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Emergency declarations empty gestures

Opinion Piece

We have recently heard much about declarations of a “climate emergency”, yet there is clearly zero real understanding of the true nature and scale of the threat to the biosphere.

As I see it, the crisis has several strands, but public acknowledgement of any of them by politicians would be electoral suicide:

• We have built an entire civilisation on a finite resource — fossil fuels. Everything we make, move and eat depends on this once-only gift of “fossilised” solar energy — oil, coal and natural gas.

• Each barrel of oil contains about 6GJ of energy — equivalent to 12 years human labour, yet it costs under $100 a barrel. Each New Zealander uses the equivalent of several hundred “energy slaves”, as much as emperors had in times gone by — yet we think this is normal (!), and cannot (or more likely refuse to) contemplate life on an energy-sustainable basis.

• Aside from global warming, the era of cheap fossil fuel energy is coming to a close anyway — most of the “low hanging fruit” has been discovered and exploited, and we’re now on to the hard-to-get stuff — tar sands in Alberta, fracking, deep sea etc. The energy that has to be spent to get a barrel of oil has been increasing steadily for decades — in the 1930s it was possible to get over 100 barrels of oil for every barrel “spent”. The world average is now about 15, and is continuing to decline. Once it gets down to below five, there isn’t enough energy left over to pay for health, education, the arts, and all those things we consider “essential” to modern life.

There’s no better illustration of our denial of reality than the recent public declarations. Cities all over the world are falling over themselves to declare a “climate emergency”. The word “emergency” evokes the need for drastic and immediate action, but such declarations are merely empty gestures.

Either we deal with reality or reality will deal with us.

Martin Hanson, Nelson