“We live in a state of climate emergency"

REPORT | This summer’s report from the UN climate panel provided gloomy information. The climate is changing at an increasingly rapid pace, with rising temperatures, extreme weather, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels as a result. And humans are being pointed out as responsible for the warming of our planet. Researchers Martin Gren and Ola Ståhl at Linnaeus University mean that the message was expected and that we live in a state of planetary climate emergency.

Martin Gren and Ola Ståhl are members of the newly-established research group Centre for Climate Emergency Studies and conduct research on what is increasingly recognized as planetary climate emergency, and what it will mean for people and society. The report from the UN climate panel IPCC, which was released in August 2021, did not come as a surprise to them.

“Sadly, the report confirms what we already knew; that humanity finds itself in a state of extremely serious planetary climate emergency. This is not something new. For decades, climate researchers have warned of the consequences of the ongoing climate changes”, says Martin Gren, professor of cultural geography.

“We live in a state of climate emergency. This is becoming increasingly evident, both in research reports and through the climate catastrophes we are witnessing”, says Ola Ståhl, senior lecturer in design.

“Unequivocal” that global warming is caused by humans

One thing that differs from previous reports, according to Gren, is that the tone is sharper. For instance, up until now, human impact has been described more in terms of “probabilities”, allowing room for interpretation, which has been used by climate change deniers. However, IPCC now states that it is “unequivocal” that the warming of the atmosphere, oceans, and land surface is caused by humans.

“The most important message in the report is that we will pass 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, maybe even two degrees, in this century, unless we immediately start implementing a number of climate measures”, says Gren.

Gren says that this year’s extreme weather that has swept across the planet gives us a hunch of what an even more extreme climate can bring with it in the future. And that what we are now experiencing is a climate corresponding to a 1.1 degrees Celsius warming compared to preindustrial temperature (1850–1900).

“A frequently occurring estimation is that we are heading towards at least three degrees Celsius warming. Renowned climate researchers mean that this may be the limit for what humankind can adapt to”, Gren explains.

“If we were to measure how serious the ‘climate situation’ is for humanity on a scale from 1 to 10, I would say at least 10.”

Maritn Gren, Professor of cultural geography


How serious is the climate situation?

“If we were to measure how serious the ‘climate situation’ is for humanity on a scale from 1 to 10, I would say at least 10. The UN Secretary-General has described the climate changes as ‘an existential threat to humanity’. Earth system-based research indicates that the Earth system risks ‘tipping’ into a different state, which researchers fear may also result in rapidly escalating temperatures. Nuclear threats and nuclear war may be the only competition at this level of seriousness”, says Gren.

Carbon dioxide emissions should be reduced by at least seven percent

Martin means that we must very quickly reduce our carbon dioxide emissions at the global level by at least roughly seven percent during the upcoming ten-year period, probably more, in order to meet the objectives of the Paris agreement. That is to say, not more than 1.5–2 degrees Celsius warming.

“Climate researchers appeal and beg that we must get a fossil-free social system in place as soon as possible”, Gren continues.

The EU and 7,000 universities have declared a climate emergency

Ola Ståhl agrees with the seriousness of the report.

“It is evident that we live in a state of climate emergency. This has been declared by different actors, also by political bodies, at least since regional authorities in Darebin, Australia declared a climate emergency in 2016. It is important that we intensify our efforts and mobilise to support the declaration that this is an emergency. Something that must be handled now”, Ståhl explains.

Climate emergency is a concept that has become well established within a short period of time and today it is used in the scientific community and by different UN bodies. “Emergency” stresses that it is something very serious and that it must be dealt with immediately. Gren means that a fundamental idea of declaring a climate emergency is that you openly admit the seriousness and the scope of the planetary climate problem.

“What is more, you also commit, and that is what is most important, to do something about the problem. This can involve an action plan for how to reduce fossil fuel emissions and reach a climate-neutral society, organisation, or municipality. A climate emergency has been declared by the EU and at least 7,000 universities and university colleges around the world. However, to my knowledge, no Swedish university has yet declared a climate emergency”, says Gren.

“Climate emergency has been declared by different actors, also by political bodies, at least since 2016.”

Ola Ståhl, senior lecturer in design.


Research and education about the climate emergency

Ståhl’s and Gren’s research focuses on what the climate emergency means for people and society, how it affects and changes our perceptions of ourselves. It also deals with our understanding of the concepts “climate” and “emergency” and what happens when these concepts are put together.

“What possibilities come with the use of the concept climate emergency? What possibilities for action and mobilisation? How can we act and orient ourselves in our daily lives and working life in relation to the concept?”, Ståhl asks.

During autumn 2021, Ståhl and Gren run a project on the theme climate emergency on the master’s programmes in design. They are also planning an transdisciplinary course in climate emergency studies. An important part of this research and education is that it contributes to creating room for action.

“The projects that we conduct with our students do not only comprise an understanding of the climate emergency. They also involve application of knowledge, motivation, and a strong desire to contribute to change through concrete projects. Which I think is an important cutting-edge expertise”, says Ståhl.

All university subjects should contribute

Gren and Ståhl mean that all academic subjects, not only the natural sciences, both can and must contribute to “the climate discourse”. An important challenge for most subjects is how they can transition and deal with the new climate situation.

“It is only in recent years that the humanities and social sciences have started paying real attention to the planetary scale”, says Gren.

“The humanities play an important role as a creative and critical force in how, for instance, science is presented, how understanding is created, and how we think of ourselves in relation to planetary Earth systems. What is more, art, design and other cultural practices often have experience of working across disciplines with application in cultural forms and media, like different types of activism”, Ståhl continues.

Politicians must act

So, how should we act in this serious climate situation? Gren means that everyone who wants to contribute can try to do as much as they can and have energy for. If you would like to reduce your ecological footprint by eating less meat, abstaining from air travel, consume less, or the like, this can be seen as positive from a climate perspective.

“However, we must be aware that climate actions at the individual level is far from enough. What is required is a series of comprehensive climate measures at structural, societal level, which means that we must get the political system to act. What can and should be done from that perspective at the individual level, is to try to influence politicians and decision makers, so that they implement substantial societal changes and climate measures”, Gren explains.

Gren means that it is a problem that the climate issue, to a large extent, is still perceived and treated as an individual issue.

“I face arguments like ‘the climate is important, of course, but there are so many other questions that are also important’. To me, the climate is about our possibilities to survive on this planet. It is, in my opinion, not just one issue among many others”, Gren concludes.

Learn more: Centre for Climate Emergency Studies