Saving the planet and saving UBS – which is the emergency?

Young people in Zurich on February 2 demanding the Swiss government declare a state of climate emergency © Keystone / Ennio Leanza

Young people are going on strike across Switzerland, demanding that the government declare a state of climate emergency. Unfortunately for them, the climate is not a bank that can be bailed out. 

This content was published on March 15, 2019 - 10:20

“Bye-bye holidays in Chile, bye-bye bananas for breakfast and bye-bye car. You’ll no longer be able to fly and you’ll be able to eat meat just once a week.” That’s the political manifesto of Yvan Richardet, a candidate for Vaud cantonal government. 

Richardet is not a politician but a comedian and actor. Although he describes his candidature, announced on his blogExternal link, as a joke, he wants to get across the serious message of the need to declare a state of climate emergency. 

Like Richardet, thousands of people across Switzerland are calling on the authorities to recognise climate change as a crisis which needs urgent attention. This appeal has gained support above all from young people, who on Friday will once again hit the streets to make their voices heard. 

The KlimastreikExternal link (climate strike) movement backs the demand and denounces the “embarrassing debate” in parliament about the revision of the carbon dioxide law

Symbolic meaning 

The younger generation have already notched up one victory: on February 20 the cantonal parliament in Basel City accepted a resolution which recognises limiting climate change as top priority. 

Demands for a declaration of a climate emergency have since been made in other cantons, including Bern, Geneva, Lucerne, St Gallen, Zug and Zurich. 

The young people’s arguments have also received support in parliament. Samira Marti from the Social Democratic Party is planning to put forward a motionExternal link on the issue and Adèle Thorens Goumaz from the Green Party has already handed in an urgent interpellationExternal link demanding that the Federal Council “listen to the demands of young people”. 

Concretely, the text demands that Basel City “take into consideration, for every decision, the effects on the climate and on ecological, social and economic sustainability”. For every measure taken, the cantonal parliament should refer to the expert report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCCExternal link). 

However, the text stresses that the term “climate emergency” is to be understood symbolically. It cannot therefore serve as a legal basis for emergency measures. 

Opponents say this non-binding quality renders the resolution pointless. They think the parties are simply trying to ingratiate themselves with young voters – especially with federal elections and also several cantonal elections taking place this year. 

Imminent danger? 

Johannes Reich, a law professor at the University of Zurich, says there can only be talk of an emergency if an imminent danger exists for the public and the normal legislative process would be too slow. These conditions, he says, are not fulfilled in a legal sense by climate change. 

On the other hand, bailing out Switzerland’s largest bank UBS after the financial crisis in 2008 “was an emergency in the legal sense because otherwise the bank most likely would have gone bankrupt”, Reich told news website nau.chExternal link

“It’s telling that the government is prepared to save a bank but not our future,” says young climate activist Julia Hostettler in the same article.


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