Thinking of “climate-action-from-below” as immediate emergency response


It’s striking how similar responses-from-below regarding climate change are to immediate emergency response witnessed in recent large-scale disasters. (The similarity would have been more obvious if climate change is called for what it is, the climate emergency.) For example, a Mozambican scholar-activist has

outlined three major differences between these climate actions ‘from below’ and top-down solutions: (i) participation of local actors from planning design and implementation of projects; (ii) horizontal relations and equal access to information; and (iii) non-extractivist initiatives that retain benefits within communities for local consumption, without extractions and expropriations.

A summary of the plenary points made by Natacha Bruna, director of Observatório do Meio Rural, Mozambique, on September 27 2022 at the Climate Change and Agrarian Justice Conference, Johannesburg, South Africa

Immediate emergency response to major disasters–like earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and wildfires–also feature collective action of many of the remaining people involved (and not just in search and rescue) as are featured the importance and centrality of horizontal and lateral communications (the work of Louise Comfort on emergency response in major earthquakes is exemplary in this regard). More, the collective action and joint improvisations are geared to restoring rather than depleting key services in these emergencies.


The similarities–I argue, equivalencies–go further. The local site, including its communities, is the pivot-point in emergency response as in climate action-from-below. Food sovereignty is mentioned as a priority in responses-from-below, and indeed localized food and water around the site becomes a priority in emergency response well into longer-term recovery.

Speaking of which, local forms of resistance to climate change responses directed from above look more like the conflict over longer-term recovery witnessed in really-existing disasters than it does conflict over a status quo ante. Why? Because recovery to a new-normal involves many different or changing stakeholders (think here: NGOs), to keep to the jargon terms.


So what? What’s the added value to policy and management that comes with seeing the immediate emergency response features of climate action-from-below?

Foremost, claims that the climate change has already weakened response capacities for the climate emergency need to be considered case by case. The point is: Emergency response doesn’t disappear. Collective action and improvisations will occur even in the worst emergencies.

Could emergency responses in the past have been effective? Well, yes. . .but that depends on the case you are talking about.

So too for sites and localities in the unfolding climate disasters ahead. To revert to jargon again, “pre-disaster mitigations to reduce post-disaster harm”–structural, systemic, piecemeal–are not a matter of planned design or known technology (including indigenous) or well-tested social organization, as all manner of unplanned for and unimaginable contingencies intervene, and not just because it is the Anthropocene.


One last but not insignificant point. Some may dismiss “immediate emergency response” and its suite of contemporary jargon as imported from the outside. It’s difficult, however, to argue that, e.g., a 1000 years of imperial Chinese flood prevention strategies and practices are incommensurable with “emergency response” as above.

Related sources

Louise K. Comfort (2019). The Dynamics of Risk: Changing technologies and collective action in seismic events. Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford.

Pierre-Étienne Will (2020). “Introduction,” in: Handbooks and Anthologies for Officials in Imperial China: A descriptive and critical bibliography. Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands.

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