The climate emergency debate

Eva Holland sends a dispatch from Whitehorse, where the divisions within city council over whether to declare an emergency reveal the challenges around taking climate action.

By: /
4 September, 2019
A general view of Lowell glacier in Kluane National Park near Haines Junction, Yukon. REUTERS/Sean Kilpatrick
Eva Holland
By: Eva Holland

Whitehorse-based freelance writer

On a sunny evening in late June, the mayor of Whitehorse called a meeting of the city council to order. Council meetings take place almost every Monday night, but this one was unusually popular. Every chair in the chamber’s modest public gallery was occupied, and a handful of spectators stood, chair-less, along the back wall of the room. More than 50 residents of the Yukon’s small capital city had turned up because of the last item on the evening’s agenda: Councillor Steve Roddick’s motion to declare a climate change emergency.

The crowd sat quietly through a handful of committee reports, and then Roddick was up to bat. He read his motion into the record: “Be it resolved that the City of Whitehorse officially declares a climate change emergency,” it read in part, “for the purpose of enhancing and accelerating action on our commitment to protect our community, economy, and ecosystems from the impacts of climate change.”

The point, Roddick said, was to recognize that climate change impacts us all and requires action. “I don’t think any of us want to be remembered as the last generation of politicians who could have done more but didn’t.”

Councillor Jan Stick seconded his motion. “The city does have a role to play,” she said, noting the municipality’s responsibility for water, sewage, fire protection, garbage and transit. “All of these things are affected by climate.” As she spoke, a few members of the audience clapped shyly.

A third councillor, Laura Cabott, also spoke in support — a third vote out of the council’s total of seven.

“We’ve seen it before,” she said of the emergency declaration. “It’s not a crazy idea.”

She was right: nearly 1,000 jurisdictions worldwide, scattered across 18 countries, have made similar declarations, many of them just in the last few weeks and months. Here in Canada, that includes the federal government as well as dozens of municipal governments, from Duncan, British Columbia, to Wolfville, Nova Scotia. Last week, Edmonton became the latest to declare.

“We have a motion in front of us that would suggest the city is not doing enough and must do more.”

That evening in June, it seemed as though Whitehorse was on the verge of joining the list. But then veteran councillors Samson Hartland and Jocelyn Curteanu spoke up. (Roddick, Stick and Cabott had all been newly elected in October 2018.) “I grappled with the word ‘emergency,’” Curteanu said. “I’m not one to throw the word ‘emergency’ around.” She and Hartland seemed to take the motion as a rebuke to the actions of previous councils. “Tonight, we have a motion in front of us that would suggest the city is not doing enough and must do more,” Hartland said, before adding that he was “very sorry” but that he could not support the motion. Curteanu agreed. “When I have heard people saying that the city isn’t doing anything,” she said, “I was really disappointed.”

The sixth councillor, Dan Boyd, wondered about the logistics of implementation. Had the city’s administrative staff been consulted yet? How would a carbon budget, to monitor the emissions involved in new spending (one of Roddick’s proposed measures), work? Then the mayor, Dan Curtis, weighed in. He listed the city’s existing efforts and expressed concerns about the potential costs of Roddick’s plan. “We can’t live by candlelight,” he said.

Apparently hoping to bring Boyd on board, Roddick proposed an amendment to his motion that would see council get more information about the options for implementation. Then Curteanu raised an amendment of her own: instead of declaring a climate change emergency, the city would pledge to lobby the federal government to encourage other nations to meet their Paris Agreement emissions targets. Cabott raised a point of order, arguing that this was a whole new motion, rather than an amendment, and the discussion dissolved into procedural confusion.

Roddick, 34, was born and raised in Whitehorse. After high school he moved south and studied political science, eventually completing a master’s degree focused on climate change and human migration in Bangladesh. After returning home, he worked on climate change adaptation policy for the Yukon government’s climate change secretariat for four and a half years before running for office. As a councillor, he quickly made the issue a priority, first floating the idea of an emergency declaration to his colleagues this spring.

“I tried to design something that was specific enough as to have some teeth to it.”

In studying other cities’ declarations, Roddick had noticed a spectrum from the largely symbolic — “acknowledging the importance of recognizing that we are currently in a climate change emergency,” he says — to those with more practical or policy substance. “I tried to design something that was specific enough as to have some teeth to it, but not so specific that it wouldn’t allow for flexibility in implementation, or allow the city to focus on a particular area that made the most sense when it comes to adapting to climate change or reducing our greenhouse gas emissions,” he says.

According to Al Douglas, the president of the Sudbury-based Climate Risk Institute, that’s a crucial part of moving the declarations beyond symbolism. “There has to be action,” he says. “You’ve got to mobilize something.” That said, Douglas also argues for the importance of symbolism on its own terms. The declarations, he says, send a signal to constituents, and to other levels of government, that a municipality is serious about climate change. That can be particularly important in countries where the national government might not be prioritizing the issue.

Of the council meeting on that June night, Roddick says, speaking carefully: “I did not anticipate some of the opposition that I received.” He only became aware of Curteanu’s proposed amendment minutes before the meeting began.

In the end, after the dust settled on various points of order and discussions of procedural rules, Whitehorse city council voted to defer a vote on Roddick’s motion to declare a climate change emergency until more information could be gathered — sometime in September, at the earliest. Curteanu’s amendment was bumped too.

As the crowd filed out into the endless sunlight of the Yukon summer, one or two people dared to boo. To many of them, the deferral felt a little too on the nose, its symbolism almost too heavy-handed: politicians fiddling while the boreal forests burned.

Council is due to begin considering the motion again on September 16 and a new vote is tentatively scheduled for September 23.

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