Last week Whitehorse City Council in Victoria became the 115th jurisdiction in Australia to declare a Climate Emergency. That prompted the following question from a journalism student living in that area:
What is the effect within the local general community when their local council declares a Climate Emergency?
That raises another question – what percentage of the local population actually hear about the declaration?
I had to confess that I have no data on either point, and I can’t think of an efficient way of trying to collect that data either!
Do any readers have any data on reactions from the general public, or on how many people have heard (or not heard) about their local declaration? If so, please get in touch or leave a comment below this blog post. It will be valuable input even if it is just random anecdotal evidence, or the effect on you personally, rather than hard data.
What we do know
One theory of change driving the early Climate Emergency Declaration campaign was that a declaration by one local council would have influence in multiple directions. Not only would it have an effect on their own local community, it would also act sideways (to and from other local councils), upwards to higher levels of government, and inwards to their own staff.
- Sideways: this has been working extremely well, as evidenced by the rapid spread of local government declarations. In addition, there are many examples of neighbouring councils sharing expertise and collaborating on initiatives, such as the power purchase agreement organised by the Victorian Energy Collaboration (VECO), resulting in 46 Australian councils now buying renewable energy for their own operations. At Queenscliffe Borough Council, for example, that helped achieve a whopping 73% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from council’s own operations in just one year.
- Upwards: in some regions there has been a direct regional influence. The Quebec state government declared a Climate Emergency after 403 of their local councils had done so, and the South Australian state government did so after 16 local councils covering 45% of the population in SA had issued declarations. In other cases the influence has been general rather than regional, but it is unlikely any of the 18 national and 41 subnational government declarations would have occurred were it not for the precedents set globally by numerous local councils.
- Inwards: anecdotal evidence suggests that at some councils, their declaration and subsequent climate action focus has built engagement and enthusiasm for increased climate action amongst council’s own staff and Councillors, but I have not seen any publicly available data. What we do know is that some councils have included an internal climate-related education component in their action plans, and quite a few have hired external consultants to help staff learn more about what they can do.
- Outwards: as stated above, we have no data on the effect of their Climate Emergency Declaration within a council’s own local community. However, in a more general global sense there clearly has been a broad diffuse outwards effect which goes beyond what was anticipated by the sideways-upwards-inwards-outwards concept. The term ‘climate emergency’ is now used very widely and was heralded as being the word of the year in 2019. By December 2020 it had reached the UN, with Antonio Guterres urging all countries to declare a Climate Emergency. In addition, numerous non-government entities – universities, schools, businesses, churches, and association bodies (eg. Architects Declare) – have declared a Climate Emergency. (You can see some of them in a sadly incomplete list here.)
So, if we did have the data, what might success look like in terms of the effect on the local community when its own council declares a Climate Emergency?
Scenario 1: Sounding the alarm
A key reason for an official trusted body to declare any sort of emergency is so that everyone knows about the danger and knows what to do (and not do) to increase their own safety. Importantly, an emergency declaration also brings out the best in people, leading to abandoning business-as-usual and going ‘above and beyond’ for the sake of the common good.
Similarly, I’d like to think that when their local council declares a Climate Emergency, everyone in the local community firstly knows there has been a declaration, and secondly, those who have been complacent about climate will:
- pay more attention to climate information
- change their behaviour
- start helping others around them to respond to the emergency
But does that actually happen? Have any local residents been jolted out of climate complacency and into taking climate-positive actions in response to their local council declaring a Climate Emergency?
Scenario 2: Giving visibility to collective community effort
We all know we can’t do it alone. Climate-aware people might be discouraged from taking action and prone to pushing climate issues to the back of their minds if they think nobody else is doing anything. Many local councils were already taking at least some climate action, and some were doing a very large amount, but were their local communities aware of that before they declared a Climate Emergency?
I’d like to think that local council declarations and public commitments to climate action make everyone aware that collectively everyone’s actions can make a difference because:
- their own council is treating climate like an emergency and is taking action accordingly
- they are actively encouraging everyone in the community to take action, and reporting back on what members of the community are doing
- and plenty of other local councils and communities globally are also joining in to help
Of course we still need to convince higher levels of government to pull the big climate levers, but a rising tide of engagement and action at the community level should make that easier to achieve.
Scenario 3: Sowing the seeds
Even if some of the local community initially fail to hear that their council has declared a Climate Emergency, I’d like to think that it will be brought to their attention later via projects that effectively engage a wide range of residents. I’m thinking, for example, of this charming scheme by Leeds City Council in the UK:
Leeds City Council is once again encouraging residents to get involved in an annual seed collection to help with the ambitious target of planting 5.8m trees over 25 years across the city.
Each Autumn people of all ages collect acorns, beech nuts, sweet chestnuts, and conkers which are then delivered to a specialist nursery to grow into seedlings. They are then planted in local parks and green spaces. What an engaging, enjoyable, visible, and empowering community activity! I can imagine a scenario that goes something like this:
- Mummy, why are all those people picking up acorns?
- I don’t know. Let’s ask them.
- Council’s Climate Emergency declaration…planting millions of trees…everyone helping…
- Mummy can we help find acorns too?
Please let us all know about any particularly effective schemes your council might have found for engaging their entire community.
If you’d like to receive future cedamia blog articles about new CEDs and council post-CED actions (one or two a month) directly to your inbox, click the Follow button below and set how you prefer to receive them.