Alarming!: The Rhetoric of Warning

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This is the fifth post in the series Historians Confront the Climate Emergency, hosted by ActiveHistory.caNiCHE (Network in Canadian History & Environment)Historical Climatology, and Climate History Network.

The rhetoric of warning, emergency, and alarm is everywhere in climate change coverage. Headlines flag the recent release of the IPCC-1 as our “starkest warning yet,”1 cities and institutions around the world announce climate emergencies, and academic studies draw on the metaphor of the fire alarm in an effort to convey the urgency of the crisis.2 As different as each of these registers are, they all invest in the view that warnings are not idle but activating: that they will do something. Greta Thunberg is perhaps the best-known public commentator to combine all three of these rhetorical terms—warning, emergency, and alarm—in her many calls for climate action. Consider her speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on 25 January 2019 in which she focuses on the latter, the fire alarm.  “Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire.” In the conclusion to her speech, she returns to the metaphor of the house on fire: “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

I agree that the climate crisis is an emergency. I agree with the warnings and alarms. But I also wonder if there is a saturation point on climate warnings and alarms? And, worse, I wonder if they might thwart the very action for which they advocate? To be sure, immediate and sustained climate action is necessary and it has never been more urgent than now. News media have translated the science into terms that gain the attention of a general reading public. And Thunberg’s mobilization of phrases like “our house is on fire” have catalyzed action, contributed to a worldwide youth movement focused on climate action, and inspired global movements like Extinction Rebellion. They’ve also given ballast to the Green New Deal and related proposals for a green economy less wedded to sustainability discourses. One would be hard-pressed to say that her rhetoric of warning, emergency, alarm, and warning has had no impact. But has this rhetoric had other, less inspiring, impacts as well? 

Consider J. L. Austin’s work on speech act theory. His elaboration of the warning as a performative—a speech act that performs what it says—in How to Do Things with Words  maintains that warnings need to meet three requirements: they should signal an immediate danger, they should be plausible, and there should be clear protocols for action.3 Although most climate warnings meet the first two requirements, many do not meet the last requirement. Because there are few clear protocols for climate action on individual, local, national, global, or planetary scales, the alarm is sounded but often those who heed the alarm are not sure what to do next. 

There’s a clear sequence for the house on fire scenario: the alarm rings, the inhabitants of the house are alerted, they leave the house, they call the fire department. But how does this metaphor translate for climate action? Not well. To be sure, the alarms may be rung, and people may even leave the real or figurative house (an endangered territory or region or, in some cases, country). But who exactly is the fire department? Is it the government? Corporations? Individuals? The IPCC? Indigenous elders? Policy makers? All of the above?4 There are lots of impassioned views on where to turn but little agreement. Two things are clear however: there has been no effective resolution thus far; and given that we have only a decade to act decisively, it is highly unlikely that these debates will be resolved in a way that yields effective action in that time.

We have been warned about the climate crisis, the alarm bells have been ringing for decades, but carbon emissions continue to rise (even with the significant slowing down of the economy during Covid).5 So, too, do racial and economic injustices, to which the climate crisis is inextricably bound. And so, while warnings have been effective in some ways, they have not been effective in the ways that are most necessary. In fact, they may be counterproductive. They may be bolstering the very neoliberal economy that many climate thinkers hold responsible for preventing action on the climate crisis in the first place. The alarms instill fear. And fear is a powerful vector through which neoliberalism operates. It enables, as we saw in the wake of 9/11, actions — the passing of bills and the waging of wars — that would otherwise be met with greater resistance and dissent. It enables, as we saw then and continue to see now, the introduction of surveillance systems and the limiting of certain freedoms (and the exercise of others), while providing the rationale for a whole set of regulations, loosenings, and austerity claims that would have been unimaginable without the alarm. The alarms, in short, terrify. 

When we feel “under tension,” the actions we most desire are those that will reassure us that we should not be afraid, actions that contradict the alarm, throwing its very validity into question. If we are, as a society, investing in oil companies, for example, and bailing them out in the pandemic, then surely the climate crisis is not as bad as we think. If our friends are flying and living as they usually do and, importantly, if we do too, then surely the calls to alarm are not merited. For as Bruno Latour notes, climate projections are descriptions (constatives) that are also warnings (performatives). The problem is that because they do not dictate specific actions adequate to the climate predicament (and, I would argue cannot), we seek solace elsewhere. It is a situation designed to make us all climate deniers for the welcome relief that such denial brings.6 We want to believe that those projections do not mean what they seem to mean.

What is the alternative? Here I find Walter Benjamin’s commentary on the rhetoric of the fire alarm in the interwar years helpful. It offers insight into both why warnings to date have been unsuccessful and how, inflected differently, they might succeed. Writing in the years leading up to the Second World War, Benjamin presciently remarks that the continuous alarm is the catastrophe. What is needed in its place, he argues, is not the state of emergency that a constant ringing of the alarm registers but rather a “real state of emergency” spurred by what he calls “interruption.”7 Alarms, warnings, and emergencies should interrupt our lives. They should ask us to stop what we’re doing and to respond to the alarm. In the absence of a clear course of action, what might it mean to hold open the interruption? 

Benjamin’s call for interruption, variously defined, is tricky precisely because it is performed. Its performance resists representation in language just as it also resists the temporal models to which we’re often accustomed in the Global North (and, notably, on which the alarm relies).8 Benjamin’s rethinking of temporality in tandem with his materialist history draws out a point that anatomies of alarm often neglect: the privileging of interruption as a critical mode to address social and political crisis. In doing so, Benjamin divides the potential work of the alarm between a call to action, an anxious awareness of danger (being “under tension,” panicking, the ongoing emergency), and a real state of emergency. The real state of emergency interrupts all of these definitions by interrupting the structure through which they are understood and instead locates action in forms of response that reconfigure existing temporal models in new ways.

Let’s return to Thunberg’s remarks cited above: “I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.” Between the “as if” and the “it is” Thunberg captures the cognitive dissonance experienced by so many living in the Global North today. The climate emergency feels unreal (“as if”) and yet most of us also know the emergency is real (“it is”). Climate warnings uphold a linear timeline that cannot comprehend this sort of dissonance. The warning interrupts the line but instead of being an opening for confronting the crisis, it doubles down on the line and intensifies the emergency (that continuous alarm I referred to above). Benjamin, by contrast, mobilizes the warning to hold together performative contradictions—the “as if” and “it is”—and to create a space for thinking, as he puts it, “quite otherwise”.9 What this quite otherwise might look like in the days and years to come is for all of us to envision and realize. Doing so, however, will involve a departure from the very temporal structure that the previous sentence, and this post overall, upholds; it will involve a honing in, instead, on a now  constellated with co-written and open possibilities that will, in changing the time, change our times.

Feature Image: Cameron Strandberg from Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, Canada, CC BY 2.0.

1. There are similar headlines referencing warning in CBC,  CNBC, and The Economist. But when one turns to the Report itself, there are no deafening alarm bells. Indeed, in its 4,000 pages, the word alarm is used only twice, emergency four times (once in a citation and three times in the bibliography), and the word warning thirty-one times (none of which, notably, suggest that the Report itself is a warning). In the case of warning, the references are to either heat warnings or early warning systems and, as noted, none issue an overall call to warning. Over half of these references, moreover, are in the bibliography.
2. See Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, Andreas Malm’s Fossil Capital and The Progress of This Storm, and Bruno Latour’s Facing Gaia to name only a few.
3. J.L Austin, How To Do Things with Words (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).
4. In response to the IPCC Report, Frank Van Gasbeke notes the following in Forbes: “And yet, the unprecedented IPCC mayday call is nowhere met with a state of emergency declaration. Not in the US nor anywhere else. The paradox is that the threat of quality and loss of life is higher now than it was for any war or plague in history.” The article that follows details one of the few elaborations, albeit brief, of what a declaration of world emergency could set in motion. He concludes: “In essence, a state of emergency would not only constitute a significant act of care to avoid a crime against humanity. It would be a formidable initiative to reclaim global leadership with ensuing benefits for new technologies and industries, including a new standard-setting for quality of life.” Vas Gasbeke imagines a response commensurate to the emergency. What I am outlining in this short post, by contrast, are the calls to emergency and alarm that, in the absence of action, mute the credibility of the alarm system without at the same time muting the danger to which the alarm points. 
5. In an interview with Julian Brave NoiseCat, Katy Lederer comments: “I read that the Yale Program on Climate Change put out a poll saying that the number of Americans who are “alarmed” about climate change has doubled in the last five years, to 24 percent. But it doesn’t always feel like being alarmed really makes much difference as a political actor.” 
6. See Jonathan Safran Foer for a discussion of his own climate denial, Kari Marie Norgaard for a discussion of its impact on a Scandinavian community, and Allen MacDuffie for an excellent pre-history to this structure of denial in the nineteenth century.            
7. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, translated by Harry Zohn (Harcourt, 1968), 257.
8. Many Indigenous views also convey richly layered temporal models that depart from the default linearity of the Global North. See, for example, Nick EstesRobin Kimmerer, and Kyle Whyte, among others. My point in this brief post is not to single out only one possibility for the articulation of new temporal modes, but rather to recommend the multiplication of possibilities. I offer Benjamin’s work, accordingly, as one example among others.
9. Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings (Harvard UP, 2003), Selected 4: 402.
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Barbara Leckie

Barbara Leckie is Professor in the Department of English and the Institute for the Comparative Study of Literature, Art, and Culture at Carleton University, Ottawa. She is the author of Open Houses: Poverty, the Architectural Idea, and the Novel in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2018) among other books and articles. She is the editor of Sanitary Reform in Victorian Britain: End of Century Assessments and New Directions (2013); and co-editor, with Janice Schroeder, of an abridged edition of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (2020). She writes often on climate change and the humanities and is the founder and co-ordinator of the Carleton Climate Commons.

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