In recent weeks, we have seen major protests regarding climate change all over the world. Organized in Switzerland by the Climate Strike movement, their goal is to raise awareness about the imminent threat climate change poses our societies. This goal is translated in three main demands : the enactment of a climate state of emergency by local, regional and national parliaments, the elaboration of legislative tools to zero out the carbon emissions caused by human activities by 2030 and the implementation of climate justice measures that would force entities responsible for climate change to pay the full social cost of their carbon emissions. While these demands are without a doubt justified by a real and imminent threat to human society, it is worth to take a closer look at them and particularly the first one; the enactment of an “Etat d’Urgence Climatique”.

What is a state of emergency then? Depending on the definition given by each country’s constitution, it commonly refers to the allocation of extraordinary powers to the executive branch of a government in troubled times. Those extraordinary powers vary in nature from case to case, depending on the needs of the situation but they generally limit the rights of individuals guaranteed by the constitution in normal times. Historically used in times of war, revolution or other civil unrest, it has been most recently enacted (in the West) by President Trump on the border with Mexico or by France following the Bataclan attacks in 2016. Those two examples can give us an idea what happens when such a legal tool is used in the western world. In the case of Trump’s national emergency, it allowed him to redirect army personnel and resources to strengthen border security without congressional approval. The French presidency enacted an “Etat d’Urgence” on the night of the Bataclan attacks to conduct extensive house searches (over 3500 in 6 months) and house arrest procedures.

Both of those states of emergency may seem extreme and far off the measures that would be taken to combat climate change, but it is nevertheless important to examine the formal aspects of those measures. The Climate Strike movement should remember that two weeks after the Bataclan attacks, on the eve of the COP 21 (an international conference on climate change), 24 climate activists were targeted by house arrests because they planned protests despite the ban pronounced by the government on the basis of a state of emergency. Back then, the French government was heavily criticized by climate activists for those restrictive measures.

Furthermore, back in Switzerland, there is no legal standing ground for a state of emergency. The cantons that have passed one have in fact enacted non-binding motions and some (like Neuchatel) have outright refused to endorse such motions as they restrict their citizens in their fundamental rights. Concrete measures must be taken through the appropriate channels such as initiatives and legislative motions to achieve the needed change to tackle the diverse climate issues.

In conclusion, while the intent of the climate movement is without a doubt just and noble, the democratic process must be respected in order to create a change that lasts.

Bernhard Bieri