Climate Emergency - What Does It Mean?

Nature and life on earth are threatened by climate emergency. The future is written now and still our societies seem to continue down the usual path, towards a future where the climate can be characterized as “Hothouse Earth”.

Understanding the Climate Emergency

The thought of climate emergency stems from the evidence that we are heading toward a climate tipping point that once crossed, will lead to a situation where the negative effects on the environment and the climate become irreversible and uncontrollable. This has been called for “Hothouse Earth”, a future Gills and Morgan find possible if we do not act now. In their editorial, they discuss how institutions and the economic system show a continued lack of inactivity regarding the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions even though we live in a time of climate emergency.

The Earth Overshoot day this year was 29th July, what will it be in coming years?

Past actions have not been able to limit global warming nor to hinder us from exceeding the capacity earth can regenerate in a year (marked by the Earth Overshoot Day). Global emissions and the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are in fact increasing. According to The UN Environmental programme’s Emissions Gap Report, to keep the temperature rise to 1.5°C, global emissions would have to be cut down by 7,6 % each year from 2020-2030. However, as Gills and Morgan describes in their paper, even if we manage to limit global warming to this 1.5°C threshold, we will still see effects on various ecosystems around the world.

The climate is a key system for many other functions on earth. Gills and Morgan point out how these systems are interconnected, from natural systems to human societies and the economy. This complex earth system is sensitive to change; stress in one part could possibly lead to unpredictable effects in others. Glaciers that play an important role in the water supply for billions of people are melting at an increased rate. Droughts and extreme temperatures are more likely if the climate continues to get warmer, which will lead to crises in natural systems and to higher risks for forest/bush fires. Droughts are of course also connected to food insecurity. There are many more examples that show how climate change already affect the earth system in various and unfavorable ways.

Not only are earth’s systems interconnected, but networks of dependency also exist between different parts of the world. Gills and Morgan identifies the vulnerable Arctic, the Amazon forests and the system of ocean currents as especially important global areas in relation to climate emergency. What happens on the other side of the world today may very well lead to an unrecognizable tomorrow elsewhere.


From Kyoto to Paris to Katowice: Why Are We Failing?

For over 40 years, scientists have known that we need collective efforts to tackle the challenges related to population growth, economic expansion and the increasing consumption of resources, which in turn are linked to mass production of waste and emissions. Despite this knowledge, development has continued as normal.

“What we need now above all is to immediately begin to think and ACT as if it is a real EMERGENCY. Everything we do now, both individually and collectively, will matter. We are in a race against time.” - Gills and Morgan

During the last decades there has been a large amount of international efforts to address the challenges of climate change. The first Conference of the Parties (COP) took place in 1995 and the latest UN Climate Change Conference (COP 25) ended last week. The Kyoto protocols from 1997 were signed by 38 industrialized countries, committing to cut greenhouse gas emissions to a level lower than 1990. The goal was to achieve this by 2012, nevertheless emissions have been continuously rising. The Kyoto was followed by the Paris agreement in 2015, where for example the 1.5°C threshold was agreed. However, this November the United States started their withdrawal process from the Paris agreement, which shows how we are not on a common track. The Katowice conference last year was not very successful either. Gills and Morgan argue that the conference did not reflect the fact that we are in a period of climate emergency; there was disagreements on how to tackle the emergency and the negotiations resulted only in many mid-term commitments to partial shifts from carbon based energy sources.

The goal for the 25th Climate Change Conference was to set a direction for more dramatic and significant actions to answer the climate emergency. Focus was especially put on Nationally-Determined Contributions (NDCs) to tackle climate change and the need for collective efforts for change. The Global Climate & Health Alliance saw the outcomes of COP 25 as mediocre and that the lack of unity behind concrete actions are worrying. World leaders at least seem to agree on trying to stop deforestation, which play a significant role in the intensifying climate emergency. As Gills and Morgan point out, it is a success that so many countries have signed the agreements, but what truly matters are the results. The true outcomes of the latest UN climate conference in Madrid can only be seen in the future, as it stands the results seem weak in contrast to the goals that were set beforehand.

“Our economies are a primary source of the environmental-emissions problem” - Gills and Morgan

Why are these conferences failing? Gills and Morgan see the current economic system as a major barrier for tackling the climate emergency. The capitalist system is built on the premise of expansion and therefore there are problems with imposing limits to growth. In addition, countries, institutions and organizations are only volunteering to cut their emissions, which according to Gills and Morgan makes the process unsystematic and slow instead of dramatic and prompt.

In their editorial Gills and Morgan blames world leaders for seeing the economy as a prerequisite for societal development and for solutions to the climate emergency. As a result, even though most countries have agreed on the climate pacts, they may not be willing to introduce sufficient actions that would restrict the growth of fossil-fueled economies (for example by implementing sufficient carbon tax). Institutions have delayed any costly changes in belief that the expanding system can take the impacts or in the hope that new solutions are invented. The compounded problems are starting to catch up on us and as Gills and Morgan declare, it is time to face the fact that climate emergency is a problem that capitalism cannot solve.


The University of Helsinki’s Response to Climate Emergency

Is the time for institutional inactivity over? In November, the Uni­versity of Helsinki joined a de­clar­a­tion of cli­mate emer­gency as one of 247 Higher Education Institutions to commit to actions against climate change. The university has for example committed to mobilize more resources on research on climate change, to be carbon neutral by 2050 and to increase sustainability education across curriculums. But, what more can the university do in order to act towards sustainability?

In January 2020 there is a co-organized event by Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) and The Global Extractivisms and Alternatives Initiative (EXALT) on ”(Re)purposing the university to tackle the climate emergency”. There will be three short talks, one by Barry Gills (Professor in development studies and co-author on the editorial paper this article is based on), one by Laura Kolehmainen (UH student and climate activist) and one by Vice-Rector Tom Böhling (representing the university management). The talks are followed by a panel discussion on the role of the University regarding climate action. The event is open to all and no registration is needed. The event will also be streamed online.

When: 16.01.2020, at 13 – 15

Where: The Think Corner Stage (Yliopistonkatu 4, Helsinki)



Barry Gills and Jamie Morgans (2019) full editorial article can be found here: Global Climate Emergency: after COP24, climate science, urgency, and the threat to humanity

Read about the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid 2019: COP25 to Be the Launchpad for Significantly more Climate Ambition

Read about UNEPS emission report: Emissions Gap report 2019

Read more about the Global Climate Emergency Letter: The University and College Sector’s Collective Response to the Global goals

Read more about the HELSUS and EXALT event: (Re)pur­pos­ing the uni­versity to tackle the cli­mate emer­gency

We stand against a great challenge; fundamental transitions in our societies are essential to keep away from irreversible and catastrophic changes in our climate and for life on earth. This is the main message in Gills and Morgans paper on Global Climate Emergency: after COP24, climate science, urgency, and the threat to humanity. This article is mostly based on Gills and Morgans editorial for the Globalizations journal, but also on current news from the climate conference in Madrid and news on the University of Helsinki’s actions for climate emergency.