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UK Parliament First in World to Declare Climate Emergency

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Extinction Rebellion environmental activists block traffic in the financial district of the City of London during rush hour on April 25 London. WIktor Szymanowicz / NurPhoto / Getty Images

The UK parliament became the first national legislative body in the world to declare a climate change "emergency" Wednesday. The historic move closely follows Extinction Rebellion protests that blocked traffic in key parts of central London for a week in April.


The protest had three demands: that the UK government "tell the truth" about climate change, that it achieve carbon neutrality by 2025 and that it create a citizens' assembly to help with that process. The protesters embraced parliament's decision Wednesday as a step towards meeting their first demand.

The emergency declaration was proposed by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

"Today, we have the opportunity to say, 'We hear you,'" Corbyn told parliament, according to Reuters. "By becoming the first parliament in the world to declare a climate emergency, we could, and I hope we do, set off a wave of action from parliaments and governments all around the world."

The motion was approved without a vote and registers the views of the House of Commons without compelling the government to act on any particular policy proposal, BBC News explained. It also calls for the government to work towards carbon neutrality before 2050 and for ministers to draft proposals within the next six months to restore the country's environment and create a "zero waste economy."

Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May had chosen not to whip party members against the motion. Her Environment Secretary Michael Gove acknowledged the threat posed by climate change, but refused to outright declare an emergency, The Independent reported. He did promise legislation shortly to tackle both climate change and "broader ecological degradation."

"Not only do I welcome the opportunity that this debate provides, I also want to make it clear that on this side of the house we recognise that the situation we face is an emergency. It is a crisis, it is a threat, that all of us have to unite to meet," Gove said during the debate, as The Guardian reported.

However, Green Member of Parliament Caroline Lucas challenged the conservative record on climate during the debate, pointing to the party's approval for a third runway at Heathrow airport. Also on Wednesday a judges ruled against green groups and local governments who had challenged the runway, partly on the grounds that it was a breach of the UK's commitment to the Paris agreement, The Guardian reported.

Climate activists were cautiously optimistic about the declaration. Greta Thunberg, who addressed the UK's parliament last week, tweeted her support.

"Now other nations must follow. And words must turn into immediate action," she wrote.


Greenpeace UK
Politics head Rebecca Newsom said the declaration was a long time coming.

"The best time to declare a climate emergency was 30 years ago; the second best time is now," she said in a statement reported by Reuters.

Both Gove and Corbyn promised to challenge U.S. President Donald Trump on his climate denialism. Gove said he would raise the issue with Trump when he visits the UK in June, according to The Guardian.

"We pledge to work as closely as possible with countries that are serious about ending the climate catastrophe and make clear to US President Donald Trump that he cannot ignore international agreements and action on the climate crisis," Corbyn said in his remarks Wednesday, as BBC News reported.

Regional and municipal UK governments have already declared climate emergencies, among them Wales, Scotland, Manchester and London.

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