As Aboriginal people, we’ve been fighting the capitalist, colonial system that created this crisis for over 200 years. (…) We know we’re in an abusive relationship with the institutions of power and capital that occupy our lands, but does the climate movement? Much of what the movement focuses its energy and resources on feels a lot like asking an abuser to change their ways. Indeed, the movement appears intent on preserving a way of life that depends on that toxic relationship for its very existence. Climate emergency declarations, green jobs, renewable energy targets, citizen’s councils – maybe they will stop the worst of climate change, maybe they won’t. What we know they won’t do is end the abusive relationship between the colony and us as Indigenous people. They won’t end the abusive relationships between capital and workers, between the rich and everyone else, between the exploiters and the exploited, here and around the world1.

In late 2019, so-called Australia faced some of the worst bushfires on record. Thousands of people were evacuated from their homes, and hundreds of homes were destroyed. State of Emergency declarations were made in November, December, and January, in response to the dangerous bushfire conditions in New South Wales and Victoria. Thirty-three people, and approximately one billion animals died. Crucial ecological systems were destroyed in blazes that released approximately 900 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The “summer of crisis”—so named by the Climate Council2—saw acrid smoke and dust blanketing cities and towns across the continent, triggering widespread respiratory illness, and leading to an estimated 417 additional deaths relating to smoke inhalation and respiratory illness3.

The smoke haze filled the skyline for weeks; the summer sun burning orange through layers of ash and dust. But by February 2020, before the smoke from the fires had even cleared, much of so-called Australia began to experience torrential rains, leading to flash flooding across much of the eastern and southern coasts. In a now infamous photo from northern New South Wales, taken by Matthew Bennett, a sign warning drivers to “know your bushfire plan” is almost fully submerged by floodwaters4.

A few weeks later, and the “summer of crisis” had given way to yet another state of emergency. By March, little attention was turned to the climate disasters of the summer: all eyes were on the looming public health crisis posed by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. As the World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic, the state and federal governments in so-called Australia introduced a swathe of emergency measures to tackle the “COVID crisis”: including the closure of international borders to travellers, compulsory quarantine for those arriving from overseas and those infected with COVID-19, strict lockdowns and social distancing rules enforced through policing and surveillance measures. For many of us, it felt like the status quo was grinding slowly to a halt. Everything had changed; the horizon of possibility seemed, perhaps temporarily, to have been cracked open.

It feels almost cliche to begin our reflections on the dangers of emergency politics with this particular conjuncture. And yet this present moment—constituted as it is by relentless, compounding crises—presents a fruitful opportunity to reconsider the political function of discourses of emergency and crisis, and the limitations of declarations of climate emergency. In this article, we write from our own location in this place as white settler colonists directly implicated in and benefiting from the structural conditions that create and sustain climate injustice. This work is offered in service to all of us working towards climate justice, as a small part of the work of building critical pedagogies of collective resistance that can grapple with the political and historical scale of climate injustice and its varied manifestations in the present conjuncture.

From the work of critical Indigenous scholars and organisers, we know that the overlapping environmental and social crises of the present moment are part of the same phenomenon, that they are all examples of climate injustice directly connected to the extractive and exploitative structures of colonial racial capitalism. As Euahlayi man Bhiamie Williamson has explained: “At the time it was unfolding, we knew it was hitting in areas that had really high populations of Aboriginal people, right along the eastern seaboard in particular….We mapped the demographic distribution of communities affected by those fires. What we found was that in NSW, Victoria, the ACT and Jervis Bay Territory: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 2.4% of the population, in areas directly impacted by fires, they made up 4.8%. So Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were twice as likely to be affected by those bushfires”5. For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as Ngarabul and Wirrayaraay Murri activist-scholar Philip Winzer points out, “the climate crisis, and the destruction it is wreaking on (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’) homelands, is just one manifestation of the abuse and violence fundamental to this occupation’s nature”1.

Climate injustice, in Winzer’s account, is a structure rather than an event6; an ongoing process of colonial occupation7. As a result, Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte points out, “Indigenous peoples…often perceive the burdens of climate-related risks through their experiences of already having been deeply harmed by the economic, industrial, and military drivers behind anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change”8. Indigenous climate justice thus begins from the recognition, as Gomeroi poet and scholar-activist Alison Whittaker puts it, that there is nothing “unprecedented” about the crisis conditions of the present conjuncture, nor the dominant political responses to them: not the widespread environmental destruction; not the spread of a new disease; nor the state’s “strategies of triage, and the stratified disposability of human lives”9. In other words, for many Indigenous peoples globally, the forms of destruction and precarity that accompany climate change in the present conjuncture are not new phenomena, but rather form (as Whyte puts it) part of a much longer and more “complex landscape of…colonial and capitalist domination linked to industrialization”8. This landscape is shaped by profound climate injustice. More broadly, the environmental justice movement has long theorised the disproportionate allocation of environmental harm along racial, class, and gendered lines; as Gonzalez writes, “Racism is thus not simply a form of bias or discrimination, but an integral part of a world system that subjects growing segments of the world’s population to precarity and premature death10. We invoke colonial racial capitalism in this discussion of climate change to remind us that the environmental harm wrought by capitalism is deeply entangled with racism, colonialism, and the exploitation of the working class10,11.

If climate injustice is the result of colonial racial capitalism and its sustaining fictions, then climate justice will require its abolition. And yet in dominant representations and responses to the compounding crises of the present conjuncture, this broader landscape of climate injustice is often overlooked in favour of accounts of individual disasters and ‘unprecedented’ risks. Here, we focus on the particular function that declarations of emergency and urgency serve in narrowing conversations about climate justice in this place. Of course, in contesting these narratives of emergency and urgency, we are not implying that the scale and threat of climate change is unimportant; or that there are not ‘tipping points’ or threshold limits that are worth paying attention to. It has long been clear that meaningful, structural transformations are needed if we are to create any semblance of climate justice in the future. The provocation that we offer in this article hinges around a critical re-examination of the function of discourses of urgency and emergency in orchestrating state responses to climate injustice; an invitation to critically re-think the use of this ‘emergency strategy’ in advocacy and activism around climate change in the present conjuncture.

In recent years, partly in response to the intensifying climate crisis globally, eco-activist groups, academics, discipline bodies, industry groups, government bodies, and other organisations have called for, or themselves declared, a climate emergency12. These declarations offer discursive and political consent for emergency actions on climate change, and have become a common-sense tool for climate activists determined to push for urgent transitions in climate policy. They are motivated, at least in part, by the idea that the slow and piecemeal responses of nation states globally to the threat of human-induced climate change come from a lack of awareness of the seriousness of the situation; the urgent need for action now. As Malm and the Zetkin Collective put it: “ever since climate change became a cause of concern, it has been widely assumed that people and policy-makers will deal with it rationally”; that if they “see the world actually starting to catch fire around them, surely they must wake up and spring into action”13.

The problem, of course, is that this is not usually what happens; and when it does happen, the emergency responses often serve to compound other sites of injustice and inequality even as they offer ‘solutions’ to the changing climate1,8,14,15,16,17,18. Writing from the present conjuncture, in which the impacts and outcomes of ‘emergency’ responses to a major environmental crisis—the COVID-19 pandemic—are reverberating throughout social and political systems19,20,21, we argue that it is essential that those of us concerned with climate justice recognise the limits and dangers of emergency responses to structural problems.

In this article, we engage conjunctural analysis and articulation-as-method (briefly described below), to consider the formation of climate emergency politics and its implications for climate justice. We do this by drawing on the rich existing body of critical Indigenous theory and activist scholarship that helps to sketch out the limitations of declarations of climate emergency and emergency responses to human-induced climate change. We make this argument in two ways. First, we begin by identifying the unbroken connections between the extractive and exploitative processes of European imperialism, racial capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and colonisation, re-positioning climate injustice as a long-standing consequence of colonial racial capitalism. If we understand climate injustice as a centuries-old process of colonial racial capitalism, then we must also recognise the limitations of ‘emergency’ responses to this ongoing process. From this line of inquiry, we argue that discourses of urgency and emergency can actually stand in the way of structural accounts of climate injustice that can tackle it from its roots.

Second, we begin to trace the more insidious function of emergency responses to climate injustice; not simply distracting, but destructive. By situating declarations of climate emergency within a longer history of emergency responses to ‘crises’ of colonial racial capitalism, we show how discourses of urgency and emergency have long been implicated in dispossession, violence, extraction, and colonial nation-building22,23,24,25. Drawing on the existing work of critical Indigenous scholars, organisers, and writers1,9,26,27,28,29,30, as well as broader scholarship on disaster capitalism17 and fossil fascism13,31, we argue that far from interrupting colonial racial capitalism, discourses and declarations of emergency can actually serve as fuel for exploitative and extractive regimes. In offering this critical re-examination of declarations of climate emergency, we aim to carve out more space for approaches to climate justice that tackle it from its roots in the nexus of “colonialism, capitalism, and industrialisation”15.


Conjunctural analysis

In this paper, we draw from conjunctural analysis and articulation theory to guide our interrogation of climate emergency politics. Conjunctural analysis is a method primarily used in cultural studies, comprising the analysis of power relations and formations and cultural phenomena, and the trends, tendencies, incidents, movements, and historical and material conditions affecting them, in a given context or timeframe32. Conjunctural analysis attends to crises and how they are managed, particularly the crises of colonial and capitalist regimes33. It is an orientation to the inquiry that seeks to inform and participate in political intervention32—as such, it tends to be used by feminist, queer, and critical race theorists, First Nations scholars, abolitionists, and anti-capitalists.

A method attached to conjunctural analysis particularly relevant to this work is articulation, which refers to the ways in which concepts, beliefs, institutions, cultural forms, meanings, practices, and politics, circulate in relation with each, cohere34, and become hegemonic35 or “commonsense knowledge and political convention”36 for particular groups, classes, or political subjects. Articulation-as-method enables the study of political meaning and socio-cultural constructs in their messy and complex contexts, and to think practices and phenomena (that may have different origins) together37, in ways that inform political intervention35. Conjunctural analysis and articulation equip us to investigate disparate components of social and political formations, attending to differences, tensions, and contradictions between elements, and grounding analysis in material conditions and struggle. As Jennifer Daryl Slack writes, “with and through articulation, we engage the concrete in order to change it, that is, to rearticulate it”35.


Climate change is colonialism

First Nations People are commonly acknowledged to be on the ‘frontlines’ of climate change. There are two key expressions of this; firstly, that Indigenous People are already experiencing the brunt of climate impacts, and secondly, that they have an important role to play in addressing climate change38,39. While we do not dispute that First Nations People are on the front lines of climate change, we argue that the way this idea is commonly expressed in (white-led) mainstream climate/environmental movements can miss or underplay the causal link between climate change and colonialism, or, to be more specific, colonial racial capitalism. This lens tends to focus on ideas of vulnerability and risk rather than the structural conditions that produce them, tending towards an ahistorical and depoliticised account of contemporary climate injustice.

Here, we begin instead by focusing on the political structures that produce and sustain climate injustice, both historically and in the present. Racial capitalism describes how capitalism relied on, and continues to rely on, racialisation as a means to sustain itself11. Primitive accumulation, for instance, often entailed the theft of land, people, and resources, which could only be justified, or deemed ‘legal’, when those being stolen or stolen from were racialised as less than fully human, disposable, less worthy and worth less40. Colonising nations sustained domestic capitalism, and then created global capitalism, by violently extracting people, resources, labour, and wealth from the places they colonised41,42. Because capitalism relied and relies on racism and colonialism to function, these unequal and unjust social relations cannot be extricated from capitalism as an economic system11,40. As Bhattacharrya43 argues: “capitalism cannot function if we are all allowed to become fully human”. Colonial powers reconfigured “relations of countless species, human and more-than-human, and their life-sustaining environments as a means to colonial/imperial/capital ends”44; a safe climate is one of the casualties of this reconfiguration.

Racial colonial capitalism and the removal of First Nations Peoples from their land, the disruption of ways of thinking and living and governing that had sustained people and places for millenia, are key drivers of climate change and ecological system collapse41,43,44,45. Birch41 reminds us that these changes to earth systems should not be seen as accidental (or inevitable), but as an outcome of deliberate, and often violent, interventions. Indeed, deliberate “climactic improvement” and the domination and transformation of “wild” land and waters was, is, central in colonial ideology46.

To the extent to which climate change is now an emergency, it is because it is becoming an emergency for the beneficiaries of colonial-capitalism. Many First Nations People have been on the ‘frontlines’ of environmental harm for centuries, from the beginning of their dispossession. Kyle Powys Whyte argues that:

“climate injustice is a recent episode of a cyclical history of colonialism inciting anthropogenic (human-caused) environmental change on Indigenous peoples (Wildcat). Indigenous peoples face climate risks largely because of how colonialism, in conjunction with capitalist economics, shapes the geographic spaces they live in and their socio-economic conditions… Climate injustice, for Indigenous peoples, is less about the spectre of a new future and more like the experience of déjà vu”47.

Similarly, Aboriginal scholar Professor Tony Birch41 argues, “For Indigenous people, the impact of climate change is not a future event. It has occurred in the past, and it is occurring now”. So, for many Indigenous People, climate change is not a new emergency, it is a long-standing, unfolding, catastrophe48. The way that First Nations People experience climate change in the present is often via the escalation or intensification of coloniality29,49. When non-Indigenous climate activists ignore this, we are not only innocenting ourselves of past and ongoing harms, we are positioning ourselves “to act as protagonists that will …save Indigenous peoples”15: the heroes of the story, ready to save the day.

Acknowledging the interconnectedness of colonialism, capitalism, and climate change is not a mere footnote, or thought exercise; it is a strategic intervention aimed at developing strategies and responses to climate change that tackle the root causes of climate injustice. As Pulido50 argues, “those parties most culpable for creating a new geologic era have actively sought to erase the power geometries that have produced it”. Therefore, we have a responsibility to work against that erasure and attend to those power geometries, to the co-constitution of colonialism, capitalism, and climate change, in mobilising climate action in the present conjuncture. The dispossession, theft, and genocide perpetrated by colonising nations is part of their (our) culpability in climate change, and also part of what we must address in order to address climate change and achieve climate justice.

This is the animating logic of this article. If we misunderstand and misrepresent the political-economic causes of climate change, we are likely to reinscribe the systems and relations that caused climate change, even in our efforts to address it. In turn, settler-colonial nation states will use these periods of crisis and disaster “to structure racial violence and dispossession”51, and, as we discuss in the remainder of this essay, we are concerned that climate emergency politics may be/come another means through which settler-colonial states maintain themselves, and the injustices that they rely on.

Emergency politics

Kreuder-Sonnen and White52 define emergency politics as, “actions breaking with established norms and rules that are rationalised as necessary responses to exceptional and urgent threats”. It is a mode of politics that provides legal and/or discursive justification for the suspension or loss of rights, liberties, and processes that are typically part of citizenship or afforded by the recognition of human rights, and that guide (and constrain!) decision-making52,53. Indeed, Scarry54 goes so far as to suggest that it is not only procedures that are suspended - thought itself stops so that action can be taken quickly. This aligns with what White55 describes as “heightened disavowals of agency, i.e. the capacity to choose freely between options”, during declared emergencies. The actions taken are rendered “unchosen and unavoidable” and unthought54, because of the emergency and the demands of the emergency moment.

One of the prominent critiques of emergency responses is that they tend to override other elements of liberal democratic order. Rights, liberties, procedures, and due process may all be sacrificed in the name of expediency and efficiency. Democratic processes and procedures, oversight bodies, civil and human rights are framed as an impediment to the kind of quick and decisive action the emergency demands53,56. State of emergency declarations and emergency powers often involve an “alteration in any of the three powers of government” during an extraordinary event57, with powers often moving from areas of higher oversight and greater proceduralism, into more discretionary and less accountable areas58. This reveals what Slaven and Heydon59 describe as “the lurking implication that emergency resists being governed in any inclusive or democratic way”.

The kinds of emergencies emergency politics responds to can include civil unrest, terrorism, armed conflicts, public health issues like a pandemic, failure of key infrastructure, and disasters (including ‘natural’ disasters, nuclear incidents, toxic/chemical spills)54,56. The deployment of emergency politics is widespread, however, there is little consistency and considerable uncertainty over what that entails in practice57. It is beyond the scope of this article to provide a review of emergency politics more generally; instead, we focus on its manifestations in the context of climate change and climate emergency declarations.

Climate emergency is a relatively recent addition to the suites of emergency that may be thought to demand emergency politics—it reflects the apocalyptic strand in mainstream environmental politics and discourse60 and, “the perceived failure of liberal democratic institutions to deal with the pressing problems of global warming”56. Although climate emergency declarations acknowledge this failure, the transformation of these institutions is rarely part of what these declarations suggest. As with emergency politics more generally, the strategies that emerge may work to foreclose possibility, to re/produce harmful or discriminatory conditions, and secure the status quo in all its injustices61,62. In the following sections, we give a brief overview and history of emergency politics in the climate movement, followed by existing critiques of climate emergency politics.

Emergency politics in the climate movement

The movement to declare a climate emergency began in Darebin, Australia, in 201663, and gained global momentum in 2019. It emerged from the work of social movements like the School Strike for Climate and Extinction Rebellion, work by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), environmental NGOs and other bodies concerned with climate change, increased media attention, and advocacy by scientists, journalists, and politicians, who note the increasing and compounding harms of climate change and the insufficiency of actions so far53,63,64,65. Some groups have themselves declared a climate emergency, others focus on lobbying the government and other institutions to do so. Emergency declarations have been issued by NGOs, industry groups, schools, local governments, sub-national state governments, national governments, and cross-national institutions, including the European Parliament. These declarations reflect an understanding of climate change as an existential, extinction-level threat53,66; a threat that has moved from the register of ‘future risk’ to an urgent threat and present unfolding harm65,67. Notably, most climate emergency declarations have been made in Global North countries, including those that are among the biggest contributors to climate change, like the UK, USA, Australia, and Canada64.

There is no universal definition for what it means to declare a climate emergency68; indeed, as declarations are issued by organisations of varying sizes and powers, the kinds of commitments declarations make vary considerably. Climate emergency declarations might include: issuing a statement acknowledging the severity and urgency of climate change; acknowledging the need for a set of (possibly extraordinary) policies or practices to address the emergency—an end to ‘business as usual’; a clear target for emissions reduction and/or carbon neutrality; the formation of new councils or assemblies to address climate change; re/affirming the organisation’s commitment to addressing climate change and/or acknowledging its responsibility in contributing to climate change; and/or undertaking awareness raising, education, and promotional activities12,66,68,69,70,71. Once a declaration is made, this might trigger an organisation to make or renew their climate action plan/climate strategy, redistribute resources to address climate change, institute new programs or activities oriented towards climate change, create new positions or assign new responsibilities to staff, create new targets, benchmarks and reporting structures, improve energy efficiency of buildings/infrastructure under their management, and/or encouraging the uptake of climate friendlier activities at the level of the individual67,72,73,74. Many, perhaps all, of the strategies included in climate emergency declaration plans do not seem to require any additional powers; as yet, these declarations do not seem to be triggering the kinds of governance changes typical to emergency politics. However, we do not think this is reason for complacency—centralising and expanding state powers, and reducing rights, oversight, and accountability are what emergency declarations and emergency politics are designed to do; to assume climate emergency declarations would not ever be put to that use is to assume they are and will only ever be empty gestures.

Existing critiques of climate emergency politics

There has been widespread critique of climate emergency declarations from a number of different angles. Indeed, some of these critiques are acknowledged even by those arguing for, or themselves declaring, climate emergencies12. In this section, we briefly review these critiques, with a particular emphasis on how climate emergency declarations may trouble climate justice.

Perhaps the most common critique is that climate emergency declarations are insubstantial, and that they operate in the realm of gestural, tokenistic, or performative politics63,66. The act of declaring a climate emergency does not necessarily mean that the path to effective climate action is any clearer, any better resourced, or supported by a better consensus64. There can be some value to performative actions - they can create opportunities for dialogue, accountability, and building solidarity63,64, but it may also amount to little more than greenwashing or virtue-signalling. McHugh et al.65 call climate emergency declarations, “a symbol of serious climate mobilization”—a symbol of action, we note, not action itself! Similarly, the South Australian Government’s statement illustrates the gestural work declarations do: “By declaring a climate emergency, South Australia is signalling its intentions to take action”69.

The UK offers an illustrative example. It was the first country to declare a climate emergency, and, beginning in late 2018, climate emergency declarations have been made by local authorities, large institutions like universities, and the national Parliament68,75. These declarations do not have consistent targets or demands; Carrol68 observes “many of the pledgees have committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030, a much more ambitious target than the UK government’s pledge to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions by 100 per cent - compared to 1990 levels - by 2050”. Although it has set some ambitious targets, the UK is not currently on track to meet them76,77. The Progress in reducing emissions: 2022 report to Parliament states that “credible plans exist for 39% of the required emissions reductions”, with some or significant risks associated with the plans for 57% of the emissions reductions, with no or very inadequate plans for the remaining ~5%77. Notably, the risks identified are not ones that could be readily overcome by emergency declarations or politics. The risks identified are a lack of public engagement, a lack of accountability in governance, skill gaps in the workforce, a reliance on technical solutions and untested technologies, and a lack of adaptation planning77. Arguably, these are all areas made worse by emergency politics, which work to reduce opportunities for public engagement, deliberative democracy, democratic accountability and oversight, diversifying epistemologies and modes of governance, and can justify “risky experimentation with geoengineering of climate or interventions in ecosystems”65. As such, the fight to get an emergency declared may be seen as ineffective, a distraction from more direct forms of organising and action, or a way for an institution to appease a concerned public - to appear to be taking climate change seriously, but without undertaking serious, structural change.

Others have critiqued emergency declarations and climate crisis politics because of the politics from which they often spring - an environmentalism that proclaims itself apolitical, ‘above’ other forms of political struggle59,75,78. This apoliticism is largely only sustainable when climate change is viewed as distinct from all other forms of inequality and struggle, and is not linked to racism and colonialism via capitalism, as outlined above. This attempt to do apolitical climate action misconstrues the causes of environmental harm and the kinds of change climate justice demands.

Relatedly, emergency politics has been criticised for narrowing the horizons of political possibility in ways that ultimately serve existing structures62. Hulme argues that climate emergencies constrain political possibility to narrow metrics relating to emissions reductions, but that this will fall short on delivering climate just futures—“meeting the challenge of climate change for future human well-being demands a proliferation of diverse policy goals, the very opposite of what states of exception bring into being”53. The myopic focus on reducing emissions could detract from the climate justice movement, and struggles for decolonisation and equitable redistribution of stolen wealth75,79, and even from climate adaptation68. The narrowness of climate emergency discourse can also obfuscate concurrent and co-constituting crises, and it is unclear what compounding impact multiple extant emergencies could have on democracy and governance14,65.

Others take issue with how ‘emergency’ mischaracterises the temporality of climate change, in both directions. As discussed above, causes of climate change and its impacts are older than the present era of floods, droughts, fires, and melts might suggest. The notion that we are just now entering a climate catastrophe is a reflection of the extreme imbalance in the distribution of environmental harm. While white-dominated organisations in the Global North might be preparing to declare a climate emergency, for others, the emergency is well under way—“‘Code Red’ passed a long time ago, whereas others are protected by privilege from its full force”64. So understood, we can see how climate injustice is an expression of, and a continuation of, the racial and colonial orderings on which global capitalism relies1,80.

The other issue with the temporality of emergencies is that they are supposed to be temporary81. Indeed, “‘emergency’ can speak to an affective desire to return to the status quo64; we agree to these temporary measures in order to get back to “normal”, sooner. As discussed above, part of the purpose of emergency politics is to enable governments to suspend usual checks and balances, procedures, and rights, in the name of expediency. The limits on political deliberation, the suspension of rights or civil liberties, public debate, the increased powers for police, defence forces, and other authorities are framed as necessary and tolerable because they are, ostensibly, limited in duration.

There are two issues with this in the light of climate change, and climate justice. Firstly, as stated above, climate change is not a typical emergency in that it is, has been, and will be, unfolding over lifetimes. Climate injustice is a problem of decades and centuries. It is unclear how long the ‘acute’ phase of the climate emergency will be (or how many acute phases there will be), and thus, how long emergency measures could be theoretically justified. As Hulme53 argues, “once a climate emergency is declared it is hard to see how it can be undeclared”. Secondly, although emergency measures are supposed to be temporary, this is not always the case. Emergency measures are not always unwound, and they “generate echoes”55 and “enduring legacies”65 that can continue to shape day-to-day governance.

The final critique of climate emergency politics we’d like to reflect on relates to inequality and injustice. Because emergency politics works to redistribute power in ways that tend to concentrate it in areas of less democratic accountability, this can exacerbate existing power imbalances and reinforce the dominance of existing ways of knowing and governing55,61,65. Climate emergency politics encourages a ‘wartime’ level of mobilisation - it is a driver of securitisation approaches to climate change, reinscribing nationalism and militarised borders and ‘us versus them’ modes of politics61,65,75,82. Far from bringing about climate justice, this is likely to serve and perpetuate western domination and hegemony83.

A possible outcome of climate emergency politics and securitisation is the emergence of what Wainwright and Mann call a “Climate Leviathan”84. The Climate Leviathan is a kind of “planetary sovereign”84, not dissimilar to the empire-building regimes of the past, which displaces the nation-state as the means by which (racial) capitalism secures itself, and is wholly incompatible with climate justice. Climate justice cannot emerge by further empowering the settler colonial liberal state or climate empire. By reducing democratic oversight and scrutiny in times of crisis, we primarily see a loss of power and agency for everyday people and communities, and its concentration in the hands of existing power-holders. This is almost precisely the opposite of that which climate justice demands45,54,85.


From this analysis of climate emergency declarations and the existing critiques of them, we note that while climate emergency declarations are often drawn from an understanding of climate change as urgent and catastrophic, the plans that follow an emergency declaration do not tend to match this understanding. Structural change and the need to transform (or abolish) the political and economic systems that have produced climate change are ignored64 in favour of policies and actions broadly consistent with neoliberalism and global capitalist hegemony, like incentivising electric vehicles, or allocating funds to switch streetlights to LEDs.

And yet, it would be unwise to assume climate emergency politics will continue largely in the rhetorical realm, given what we know about other expressions of emergency politics, and what the legislative frameworks of declared states of emergency permit. Colonial states use disasters to consolidate themselves51, and in the following section, we explore this concern that climate emergency politics may reinforce the structures of racial colonial capitalism that cause climate change and climate injustice. Moving beyond the concern that climate emergency declarations are ineffective and demobilising, we focus now on the danger of substantiating the emergency politics of the climate crisis. We offer an overview of some of the existing ways that emergency and crisis have been actively operationalised in the service of exploitation and extraction, drawing on the close at hand example of the COVID-19 pandemic and our location in the much-promised ‘return to normal.’ Drawing together diverse literature from critical Indigenous theories of colonisation, accounts of “disaster capitalism”17 and “disaster colonialism”51, and “fossil fascism”13,31, we offer a cautionary account of the ways that discourses of emergency and crisis serve as key tools through which settler colonialism and racial capitalism are consolidated.


Is it too late to avoid dangerous climate change? It’s worth considering that it really is too late to avoid environmental injustices against indigenous peoples—whether connected to exposure to dangerous climate change itself or to harms stemming from how certain societies choose to mitigate climate change. Part of why it’s too late has to do with how urgency and alarm are expressed problematically in climate change media, literatures, publicity, education, advocacy, research, and political rhetoric and conflict16.

Climate injustice, as we have explained already in this article, is not a new phenomenon but an essential component of regimes that rely on domination and exploitation. Writing from our own location on the unceded lands of the Yuggera and Turrbal Peoples in Meeanjin/Brisbane, we focus in particular on the long and sustained link between climate injustice and colonisation1,5,9,29,45,86. The ecological and climate systems of this continent have been carefully managed and maintained by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People from time immemorial. These systems were violently interrupted by the imposition of colonial order and the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People from their homelands. The existing modes of ecological and environmental management and kinship were replaced by sedentary and permanent settlements, often built (like the city of Meeanjin/Brisbane, from which we write) in areas that were highly vulnerable to floods, fires, cyclones, or droughts87. The resultant environmental disasters should have served as demonstrations of colonial illegitimacy and the failure of colonial projects. Instead, they were repurposed as fuel for colonial expansion and nation-building: forging myths of settler colonial mateship and a national identity of triumph against the odds.

In part, as we argue in this article, this is because crises—including environmental crises—have long been key to the construction and consolidation of structures of domination. As Cedric Robinson11 has pointed out, the origins of contemporary racial capitalism, for example, can be found in the crisis conditions of the transition from feudalism to proto-capitalism in Europe; a transition that was managed through the imposition of hierarchies of “antagonistic difference” that enabled the continued exploitation and enslavement of some people, even as others were ‘freed’ from the bounds of serfdom18,88. Heteropatriarchal violence and enforced control of sexuality and reproduction emerged in the aftermath of the crisis conditions of war, famine, and plague that shaped early modern Europe89,90,91. Contemporary regimes of incarceration and policing were the result of crises in earlier models of punishment and discipline which provoked outrage among citizens and the danger of civil unrest92,93. And the violent invasion and occupation of the lands and waters of the First Nations of this continent served as a means of managing crises of overcrowding and class unrest in Britain after the American War of Independence saw the cessation of convict transportation to the Americas94.

Emergency and crisis are not exceptional events but rather key modes of operation that modern nation states and their agents have used to reinstate and reinvigorate themselves. As the infamous former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill, is rumoured to have said of wartime Britain: “never waste a crisis!” Of course, this also means that periods of crisis present opportunities for transformation and radical disruption. As Mununjahli and South Sea Islander scholar and writer Chelsea Watego has argued, this is essential to understanding the organising and strategising of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples in so-called Australia. How to find opportunities in the crisis conditions of the colony is precisely what “Blackfullas can teach everyone else”, Watego argues95.

The radical possibilities of periods of crisis have also been examined by journalist and writer Rebecca Solnit96, who theorised that the way that counter-hegemonic spaces emerge during and after environmental disasters helps to explain how crises serve as sites in which the horizon of possibility shifts, so that previously unimaginable social and political relationships can emerge. Arundhati Roy referred to this process in the early months of the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 through the metaphor of the portal. At the beginning of the pandemic, in early 2020, she wrote that “historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and another”97.

These reminders are important in clarifying that our goal here is not to suggest that periods of crisis are completely foreclosed; nor that intensifying domination and exploitation is the only response to climate crisis. Instead, our attention is more narrowly directed to understanding how a strategy of climate emergency declarations functions in the political conditions of the present conjuncture. It is from this closer analysis of climate emergency that we came to notice the ways that “a focus on functional notions of crisis management risks eclipsing the many dimensions of crisis exploitation52, thus preventing climate organisers from attending to the ways that discourses of emergency and urgency are manipulated and repurposed to maintain unequal and oppressive power relations.

It is this oversight that we suggest is a particular problem for those committed to a strategy of climate emergency declarations in still-colonial states like Australia. Discourses of urgency and emergency are not neutral, and they do not arrive as tools for climate activism free from political legacy. As Naomi Klein wrote in her groundbreaking 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, for example, disasters—from environmental disasters like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, to manufactured crises like the US military invasion of Iraq—serve as important sites of profiteering and exploitation by design17. Klein describes how foreign property developers in Sri Lanka took advantage of “the atmosphere of panic” that resulted from the devastating 2004 tsunami, offering to buy up “the entire beautiful coastline…(to) build large resorts, blocking hundreds of thousands of fishing people from rebuilding their villages near the water”17. She offers a similar example from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where corporate lobbyists presented the mass destruction wrought on the city as a “clean start” and a “fresh slate” on which a “smaller, safer city” could be re-built17.

The examples of what Klein describes as the “shock doctrine” are numerous and expansive. As we wrote this article, both the Queensland state government and the federal government were manufacturing ‘crime’ crises in order to legitimise massive expansions to carceral and coercive apparatus; ‘emergencies’ that warranted ‘emergency responses.’ As Watego reflected: “the discourse of *urgency* in ‘Indigenous anything’ is a strategy of violence in the settler colonial project”98. These processes mirrored earlier emergency responses, including the 2007 Northern Territory Intervention, which saw a military-led intervention in the Northern Territory as well as sweeping powers of surveillance and control implemented under an orchestrated “emergency response” to (now largely debunked) allegations of child sexual abuse and alcohol-fuelled violence in remote Aboriginal communities99,100,101. To enable this emergency response, the federal government had to suspend the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act99; and during the intervention, the federal government took over control of Aboriginal homelands that had previously been handed back under the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act.

From invasion into the present, environmental disasters have been operationalised as tools for settler colonial nation-building and myth-making, and the linkage of emergency powers and racial control goes to the heart of settler colonialism. Violent racial and colonial logics of “clean slates” and “fresh starts” are the founding logics of settler colonisation; terra nullius was, after all, a strategic disappearing102 of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People from lands that were required to manage the crisis conditions of the metropole. As we confront intensifying environmental and political crises in the present conjuncture, we must actively attend to the ways that environmental crises have been operationalised in this place, and build strategies for addressing climate injustice that deal with it from its roots103. As argued by The Red Nation:

“Why is it easier for some to imagine the end of fossil fuels but not settler colonialism? To imagine green economies and carbon-free, wind turbine, solar power, and electric bullet train utopias but not the return of Indigenous lands? It’s not an either/or scenario. Both are possible — and necessary”104.

These histories and examples help to explain why it is critical that climate organisers understand the long linkages and logics that animate emergency responses in this place. As Robin DG Kelley has argued: “crisis, moral panics, neoliberal policies, and racism fuel an expansive system of human management based on incarceration, surveillance, containment, pacification, lethal occupation and gross misrepresentation”105. Sri Lanka in 2004, New Orleans in 2005, and the Northern Territory in 2007 are all places with deep colonial legacies, and the responses to these (real and manufactured) crises were configured around long-standing logics of racial and ethnic exclusion. This is why we are so concerned by the take-up of discourses and declarations of climate emergency in the present conjuncture, particularly in the absence of a simultaneous disruption of the colonial racial capitalist logics that both create and profit off climate injustice.

The importance of critically examining the function of discourses of emergency has been laid bare in the present conjuncture by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic response. The exigencies of the pandemic were used to justify, reinforce, and reproduce racist, discriminatory, and violent border policies and policing strategies22,23. As States consolidated and created new powers, already-marginalised communities were disproportionately victimised by the emergency powers of the pandemic response22,23,106. In some places, COVID-19 emergency restrictions were used to refuse access to abortions; elsewhere, queer, trans, and gender-diverse people, sex workers, and members of minority ethnic groups, faced increased policing, violence, and restrictions on their autonomy and human rights106. Here, in so-called Australia, we saw significantly different approaches to the policing and enforcement of pandemic restrictions between wealthier, whiter neighbourhoods and poorer neighbourhoods with a higher proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and people of colour22,107. Victorian police disproportionately gave fines for breaching COVID-19 rules to Aboriginal and Sudanese people22, and people of colour were often blamed for outbreaks or the disease itself107,108. Incarcerated people (again, disproportionately Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, as well as people with disabilities and survivors of violence) faced additional restrictions on their rights, including solitary confinement, more time spent on remand, loss of contact with family, legal counsel, and support services, as well as increased risk of contracting COVID-1922,109. Basic safety tools, like PPE, even soap, were denied to many prisoners22,110. All this was justified through the discourse of ‘emergency’ and ‘crisis’. We are concerned that climate emergency politics may enable similar measures and politics. Regressive carbon taxes111, (colonial) displacement via managed retreat112,113 can disregard the disproportionate, sometimes catastrophic, material impacts on marginalised people, and yet the harm may be excused as the unavoidable result of emergency measures.

The logics that have animated the COVID-19 emergency response in so-called Australia have their origins in racial capitalism and colonialism, and they are critical to understanding the emerging phenomenon that Cara Daggett has described as “fossil fascism”31 and the dangers of discourses of climate emergency. In White Skin, Black Fuel, Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective offer a “history of the conjuncture of climate change and nationalist politics” in part to come to terms with the complicated relationship between climate change and hard-right fascism in the present13. They describe “the evolution of a set of ideas about climate and nation, energy and race” that stretches from climate denialism to contemporary eco-fascism13. As Satgar114 points out in his analysis of eco-fascism—movements and ideologies that aim to address climate change through a reinvigoration of racial domination and nationalism—the linkage of environmental protection and racial power is not necessarily new. Rather, it dates back to earlier periods when “conservationists believed that race purity was also about the purity of the land”114.

The “greening of hate”, Satgar argues, “has historical roots, but is also expressing itself ideologically in a new context”114. Part of the reason that this phenomenon appears to be “new” is that for a long time climate denialism was a key feature of conservative and fascist ideology. The outright denial of climate change and its associated threat to human life has been a key part of conservative political rhetoric in so-called Australia for decades, and it has enabled the emergence of a kind of binary “left” and “right” politics around climate justice that narrows discussions of climate justice to a debate between climate denialism and climate emergency. The implications of this political narrowing was explained to us while we were writing this chapter, by a dear friend who is a city councillor on the notoriously conservative city council of our home city Meeanjin/Brisbane. Early in their time as a city councillor they called on the Brisbane City Council to declare a climate emergency. We asked them about what had led them to make this call, which seemed surprising given their broadly radical and abolitionist politics around climate justice. They explained that at the time, climate emergency was operating as a kind of counterpoint to climate denialism; so much so, that refusing to declare a climate emergency was tantamount to refusing to accept the existence of climate change altogether.

This tendency for discourses and declarations of urgency and emergency to narrow the realm of possible responses into binary choices between doing nothing or accepting an authoritarian and undemocratic emergency response has been laid bare in so-called Australia during COVID-19. From liberal, progressive, and left spaces, the response to COVID-19 denial or minimisation was often to advocate more authoritarian restrictions and harsher penalties for those found to be breaching guidelines. Often, this would be framed as an expression of solidarity with front-line workers, disabled people, and other more vulnerable groups. Yet in practice, these restrictions and penalties were disproportionately wielded against people of colour, First Nations People, incarcerated people, and others who were also at heightened risk during the pandemic. ‘Green hate’ was also expressed during COVID-19; we saw a thread of ecofascistic glee as death rates mounted, with (certain) humans framed as “the real virus”, their deaths celebrated as a boon for the environment, and deemed a justifiable sacrifice in the face of climate and environmental emergencies115.

In this paper, we have highlighted the link between climate change, colonialism, and capitalism, and the ways that emergency politics have been used by the settler-colonial nation state to consolidate itself. If our goal is climate justice, and not merely climate mitigation and adaptation that leaves existing inequities intact, emergency politics has little to offer. We have noted that so far, climate emergency declarations are largely ineffective in achieving their stated goals, but this is not our primary concern— if they were effective, we would be even more concerned about the implications of their use. As discussed in section “Emergency politics in the climate movement”, there yet remains some distance between climate emergency declarations and the kinds of authoritarian politics often justified by emergency politics, and we hope this paper serves as a timely caution. For, while we cannot make firm predictions, there are troubling precedents where systems established to respond to environmental disasters are used to sustain the oppression of marginalised people. For instance, the U.S. Emergency Management Assistance Compact was established to support disaster response and relief116; its powers have been used against Black and Indigenous movements for justice, notably those protesting the police after the death in custody of Freddie Gray, and the water protectors at Standing Rock117.

By learning from histories of emergency politics as practiced in the settler colony and from long-standing critiques of Indigenous scholars globally, we argue that climate emergency politics may actively stymie our attempts to create climate just futures. Discourses and practices of emergency politics tend to reinforce existing modes of governing and knowing, increase the use of authoritarian, militaristic, and carceral measures, reduce opportunities for participatory and accountable decision-making, and reinscribe exploitative settler colonial capitalism as the ‘status quo’ to which we seek to return. We note that the push for climate emergency declarations is generally coming from more liberal, progressive, even left-wing groups, who may well also hold critiques of the state and desire more equitable modes of governing and distributing benefits and harms. And yet, in their (our!) legitimate frustration, desperation, and fear, we often find ourselves co-opted into a crisis politics that obfuscates and reproduces colonial power and capitalist hegemony.

Because emergency politics is increasingly prevalent62, it is a readily available and familiar rationality, discourse, politics, for social movements to reach for. And yet, it is an approach that is likely to leave the political economies that created climate change largely untouched in efforts to address it. Furthermore, climate emergency politics is readily open to co-option by ecofascist movements, who can use (and are already using) the climate emergency to justify militarised borders, eugenics, massacres, and genocide. Fascist movements in the 1930s and 1940s used ‘crisis’ to sacralise the nation state, and to justify treating certain populations as sacrificial118. We have already seen ecofascist and Malthusian concerns in the manifestos of mass murderers, like the Christchurch and El Paso shooters119,120. Environmentalism is not inherently progressive or emancipatory. So, while climate emergency politics may have emerged from progressive environmental movements, it is a politics readily available for co-option by the settler colonial state, and by ecofascists.

In developing this critique of climate emergency declarations, we encourage those who support climate justice to direct their energies elsewhere. We must attend to the ways crises and emergencies are used strategically to serve the existing, inequitable order62. We must attend to Whyte’s warning that, “people who perpetuate colonialism often imagine that their wrongful actions are defensible because they are responding to some crisis. They assume that to respond to a crisis, it is possible to suspend certain concerns about justice and morality”28. We must not allow climate action to be reduced to emissions reductions, ignoring all other facets of climate and environmental injustice. And we must actively oppose climate colonialism, climate securitisation, and the ways alt-right and fascistic movements leverage climate change for their destructive ends.

Scarry54 warns, “If it is perilous to cede our collective political responsibilities to any single authority under normal peacetime conditions, it is far more perilous to do so when vast injuries to the earth’s people, and to the earth itself, are at stake”. To take collective responsibilities in ways consistent with climate justice, enacting what Táíwò calls collaborative climate politics121, requires foregrounding Indigenous self-governance and self-determination as “a necessary political corrective”45. The dystopian eco-fascism of the present conjuncture is a direct descendent of the imperial occupations and colonial regimes that persist into the present. The tools and strategies required to challenge these dynamics therefore already exist, theorised, held, and practiced by First Nations Peoples and all those organising for emancipation from capitalist colonial oppression. As Winzer1 puts it: “the opportunity this crisis presents (is) to end these toxic, dysfunctional and imbalanced relationships once and for all”. Not an emergency response, but a structural transformation.

Reporting summary

Further information on research design is available in the Nature Research Reporting Summary linked to this article.