• What’s the Point of a Climate Change Emergency Declaration?

    Only those who close their eyes and minds to the evidence can still be in any doubt that we are facing a climate change crisis. The evidence is conclusive that the world is not only getting inexorably hotter, but also that the rising temperatures are creating a number of other adverse consequences.

    The natural balancing factors that keep our global climate in a stable state – especially the polar ice caps – are being lost and the result is increasing climatic instability – rising sea levels, coastal erosion, flooding, slips, severe storms – all of which threaten our existing living standards and, in the long run, the very survival of our life on earth. We are getting perilously close to the point of no return, a tipping point, from which there will be no recovery.

    Little wonder, then, that governments everywhere – both central and local – are increasingly being challenged to recognise and respond to the danger by declaring a climate change emergency in their areas of responsibility – and that is nowhere more true than here in the Bay of Plenty.

    Growing numbers of government entities – worldwide – have taken this step. But those who have done so or proposed doing so have been greeted with a chorus of disapproval from both cynics and sceptics.

    Some of the disapproving voices have been raised by those who profess to regard climate change as a “con”, though quite who would have an interest in – let alone the capability to foist upon us – such a worldwide body of misinformation is not clear.

    The more usual objection, however, comes not from sceptics but from cynics. What is the point, they ask, of something that is so clearly just “gesture politics”, a prime example of “virtue signalling”, and that in itself does nothing to address the problem, assuming it is real?

    That question deserves a considered answer. First, let us immediately concede that the declaration of a climate change emergency produces no automatic and positive outcomes. It produces no new resources or solutions and provides no new powers. Such a declaration has no legal or statutory force – in that sense, it changes nothing.

    But in other senses it is a significant step forward. It is, first, a formal and public recognition by those in authority that the issue is real and that the threat will only become more serious if it is not addressed.

    And, it signals a determination to take whatever action is necessary to avert the threatened damage to our planet and our way of life. That signal serves as a constant reminder to themselves of their commitment to act – but is also a message to those they serve, alerting them to the certain need for measures that may be unwelcome.

    Even then, however, a declaration of climate change emergency will mean nothing if it is not the prelude to practical consequences.

    It should, at the very least, put in place a climate change lens for public authorities through which all issues of public policy can be assessed. It should require the preparation of a detailed climate change agenda and action plan which can be rigorously implemented and adhered to.

    It should mean a list of tests and questions to which every element of policy and action – even those with apparently no impact on climate change – should be subjected. A declaration should, in other words, lead to real, hard-edged and committed steps to putting climate change at the forefront of policy-making; there is, after all, if the declaration is to have its full force and effect, no issue more important than the survival of our species and of our planet.

    There is also a role here, not just for government agencies, but for ordinary citizens. We must be ready to hold our elected representatives to account for the promises they make to us – through the declaration – to the effect that they have our interests at heart and are ready to do what it takes to protect us.

    And we should be prepared to show some understanding of the harsh reality – that the actions foreshadowed by the declaration may at times be inconvenient and costly. We are all in this together. It is a battle we must all fight.

    Bryan Gould
    7 August 2019