“Emergency services, which service do you require?”
“Oh, good question. Let me think. Probably fire in the first instance, please.”
“Right. Only you don’t sound sure…”
“Oh dear, sorry about that. Definitely fire. My house is burning down as we speak, you see.”
“OK, stay calm, we’ll get a crew out to you immediately…”
“Och, there’s no great rush, honestly. Just when you get a minute. We can wait.”
“You can wait? I’m confused. You’ve called emergency services. Is your house on fire or not?”
“Oh yes, very much so. I’m engulfed in flames right now, as it happens. But I don’t want to trouble anyone and I know you’re all terribly busy. If you could send someone when there’s a bit of a lull, that would be fine. We’ll manage until then, I’m sure.”
“Very well, madam. We’ll send someone round a week on Tuesday. Good luck in the meantime.”
An emergency is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action”.
Time is critical. Lives may well be in peril. Urgent steps must be taken, often by multiple parties in a coordinated effort.
The imaginary exchange above is ludicrous, of course, but the implication is clear. In declaring an emergency, you signal that time is of the essence and any hesitation risks catastrophic consequences.
Francesca Osowska, head of Scottish Natural Heritage, said last week that Scotland faces an environmental “apocalypse” by 2030, including “deserted villages, dying forests and no birdsong” as our landscape starts to present more visible symptoms of the long-term degradation caused by emissions, pollution and invasive foreign species.
It’s not often you hear those in public office use such stark and emotive language, partly because it invites accusations of scaremongering. Cynics will claim Osowska’s words amounted to nothing more than a cheap attempt to attract attention and headlines. Frankly, if that was the intention, you might argue this is one of those cases in which the end justified the means.
On the spectrum of language employed in the environmental debate, ‘apocalypse’ would be at one extreme and is still used relatively rarely. The term ‘climate emergency’, however, is being used much more commonly now to describe the gravity of the challenge humanity faces if we are to save ourselves and our planet.
The Guardian changed its guidance to staff on this issue just last month. “Climate change,” its comprehensive style guide now states “is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the situation. Use climate emergency, crisis or breakdown instead.”
If you find yourself muttering “bleeding heart liberals” under your breath, you are doubtless not alone, for there are many people who consider some of the language used in the environmental debate reactionary or knowingly and provocatively over-the-top.
Personally, I welcome it, and believe that its use is legitimate, accurate and entirely justified. It seems to me we’ve been sleepwalking into this global climate crisis for decades now, with lots of earnest and well-intentioned people working hard to effect transformational change, only to find their increasingly insistent pleas have fallen on the ears of an inert and apathetic audience.
“The scientific community has been sounding the alarm over climate change for decades. The political and economic response has been at best sluggish,”says James Dyke of the University of Exeter.
To my mind, that lethargy has at least in part been compounded by the lack of urgency in the language used to date.
‘Climate change’ is a problem too easily set aside to be dealt with later, too benign a designation to demand immediate attention, too distant a threat to concern us today. It is the global equivalent of that item on your to-do list that never gets done but hangs around as an emblem of your inefficiency, rolling on to the next day’s list, then the one after that, and so on for weeks.
‘Climate emergency’ is a good deal more unsettling and, therefore, more likely to inspire behavioural change on a global scale. That is why I welcome the new language being adopted and the heightened sense of urgency it will hopefully induce. It’s incredible to think that it took a 16-year-old girl to reignite the debate.
Businesses and other organisations sometimes struggle to define what constitutes a crisis, although it soon becomes abundantly clear when they are in the midst of one. The difficulty is often in judging the point at which an emerging issue that is deemed manageable without too much fuss, escalates into a full-blown snafu which requires the urgent attention of the most senior people possible. Only when it is labelled “a crisis” does anything material get done to fix it.
Language is powerful. We should use it judiciously, otherwise we risk cheapening its meaning and blunting its precision. But we should not shy away from declaring genuine emergencies when urgent action is needed to avert catastrophic danger.