Climate emergency: the power of words

The University of Sussex’s recent declaration of a climate emergency will be welcomed by many. But what emergency action is the University taking to back up its declaration?

Climate emergency

First, the term emergency. We all know what it means. The fire alarm goes off. Leave the building immediately by the nearest available exit. Do not stop to pick up your possessions.  The new Oxford Dictionary defines the term emergency as: a serious, unexpected and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action.

Emergency exit sign
Image by osde8info shared under CC BY- BY-SA 2.0 license

The term climate emergency has been used recently by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and his Climate Change Executive Secretary, Patricia Espinosa. Both have used the term in the context of the need to reverse the still rising trend in global greenhouse gas emissions and the need to cut these emissions by 45% by 2030. Without such action, climate science tells us, the target of constraining global warming to within a 1.5 degrees temperature rise above pre-industrial levels, necessary to avoid dangerous climate change, cannot be met. If it is to be met, political and economic decisions that will reverse the directionality of the current global fossil dependent economy need to have been taken by 2020. Hence emergency.

The Sussex declaration

The University’s climate emergency declaration recognises this situation.  But it does more than that. It also recognises that the University is itself implicated in the emergency and must act to take remedial action. That action should be consistent with its declaration and with its societal role as a centre of expertise and thought leadership on global climate change.

In its declaration statement, the University highlights that it has:

  • Pledged to bring together academic experts from across the globe to devise the technological and policy solutions needed to tackle climate change.
  • Invested £3 million establishing a global research programme to help speed up the delivery of the United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • Installed 3,000 solar panels across its campus, the largest solar energy project at any UK university
  • Doubled the use of reusable mugs for hot drinks sold on campus
  • Increased recycling and food waste facilities for students, staff and visitors
  • Implemented sustainable transport initiatives, such as installing charging points for electric vehicles
  • Established a socially responsible investment strategy, investing its funds in businesses that contribute to a social good.
  • Expanded online distance learning programmes
  • Begun work to embed sustainability across its curriculum

Finally the declaration statement promises that:

  • the University’s Sustainability Committee will be leading a series of fundamental changes to our current practices.

All of the foregoing activities are to be commended and they are surely consistent with those of an institution that takes climate change seriously, possibly very seriously.

But none of these actions, nor stated intentions are consistent with the notion of emergency. Where is the immediate decisive action, the sudden shift in priorities that would constitute a response to a real emergency?

Emergency action

Think for a moment a little more about climate emergency. For the UN’s Patricia Espinosa, we are confronted with “the fight of our lives” to ward off the existential threat. Sir David King, the former UK Chief Scientist has described global climate change  as “the greatest threat, not of our time, but of all time”.

Patricia Espinosa speaking at a UN Climate Change meeting
UNFCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa (Image by UNclimatechange shared under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 License)

In that spirit, is the University doing enough?

Following the principle “set your own house in order”, the University should immediately turn itself into a living laboratory for the study and practice of implementing ultra-rapid, total institutional transformation to a planetary benign, socially benign and post carbon status.

Now this is a very tall order, but it is commensurate with the University’s societal role as well as its declaration. It needs to demonstrate that total institutional transformation is a deliverable reality.

There are two keys to kick start and then progress rapid successful institutional change. The first is to signal that fundamental change is coming, indeed that it is already under way and that aspirational goals are already in place. The second is to engage everyone, academic and non-academic staff, and students of course, in the process so that the transformations belong to the people who are instigating them, who are also the same people who will be affected by them. In this dual key approach, both keys need to be turned at the same time. Not easily done.

Now a couple of words of caution. First: the University needs to apply its emergency transformation to every aspect of its operations. It is so easy to shut one’s eyes to the parts of the operation that one would really rather not look at. In the case of Sussex this is probably the business model, which is currently one of expansion and growth, particularly the growth of its foreign student population. Arguably, the business model, like those of other leading UK Universities, is based on air miles clocked up by internationally travelling students, and of course academic staff attending conferences or conducting research in far flung corners of the globe. This supply chain is central to the University’s product output – graduates and academic research. But it needs to be addressed and brought under the auspices of a climate emergency transformation. The introduction of online distance learning within the University’s new MSc degrees in Sustainable Development and Energy Policy is a step in that direction.

Second, and arguably far more difficult for any academic institution to find a generally agreed position on: the University needs to take account of how its current teaching, research and academic publishing requirements lend support to societal structures and values that are inimical to global climate emergency. It needs to identify and address these inconsistencies so that the entirety of its institutional output is aligned behind its declaration of climate emergency and its commitment to transformation.

ev charging point at Sussex University
Professor Michael Davies tries out the new electric charging points, aided by Transport Manager James Brown (Original image on Sussex website)

A declaration of sincerity

Perhaps the University’s Sustainability Committee has just such a panoply of emergency response activities in mind. Perhaps, if I try to drive my car onto the University campus I’ll be greeted by a notice that says: climate emergency: electric vehicles only and I’ll be turned away. Perhaps if I apply to be part of the team to attend the next Conference of the Parties to the UN FCCC, I’ll be turned down because the University has sent its apologies to the organisers declaring that no one will be flying from Sussex to Santiago this time.

Words are easy, but words are also very dangerous. To declare a climate emergency and then fall short on follow through makes the declaration an empty gesture. It would provide others with a dangerous precedent. As a world-recognised centre of excellence on sustainability issues, it is beholden on Sussex to lead by example and set a very high bar by way of response to its own declaration.

Nick Gallie is an Associate Researcher at SPRU and at the Sussex Centre for the Study of Rights and Justice (SCSRJ) at the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.

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4 comments on “Climate emergency: the power of words
  1. philsharris says:

    Good for you!

    I have been leaving the occasional message here for a while.

    Sussex will be doing us all a huge favour if you can create & share the methodology and do the calculations needed to see where you are going. In my experience this is a very large ongoing task still needing doing.

    Do you think it might be worth aiming at the same time to reduce the average per capita footprint (total) of students and employees? Perhaps you could aim at 50%? Not all employees enjoy the same income and priviliges, but it would be great to secure their futures by enabling them to achieve a lower-energy lifestyle at reduced personal cost.

    Can I also suggest you (collectively) engage with the scientists, headed-up by Professor Herrington (Natural History Museum), who wrote in June this year to the statutory Climate Change Committee?
    Phil Harris

    • nickgallie says:

      Dear Phil,

      thank you for your comments. Spot on I think. If this blog gets the attention of the Sustainability Committee, I’ll do what I can to ensure they (your comments) travel with it. I think particularly, having an agreed methodology that allows Sussex to measure what it’s doing by way of emergency response is crucial. But I wouldn’t want to wait for that to come along before instigating some pretty basic and obvious to all measures….like severely rationing overseas flights for attending conferences and beginning the huge task of re-examining what Sussex is teaching, in light of its emergency declaration.


  2. Oh mate What would I tell? Really… really liked the articleThank you so much!

  3. Jesse Ellis says:

    I am so much thankful for sharing your article. This is very useful in my research.

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