so glad that Australia has a public health system but also hoping I would never return. For some people, such as firefighters, nurses and doctors, ‘emergency’ is when they spring into action, but most of us would like to avoid an emergency if we can. The thing about an emergency is that it happens whether you like it or not, and then you have to act. Calls have been coming for some time that the state of climate science now reveals a real emergency, and these calls are starting to be heard. In 2007, while in office as United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon pleaded, ‘This is an emergency, and for emergency situations we need emergency action’. At the time of writing, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Canada and France have all declared states of climate emergency, albeit symbolic, not legal. I have been trying to get a similar motion through the Australian parliament. As strong as the science is, however, not everyone is convinced that talking about emergency is the right thing to do. Perhaps it will turn people off and they’ll see it as alarmist. Perhaps it will just make people more anxious. Or perhaps it will give governments more power to suspend basic rights. This is sometimes what happens in an emergency. These are all crucial questions to be unpacked if we are to stop global warming, look after each other and make society more equal.
The basic legal premise behind declaring a state of emergency is that during these times the government might need to do things that would otherwise be against the law. Many of the usual rules and restrictions are suspended. War counts as such an emergency. When national emergencies such as these are declared, the balance of rights tilts away from the people and towards the government, the military and the police. Historically, these kinds of powers have been used, in countries including Australia, to intern people of Japanese and German descent during wartime, despite there being no evidence that these people had done anything wrong.
In less warlike situations, some are also worried about a creeping trend of governments using ‘emergency’, either rhetorically or by introducing new ‘emergency’ laws, to try to do things they otherwise wouldn’t be able to do. Former prime minister Tony Abbott and his treasurer told us over and over that we had to slash welfare and charge people more to see the doctor because there was a ‘Budget emergency’. Australia likewise has a long history of treating refugees as an issue of border security and a quasi-emergency so that exceptions can be carved out of the usual rules of law for asylum seekers arriving here. We are, shamefully, ahead of the United States in this regard.
In the United States, in response to the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), Congress passed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act as part of a multitrillion-dollar bailout of the very banks that had caused the GFC. Donald Trump has declared a ‘border emergency’ and diverted billions of dollars of public money to build a wall on the Mexican border. And former US President George W. Bush gave himself sweeping powers in 2001 when declaring a state of emergency after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In such a state of emergency, as some read the law, the president has the powers to take over the internet or test biological weapons on people without their knowledge. The current president has renewed this declaration, so the United States is still officially in a state of emergency almost two decades after the attacks and Trump has a crazy amount of power because of it. In the face of all of this, many people have become very suspicious of emergencies. Emergencies are sometimes seen as little more than excuses used by governments to remove rights and make life harder for people. It is part of the reason people feel anxious.
But there is a strong countercurrent. In an emergency, ‘business as usual’ is suspended. At the moment, ‘business as usual’ must be suspended because in some industries, such as thermal coal mining, business as usual is incompatible with life as we know it. A key work in the field, Climate Code Red, by David Spratt and Philip Sutton, argues that ‘Declaring a climate and sustainability emergency is not just a formal measure or an empty political gesture, but an unambiguous reflection of a government’s and people’s commitment to intense and large-scale action… One way or another, we will get to the emergency mode. The question is whether we can make it happen now, by using our foresight, or whether we have to wait for years until the problem gets so bad that panic flips government out of their business-as-usual paralysis’.
We have a dilemma. We’re facing a real emergency at the very time that the currency of ‘emergency’ has been debased, twisted and used by the conservatives for political and economic ends. And because in ‘states of emergency’ many of the usual freedoms of communication and association can be restricted, even some people gravely concerned about climate change worry about the calls to declare a ‘climate emergency’. But what is often missed is that there are other ways of thinking about emergency.
In rule by emergency there is really only one social actor: the sovereign (i.e. a government, a president or in extreme circumstances a dictator). But Walter Benjamin, who died while fleeing the Nazis, also urged us to think about the ‘real state of emergency’, in which there emerges another social actor challenging for authority: the people. Indeed, it is only the people who can impose a real state of emergency, because anything else is just a way of maintaining the existing structure. When trying to bring about social change, nonviolently bringing about a state of emergency from below does not necessarily mean giving more power to those above. However, this will only happen when people recognise the power they collectively have—power that is most obvious when people come together to nonviolently refuse business as usual.
Fast-forwarding to our time, after decades of rule by emergency, the largely forgotten, nonviolent, people-powered version of emergency is being rediscovered. Empowerment must be a key part of our emergency message. Spratt and Sutton are alive to the question, and their ‘emergency’ has communication at its core: ‘Deliberative democracy can build awareness of the sustainability emergency and create the political space that governments need to act. Far from the emergency causing democracy to suffer, it could be a decisive factor in making democracy work more effectively’. Theirs is a call for a climate movement that will insist on emergency responses while, hopefully, constraining government overreach. If there are active, engaged subjects, it won’t be rule by emergency but a ‘real state of emergency’ where fossil-fuelled business as usual is suspended until the climate emergency is over, after which something more sustainable will emerge. This is what the worldwide strikes for climate are demanding with their calls to recognise emergency. It is not a call for governments to remove people’s rights, other than the plunderers’ self-claimed ‘rights’ to destroy the biosphere, but a call from a new, emergent subject to suspend business as usual until the emergency passes, after which new ways of doing business and sustainably living our lives can evolve. Less a cynical grab for power, more a push to change the way we do things.
To make this clearer, we might need to tweak the way we talk about emergency. It is understandable that in this era of rule by emergency, many are cautious when confronted with questions of police, governmentality and force. And even among those advocating a climate emergency, the most common reference point is usually war. Spratt and Sutton’s alternative to ‘business as usual’ is a call for a reordering of all aspects of society to the equivalent of a wartime footing—an emergency response in which government, industry and labour are redirected to meet a common threat. ‘Because the last emergency mobilisation on this scale was during World War II, few people today have any direct experience of a situation like this; however, there is plenty of history from which to learn, and expertise available, to plan for such a scenario’. Former Australian environment minister and Midnight Oil lead singer Peter Garrett has likewise called for the creation of a war cabinet to tackle climate change, as have I. If we can mobilise a common sense of shared threat such that we all understand ourselves to be on the side of humanity fighting against a common plundering opponent, then war might be the appropriate way of thinking about our response.
But what about supplementing it with a way of thinking about emergency that isn’t militaristic? What about an analogy with emergency services, fire and rescue—the apparatus that suspends ‘business as usual’ but is not linked with punishment or domination? Firefighters will, and must, ignore the laws of trespass and private property to rescue someone from a burning building, and they will prioritise the saving of life over the preservation of property, yet this suspension of the normal situation does not carry with it the right to rule in the name of emergency. When a building is on fire, there is limited time to make a decision and act, and in that time we get a glimpse of what it means to take emergency action to preserve life in a way that few people would object to. Not every emergency is about violence or maintaining power. In a fire no one locks you up; you get out via the exit.
As a general rule, a fire that starts in one room will burn in that room for seven to eight minutes before ‘flashover’ occurs; at that point, the right combination of heat, proximity and flammability result in an explosion that carries the fire well beyond its point of origin and threatens the whole structure. Action to put the fire out in that first period can usually contain the fire to its room of origin and limit the damage to the remaining structure. Is this not where we are with climate change? We’re about six minutes after having received the 000 call and we have to decide what emergency action to take to avoid a flashover—a point beyond which we cannot predict the form the emergency will take. This calls for decisions and actions that have everything to do with urgency and suspending business as usual but nothing to do with determining new forms of detention, subjugation or exclusion through ‘rule by emergency’.
The climate-emergency alarm bell has rung. We are the firefighters coming to put the climate fire out. We demand all the resources necessary to do our job properly. Safety—our own and that of the people we are trying to rescue—is our first priority. The fire is so big that we will need a lot of people, working together around the clock, to put it out. While we are putting out the fire, a number of other things cannot happen, such as pouring more petrol on the fire or locking the doors so that people cannot escape the burning building, so those things must be made illegal. Fire brigades are required by law to both suppress and prevent fires, so once we have put the fire out, it will also be our mandate to stop any further climate damage. ‘Business as usual’ can resume when the fire is out, but not if it is going to start more fires. ‘Fire’ may be an appropriate way to think and talk about the climate-change emergency, not just because we are literally dealing with a burning world but also because it does not bring with it the concerns associated with ‘rule by emergency’. Besides, who doesn’t love a firefighter?
In the conservatives’ version of emergency, governments get to act—and the public puts up with having their rights and freedoms curtailed until the emergency is over, if it ever is. If this is how we are talking about the climate emergency, some may argue, then the people are largely passive and only nation states are the actors. But in the fire version, we are the actors. Yes, we will enlist the government in aid of our project, because governments can pass laws to address the climate emergency. And if governments resist and keep pouring petrol on the fire, we will force them to change course. But we are bigger than government. We are the people who unite behind the science, demanding that fossil-fuelled business as usual be suspended until the emergency is over. We are coming to the rescue less because we want to rule for its own sake and more because we want to change the rules. We understand that the climate breakdown is first and foremost a social question, not an environmental one, so we will develop new ways of relating to each other and doing business. It is us versus the arsonists and we are all here to put the fire out.
But you do not get people to safety just by shouting ‘fire’ at them. You need to show them the exit. That is why a Green New Deal—a government-led plan of action and investment to tackle the climate, employment and inequality crises facing our country—is needed. A Green New Deal is a pathway to phase out coal while looking after workers and communities, creating new jobs and industries as we turn Australia into a renewable-energy superpower and make Australia more equal. It is a vision that everyone who is anxious about the future can unite behind. It is now all shoulders to the wheel, telling the truth about the emergency we face, but tackling it with an escape plan and a vision of a better life afterwards.
Note: Some parts of this piece draw on and reproduce material from Adam Bandt’s article ‘Had We But World Enough and Time: Reconsidering Emergency’, Australian Feminist Law Journal, vol. 31, 2009, p. 15.