The Critical Classroom – “Emergent Spaces of Emergency Claims: Possibilities and Contestation in a National Climate Emergency Declaration”

Raven Cretney (University of Waikato) and Sylvia Nissen (Lincoln University)

In our open access paper “Emergent Spaces of Emergency Claims: Possibilities and Contestation in a National Climate Emergency Declaration” (available in the September 2022 issue of Antipode, volume 54, number 5, pages 1566-1584) we discuss how the idea of a “climate emergency” has been mobilised in multiple ways by different actors to make sense of the current political moment and imagine trajectories for social and political change in Aotearoa New Zealand. The multiple and contested meanings attributed to the idea of a climate emergency provide insight into the political dynamics of emergency politics and provoke important questions around how we imagine and enact just climate action, particularly through activist movements.

Through our analysis we identify three core claims of emergency in the debate surrounding the National Climate Emergency Declaration in Aotearoa: emergency as an objective truth, an activating property, and a responsibility. Through these claims, different voices for transformation, change and the status quo are represented. Discussion on these topics can help unpack can see how climate emergency claims can be used to foster vibrant debate around political action and climate change, or alternatively foreclose contestation and reinforce the status quo.

We envisage that this paper would be useful in undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral level coursework on topics related to climate activism, climate justice, disaster and emergency politics, and social movements. We draw on a number of ideas from human geography theory to critically understand how ideas of emergency are engaged with by activists and politicians around climate change. These ideas, alongside our discussion, could be used to explore questions around power, voice, responsibility and representation in debates surrounding climate change and emergency politics.

This paper could be used to explore questions such as:

  • How are emergency claims used by different actors to enable different political messages?
  • How do climate emergency declarations differ from other types of emergency?
  • What are the implications for climate action through an emergency lens?
  • How do ideas of climate change and emergency impact people with different vulnerabilities and at intersections of vulnerability (i.e. BIPOC communities, disabled people, women and gender minorities)?
  • What does just climate action look like? Do ideas of emergency help or hinder this sort of transformative change?


Maria Bargh and David Hall (contributor to and editor of, respectively, A Careful Revolution: Towards a Low-Emissions Future [Bridget Williams Books, 2019]) on “the low-emissions transition” at the Policy Fix, a podcast by the Policy Observatory at Auckland University of Technology (AUT)

Cop26 activists demand Biden declare climate emergency at protest held by Indigenous leaders”—a short video from November 2021 by the Guardian News on YouTube

Emilee Gilpin, “Urgency in climate change advocacy is backfiring, says Citizen Potawatomi Nation scientist”—an article published in Canada’s National Observer in February 2019

Áine Kelly-Costello, Kaeden Watts and Adam Currie, “Give power to Māori and marginalised communities and we’ll get through the climate emergency”—an article published in The Spinoff in December 2020

Farhana Sultana, “Climate change, COVID-19, and the co-production of injustices: A feminist reading of overlapping crises”—an article published in Social & Cultural Geography in 2021, volume 22, issue 4, pages 447-460

“Climate Emergency Banner (3621796387)”—Takver from Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Extinction Rebellion-12”—Julia Hawkins, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “School Strike for Climate in Wellington 09”—David Tong, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons