The House of Commons voted to declare a climate change emergency in the UK on Wednesday, making world history as the first country to ever do so. The move is largely symbolic, and time will tell if actions back it up. Still, it shows how radically climate politics are being rewritten.
For decades, climate policy has been moving like a sloth through a pit of quicksand. Emissions have kept rising even as governments hand waved at solutions and implemented half measures. But a new wave of activism is forcing governments to reckon with their inaction.
In the UK, that’s taken the form of massive school strikes and more recently, wide-ranging protests by Extinction Rebellion. In the past month, the group has gotten naked in the House of Commons and shut down key roadways in London. It continued to amp up pressure on Wednesday with a protest outside Parliament. The group has three demands, the first being for the UK government to “tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency.” That’s something the UK Labour Party had done, but as the minority party, the declaration didn’t carry legal weight.
But the fate of Labour’s resolution turned as more political dominoes fell in place. Scotland and Wales—both parts of the UK—declared climate emergencies on Monday. And Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed members of Parliament last week, including environment secretary Michael Gove . After hearing her, Gove said “I felt great admiration, but also responsibility and guilt.”
All these moving parts came to head on Wednesday when the entire House of Commons voted to declare a climate emergency. The declaration itself is considered largely symbolic, and according to Reuters has “no direct consequences for policy.” But activists plan to keep pressing the issue to ensure real ambition follows.
“They are starting to tell the truth,” Liam Geary Baulch, a campaigner with Extinction Rebellion said in a WhatsApp group message. He said the group will continue to press the government to meet its other demands, which include getting greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 and creating a “Citizens’ Assembly” on climate to ensure any decisions are made in consultation with the people who will be impacted by them.
Labour is also in it for the long haul. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn address the Extinction Rebellion protesters on Wednesday. And in introducing the motion in Parliament, he laid out the stakes around climate change.
“We have no time to waste,” he said. “We are living in a climate crisis that will spiral dangerously out of control unless we take rapid and dramatic action now.