When is an Emergency Not an Emergency?

Commentary, Environment, Gerry Bowler

“If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.” 

– Confucius, Analects

Confucius demanded clarity in political discourse and 2,500 years later George Orwell did the same in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language”. The dangers of unclear or deliberately misleading communication are now evident to all of us in an age of “fake news” and the internet torrent of millions of unchecked voices screaming their messages.

The debate surrounding climate change produces many assertions that are simply untrue, the chief of which is the existence of “a 97% consensus among scientists that humans are the cause of global warming” but there are other sorts of misleading language than simple lies. One of these is the declaration of a “environmental emergency”, which is a fad these days. Following disruptive sit-ins on the streets of London by the activist “Extinction Rebellion” and a visit by Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swedish global warming heart-throb, the British Parliament on May 1 became the first national government in the world to declare an “Environment and Climate Emergency”, joining 22 Canadian cities and hundreds of others around the world who have made the same gesture. We are told that there are now tens of millions of people living under national, city and local declarations of a climate emergency around the world.

In Ottawa the federal government is preparing  a motion calling on the House of Commons to declare a national climate emergency, and support meeting the Paris Agreement emissions targets. Not to be outdone, the federal NDP leader, desperate to keep to the left of the Liberals on this issue, has tabled a motion calling on the government not only to declare a climate emergency but to bring forward a climate plan that prioritizes Indigenous people, supports workers, eliminates all federal fossil fuel subsidies, and cancels the Mountain pipeline expansion.

There are problems with this sort of bloviation. The first is that “environmental emergency” already exists as a meaningful category in federal and international guidelines. Under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, an environmental emergency is defined as “an uncontrolled, unplanned or accidental release of a hazardous substance into the environment, or the reasonable likelihood of such a release into the environment.” The law sets up regulations, requires certain actions of officials, and aims to mitigate local disasters – it has nothing to do with real or imagined climate dangers that may occur decades from now. This means that the term “environmental emergency”, as bandied about this month by the government, is a phrase meant – contrary to the demands of Confucius and Orwell – to obfuscate and obscure.

But, from such a hollow declaration playing to a general anxiety about the future, will come ill-considered actions with real consequences. A shadowy attack on an American destroyer in 1964 prompted the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which gave the American president power to take “all necessary measures . . . to prevent further aggression” – this justified a massive escalation of the Vietnam War. So a vague climate declaration may result actions that will harm the western Canadian economy, hamper resource development, and fuel the power of activist groups (many of them in receipt of American money.)

We hear much talk these days of “hate speech”. The real danger to our democracy comes from “dangerous speech”, talk that does not advocate violence but which prepares the groundwork for radical action by creating an atmosphere of suspicion and turning citizens against each other. Canadian politicians who play off Quebec against the rest of Canada, who set Indigenous against non-natives, who demonize the energy industry, and who use terms like “emergency” in a cynical way are eroding the people’s trust in the electoral process.

Canadians need to have honest and open debates, unclouded by gassy emissions of language without clear meaning and clear consequences. The climate debate has suffered too long from crying wolf and environmental compassion-fatigue has set in. Let’s demand that politicians say what they mean and mean what they say.