What does it mean to declare climate emergency?

By Professor Martin Parker, Lead for Bristol Inclusive Economy Initiative

Does it make any difference that Bristol City Council, the University of Bristol and hundreds of other organisations have declared a climate emergency? Is it all just hot air? On the 12th March, the Inclusive Economy Initiative and the Law School at Bristol University organised an event to discuss what it meant for an organisation to do something about their carbon emissions and wider impact on society and the economy. Over 260 people signed up, and despite the coronavirus bearing down on us all, about 70 turned up to hear some fantastic discussions.

Last year saw a rash of climate emergency declarations from local and national governments, academic institutions across the globe, representative bodies of numerous professions and industries and many individual businesses. Why is making a climate declaration important? Has anything changed for those that have? What else can be done to address the emergency? In a context of Extinction Rebellion protests and clear evidence of climate change, what can organisations actually do?

Martin Wiles (Head of Sustainability for University of Bristol), Nina Boeger (Law School, University of Bristol) and Chris Dunford (Head of Sustainable Futures, We The Curious)
Martin Wiles (Head of Sustainability for University of Bristol), Nina Boeger (Law School, University of Bristol) and Chris Dunford (Head of Sustainable Futures, We The Curious)

After an introduction from myself, we had two panel discussions followed by some sparkling questions from the audience. The first panel was chaired by Nina Boeger from the University’s Law School in discussion with Martin Wiles, the Head of Sustainability at the university, and Chris Dunford, the Head of Sustainable Futures at ‘We The Curious’, Bristol’s science museum. They are both ‘educational’ institutions with a particular responsibility for disseminating knowledge about climate change and both agreed that ‘declaring’ was the easy part. The problem was what to do next.

There were some clear similarities. Both were keen to stress the importance of a plan for carbon reduction with clear goals that can be audited. If the declaration is not to be seen as a PR exercise, then people inside and outside the organisation have to see things changing. This means keeping on top of many small but important decisions about procurement, everyday practice and messaging. It means doing most things differently, and perhaps cancelling other projects, such as the ‘We the Curious’s xmas ice skating rink, or encouraging academics not to go to international conferences.

Apart from the operational stuff, the biggest taboo that needs to be addressed is often the business model itself. Whether students flying from China or tourists driving to Bristol, some of the core assumptions about the way that the bills are paid might need to change. A declaration doesn’t solve these problems, but it allows them to be discussed. It allows things to become thinkable which were previously too difficult to approach.

We then moved on to the second panel, chaired by Fiona Ellis, a director of the network Business Declares. She was in conversation with Dave Hunter, a Consulting Solicitor at the b-corp law firm Bates Wells, and Ben Tolhurst, the Head of UK Property Asset Management at JLL, the world’s biggest property management company.

Ben talked about what it was like being an ‘employee activist’ within a large corporation, but began by noting that a declaration needs to be supported at the highest levels of the business. For virtually all organisations, climate change will destroy their existing business models, so there is an element of enlightened self-interest that needs to be recognised and exploited. Policies on travel, food, energy, single-use plastic and so on need to be changed, but no organisation can change the world on its own. This means that Ben and JLL are now trying to influence clients through their training and hence providing legitimacy for other organisations to change too. His key question is ‘how do you make people want to change’, and that means changing yourself too.

Dave echoed this in a smaller organisation and a different context in beginning by asking ‘how do you take the staff with you?’ Employees and clients need to understand why Bates Wells is changing, and that has meant conversations with a wide variety of people and organisations about different aspects of carbon neutrality. For example, the organisation is now default vegetarian: people are not served meat unless they explicitly ask for it. Again, the organisation is also trying to influence its sector, to be an example for what other law firms might do, seeking to use law proactively as a force for good, not just a passive tool to interpret regulations. Just like the umbrella organisation Business Declares, the idea is to show other people what can be done, to demonstrate a new way of doing business.

What did we learn?

There were lots of questions covering a wide variety of topics. What does an ‘emergency’ response look like, and how might the climate emergency be compared with the covid emergency? How do we deal with sceptics, with people who aren’t engaged? How do we tell different stories about what it means not to be able to do what we used to do? How do we get the trillions of dollars moving out of carbon and into renewables? Can capitalism be reformed to be less destructive?

In all of this, there was frequent mention of the importance of not polarising the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. If an organisation declares support for Extinction Rebellion, will that alienate people who find their tactics annoying and mean that the messages won’t get through? On the other hand, maybe we have no time to worry about people’s feelings, and simply need to explain the science. If we have a position of influence, then we need to use it, with our friends, co-workers and whatever sector of the economy we work in.

We agreed that we needed more events like this, discussing particular aspects of what it means to prepare the groundwork for an appropriate business response to a societal and environmental, global emergency. The language of emergency must not lose its energy, but it must also turn into routines and policies, as all these speakers have elegantly demonstrated.

It has been interesting to see in the fortnight since the event, how quickly some steps which seemed impossibly radical just a few days ago have been implemented without resistance – almost feeling like a dry run for the changes we were discussing. It would be nice to think we might be able to come together again to review how things have progressed before the year is out. If you want more information, get in touch with us at iei-enquiries@bristol.ac.uk.