The UK Just Became the First Country to Declare a Climate Emergency

Image of a protest sign that says “There is no planet B.” Credit: Bob Blob/Unsplash

Image of a protest sign that says “There is no planet B.” Credit: Bob Blob/Unsplash

After months of protests and acts of civil disobedience from a grassroots environmental group known as the Extinction rebellion, the United Kingdom has become the first country in the world to declare a national climate emergency.

For days, protesters took to the streets and called upon the government to take concrete actions to combat the ongoing warming trends. They blocked traffic across the Thames, glued themselves onto trains, graffitied the headquarters of oil giant Shell, and blockaded the stock exchange.

While parallel climate protests failed to gain traction, it seems that this grassroots movement has managed to claim a strong and lasting hold.

The protests directly inspired two separate parliamentary debates earlier in the week. Following these talks, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called on the government to declare the emergency. In his statement, he argued that we are "living in a climate crisis that will spiral dangerously out of control unless we take rapid and dramatic action now." Corbyn’s calls came on Wednesday, and the proposal was approved shortly thereafter.

And notably, the protesters are reshaping more than just politics. They are driving conversations across communities and across countries. As shown in the image below, media outlets in the UK have mentioned climate change more in April than they have at any other time in the last five years — including during the Paris Agreement negotiations that took place in 2016. And the event has received coverage in the New York Times and a number of other leading outlets.

Ultimately, by declaring this climate emergency, parliament is meeting the first of the protesters’ three demands. The other demands include reducing emissions to net zero by 2025 and creating an assembly of citizens to help lead the government and ensure it is fulfilling its duties when it comes to acting on climate and environmental issues.

While this declaration is a net positive change, one that characterizes the will and intent of parliament when it comes to climate issues, it does not legally compel the government to act. In this respect, the pronouncement fails to strike at the heart of what the protesters desire — which is concrete action.

In an official statement, the Extinction Rebellion noted that, while this is a notable victory, this is just the beginning of the work and of the protests. "This is the first step in the government telling the truth about the climate and ecological emergency. Pressure on politicians will now increase as nothing but decisive action will suffice," they said.

Much of the recent action can also be tied to 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, a Swedish student and climate activist who initiated a school strike aimed at creating climate action last year. She recently visited the UK protesters and made international headlines, generating a huge surge in public interest.

Ultimately, the movement reveals the power that people have and the change that can be realized when communities come together to create action.