The handle on the climate change pot

I live at a student apartment here in Lincoln on campus and the handles of all of our pots are loose. Maybe you know the feeling. It is a problem, but it feels like a problem for the future.

Recently, I talked to one of my roommates about it: “Let’s find a screwdriver and fix the pots”. But we have no screwdriver at our apartment, so nothing happened. One of these days, while picking up a pot, my pasta will end up on the floor, as the handle came off! We know this moment will come and it will then be a problem. But it probably will not be tomorrow and there are other more pressing matters at hand, like all of the assignments I have to complete over the next two weeks.

The infamous pots and pans from our flat. No firm handles in sight. Photo: Jess Bardey

Climate change is our global pot with a loose handle.

During 2019, multiple councils in Canterbury, New Zealand, issued emergency declarations for climate change, basically saying that our response to climate change has to happen now. There was a global wave of these declarations in 2019, as it felt like a way for local governments to do something against the global problem of climate change. What a climate emergency declaration entails can vary widely, from a vague “climate change is an emergency in our region” to an outline of possible solutions. Looking back over the last three years, the Corona virus response showed us that governments are able to react quickly to a crisis. A reaction that was hoped for in response to the declarations as well.

Every time we pick the climate change pot up, we can feel its handle rattling and it feels a bit more loose than the last time. We can see the slow loosening of the handle in the ever drier and warmer summers, the high fluctuation in temperature, and the higher frequency and strength of natural catastrophes. With disasters like droughts, floods or wild fires, climate change feels very real and like an emergency. The handle feels like it is falling off right this second and we feel like we should immediately do something about it, for example set it down, grab a screwdriver, so that it does not end in disaster. But we don’t, we pick the pot back up and go on with business as usual, forgetting about the incident until the next time it occurs.

Climate protesters demand an emergency declaration, Washington DC, 2021
Climate Emergency Banner – DC March” by Backbone Campaign, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Sylvia Nissen from Lincoln University looked into two of those declarations to understand their impact, or lack thereof, which were issued by Environment Canterbury and the Christchurch City Council. After the declarations were released they were seen as a sign of hope that might lead to some action. In fact nothing really changed even multiple months after the declaration, with one of the councils even supporting a decision that would lead to more carbon emissions. The declaration by Environment Canterbury was issued after their work was inhibited by activists chaining themselves to their building and stopping their water supply, and the Christchurch City Council felt they were under global pressure, following the release of many declarations around the world. The release of these statements was a fast and easy way to appease the public without having to put much work into it. I mean, looking at our rattling pot handles again, talking to my roommate did feel like we did something about the problem, even though we really didn’t.

Calling climate change an emergency also led to a weird appearance in the declarations, namely that much of them were focused on defining how climate change is different from other emergencies. Canterbury is well acquainted with emergencies over the last 15 years, with earthquakes in Christchurch in 2010 and 2011, followed by fires, floods and droughts in the region. An emergency is defined as a problem that is surprising and unexpected and in need of an immediate solution. Even though the effects of climate change are getting more prevalent each day, we still feel like we can find the screwdriver to fix it tomorrow. However, none of the existing screwdrivers seem to fit, so maybe we need to find a new one, or a new toolbox. Climate change is an intricate, multilayered problem that needs work on many different fronts at the same time. Local authorities often feel as if they need the governments higher up to change something, because they do not have the authority to do so.

The emergency declarations were used to get the government of New Zealand to release an emergency statement as well. Often in times of emergencies, the authority completely shifts to one entity to make the response efforts more efficient. This is especially concerning in New Zealand as non-emergency situations have often led to suppression and disregard of Māori rights, and a centralization of power might especially lead to excluding Māori advice from councils. In the declarations Māori advisors were often described as only “present”, not giving an indication as to whether their worries were taken into account.

Looks like a good start to a toolbox. The yellow gives them quite the emergency color. By hehaden, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The notion of just giving the solution over to the next higher authority can also be seen as quite concerning, as bottom-up approaches were seen to lead to more realistic and inclusive solutions. And though no local government will be able to find the whole solution, each can provide their own, unique screwdriver to help fill a toolbox that can fix all the different issues, to screw the handle of the climate change pot back on.

And looking at all the effects climate change already has on our world, is it really still a problem for tomorrow?

So now I am going to get up and find a screwdriver. Because the loose handles of our pots (including the climate change one) can very quickly become a problem of today.

This article was prepared by postgraduate student Jess Bardey as part of the ECOL608 Research Methods in Ecology course.

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