Plan now for life in emergency mode

It's time to start thinking and talking about what life will be like when move into true 'emergency mode' to deal with climate change, writes climate change strategist Paul Duignan.

When I was young my brother and I used to do the dishes together. The routine was that he would rinse and hand me the plates that I would then put in the dishwasher. Ultimately the moment would come when I would hold up the next plate and say: ‘it won’t fit’. His deadpan response was always exactly the same: ‘Look, think of it like we are in the army, by definition it will fit.’

And sure enough, there was always a way that the final plate could be squeezed in. This scene was repeated nightly in our household and it came back to me on two occasions recently. The first was watching the newly released Midway - a dramatic war film about the desperate naval battle associated with the Japanese attack on the American base on Midway Island.

There is a scene in which American Admiral Nimitz is marshalling his forces just prior to sending them out to face the Japanese fleet. He is standing on the aircraft storage deck of the damaged Yorktown aircraft carrier staring at a massive hole that has been blown in the flight deck in the course of an earlier encounter. He is being told it will take several weeks to fix. His curt command is: ‘it will be fixed in 72 hours’. The American flotilla was due to depart in 72 hours. It was fixed. This is an example of the ‘it will be done’ philosophy.

This is how humans act when they move into emergency mode. Strategy is no longer a matter of slowly working through trade-offs and taking a ‘middle of the road’ approach.

I thought of my brother’s approach again when I watched the stop motion video of the Chinese constructing a 1,000-bed hospital for coronavirus epidemic patients in Wuhan. It’s worth watching. The building was built in just ten days and they have already started constructing another one.

This is how humans act when they move into emergency mode. Strategy is no longer a matter of slowly working through trade-offs and taking a ‘middle of the road’ approach. No longer is speed traded-off against the pain and discomfort related to moving with full urgency. By definition, things are simply done.

And it is not just the speed at which things get done in such circumstances. In emergencies such as the coronavirus, authorities just order people to make things happen. Cities are isolated, people are banned from entering countries, citizens are forced into quarantine for weeks, supplies are requisitioned, resources are pulled off other activities and focused directly on the problem at hand.

How does this relate to climate change? Well, we are already seeing ‘climate emergencies’ being declared by some local authorities and by some national governments. In fact, my colleague Sam McGlennon and I have just finished interviewing local government representatives for a research project on the state of their climate change planning. Yes, they are starting to move on the issue, but they have a long road ahead and need more resources to translate the talk of emergency mode into sufficient action on the ground.

But the findings are indicative of the fact that things are starting to move. What is interesting from a strategic point of view is working out exactly how fast things will accelerate from now on in. I suspect things will move faster than most of us think.

Last night as I drove home, the sun was burning orange once more. The Australian fires have started up again and are on the outskirts of Canberra. Climate scientist Michael Mann is talking about the Australian fires being a tipping point in public opinion. And just In is news that the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, one that some scientists are calling the ‘doomsday glacier’ - is melting faster than predicted, escalating the risk of sea-level rise.

People and organisations should now be considering 'what if' scenarios that may eventuate as society actually moves into a true emergency mode over climate change.

There is an endless list of such bad news coming down the pipeline. This is because we now know that previous climate impact estimates have been consistently on the low side. Climate change is no longer a theoretical risk, nor a matter of obscurely measured phenomena just reported in scientific journals. It is increasingly a daily reality for people in some places in the world. And it seems inevitable that this stream of climate news will increasingly move the nominal talk of emergency mode into a more action-orientated mode. A mode that we typically see in wartime or in the face of a major public health emergency such as the current coronavirus epidemic.

People and organisations should now be considering 'what if' scenarios that may eventuate as society actually moves into a true emergency mode over climate change. The problem touches multiple sectors - energy, transport, construction, urban planning, trade, manufacturing, primary industry, and food consumption. There is not a person or organisation in the country that will not be affected if government, companies, consumers and civil society actually decide to adopt a ‘by definition it will be done’ emergency mode.

It is important for people and organisations to start thinking in detail about a true climate emergency mode might mean. This is important for two reasons. First, from a psychological point of view, it will stop people from being fazed and upset by what is happening when it happens. Second, it will allow them to start planning how they, and their organisation, can play a constructive and rewarding role as people and institutions start adopting a full-on ‘it will be done’ climate change emergency mode.
Dr Paul Duignan is an Honorary Research Fellow at Massey University who runs workshops helping organisations prepare for an acceleration in the climate response.

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