It's seen as a solid commitment to tackling a global crisis - but declaring a "climate change emergency" can also raise some tricky issues for local councils, researchers have found.
Over the past few years, governments and city councils around the world have formally declared climate change as an emergency.
While the declarations were symbolic commitments by councils and governments to confront the crisis, they didn't lock them into any binding set of actions, or pose any inherent statutory or legal implications.
In New Zealand, climate change also isn't included in the formal definition of an "emergency" under the Civil Defence and Emergency Management Act 2002.
Yet a new study has suggested the declarations could come with tensions for councils that made them, particularly in applying the international language of climate emergency at the local scale.
To gain a deeper insight, researchers Dr Sylvia Nissen and Dr Raven Cretney, of Lincoln and Waikato universities respectively, interviewed councillors and staff at Christchurch City Council and Environment Canterbury in the months after their declarations.
"Climate emergency declarations have gained huge momentum globally as a tool for addressing the climate crisis," they told the Herald.
"The study provides a snapshot of the processes that local councils went through in making those declarations, and whether those involved considered the declarations to create opportunities for climate action."
Among the people interviewed, they found "overwhelming support" for acting urgently.
"Climate emergency declarations were seen as a source of hopeful action, providing an important starting point and a potential source of accountability for future decision-making," they said.
Some described the move as a "starting point", a "marker", a "line in the sand" or "round one in a 20-round scrap".
Nissen and Cretney said those interviewed were open to the possibilities that emergency declarations might provide for responding to the climate crisis, and took care to craft the declarations in a way that would build on existing efforts.
But at the same time, the researchers found there were challenges involved in adopting the generic, international language of climate emergency declarations.
One issue was defining a climate emergency in relation to civil defence emergencies, since local government has significant responsibilities in that space.
In Canterbury, there was reluctance to use the word emergency given recent disaster events and concerns that a "top-down" declaration might provoke feelings of helplessness.
Another challenge related to how local government, within its institutional constraints, might respond to the global and complex problem of a climate change "emergency".
There were also doubts whether emergency language is helpful for supporting communities to respond in the long term to the climate crisis in ways that are inclusive and equitable.
One person told the researchers: "It's not like you're fighting fires and once the fire is out the emergency is over and you're pretty much back to business as usual. It is going to be a long-term, consistent change."
Nissen and Cretney noted that when the study was undertaken it was early days for the declarations, and they may since have provided further opportunities for action.
However, "the difficulties that emerged in applying the international language of climate emergency at the local scale suggests that these declarations may leave minimal opportunity for new ways of taking action on the climate crisis", they said.
They noted these challenges meant climate emergency declarations may have a potential effect of reproducing "status quo" politics.
"These tensions point to the importance of locally responsive and diverse approaches to climate action that particularly centre marginalised voices, and those on the frontlines of the climate crisis," they said.
The researchers concluded that declarations could well serve as seeds of future action – but their findings suggested wider challenges for councils adopting them.