Windsor·Audio

So, your municipal council has declared a climate emergency. Now what?

Chatham-Kent, Sarnia and London have declared climate emergencies. But what happens next? We spoke to a councillor from Kingston, the first city on Ontario to make the declaration.

Kingston councillor talks about what happened after his city made the declaration

People survey the flood risk as work is done to hold back floodwaters on the Ottawa River in Britannia on Monday, April 29, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In a unanimous decision this week, Chatham-Kent became the latest municipality in southwestern Ontario to declare a climate emergency, echoing similar motions from London and Sarnia.

While Windsor hasn't debated such a declaration yet, Mayor Drew Dilkens says he understands some councillors are considering making a motion — and he "doesn't object" to having that discussion in the council chambers.

Robert Kiley represents District 6 (Trillium) on Kingston City Council. (Robert Kiley)

But what actually happens after a municipality declares a climate emergency?

Afternoon Drive host Chris dela Torre spoke with Robert Kiley to gain some insight.

He's a city councillor in Kingston, which became the first city in Ontario to declare a climate emergency in March. Kiley, who tabled the motion, is also a member of the Climate Caucus, a group of Canadian elected officials working to fight climate change.

Tap to hear their conversation — a condensed transcript follows.

One of the latest Canadian municipalities to declare a climate emergency is Chatham-Kent. Is this meaningful — or merely symbolic? We asked Robert Kiley, a city councillor in Kingston, the first city in Ontario to make the declaration. 8:20

So what does it mean when a municipality declares a climate emergency?

Well if you look across the country, it can mean one of two things. It can be either a rallying cry — the reason why communities now will act even further on climate change — or it can be a specific set of actions that the municipality intends to take in response to [the] economic, social, environmental catastrophe that can happen if we don't continue to act on climate change.

So it can either be a focal point for action in the future or it can actually give a specific set of actions to deal with climate change.

And which one of those two options was what Kingston had in store? 

We took the former approach.

The motion that I wrote talked about naming, framing and deepening our commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It was strategically placed right before our strategic planning, because as we went into that exercise — charting the course of the next four years for our community — we knew that climate change was a serious threat to the bottom line in our community because of the infrastructure damage that it would create if we don't do a lot more to get our emissions under control.

And from strategic planning, we were then able to say that we want to reduce our emissions drastically by 40 per cent in the next five years, and then eventually to become carbon neutral by 2040 — which is a very ambitious goal, I'd be the first to admit that.

We committed to electrifying our city transit fleet.- Robert Kiley

But it's a needed goal to make sure that we don't hit two degrees of warming with the average global temperature increase, which is what scientists around the world are telling us we must avoid.

And then from there, with those ambitious goals, we [started] to implement policy around how we reduce emissions.

So, for example, we committed to electrifying our city transit fleet. We committed that all city buildings will have deep energy retrofits and move toward renewable energy and efficiencies. And that really allows us to set the tone for the entire community, because as much as municipalities have to lead on climate, they have to do so in a way that brings everyone into the conversation — other institutional partners, the private sector, the non-profit sector — to really ensure that everyone has what they need to be able to reduce emissions.

And how has Kingston reconciled its declaration with how it manages its budget?

That's a great question.

So, it's unquestionable that climate change action costs money. We're gonna have to do some serious changes to our infrastructure to adapt to climate change. But more than that, we're going to have to change a lot of our operational practices to mitigate climate change. 

For example, we put off building a new library in the east end of the city.- Robert Kiley

How we decided to do it in Kingston was by deferring some other capital projects. So for example, we put off building a new library in the east end of the city — with the support of that city councillor and the community, because they're getting a new community centre, so they were okay with waiting on their new library — and in turn, we bought electric buses.

So it's a bit of a tradeoff with projects.

There's another approach, which we decided not to go with, which is raising taxes — asking people to pitch in a bit more to do some of these bigger systemic changes. But we didn't think that was a good idea for our community, because we want to ensure that everyone feels like they can be part of this conversation about climate change and most importantly about the action around climate change.

For many people life is unaffordable as it already is, so we thought if we were to raise taxes to deal with this, we would lose a large portion of the population that we need to be part of the conversation.

But both of those are legitimate options and it's really up to the council to choose what's best for their community.

What advice would you give to these cities here in southwestern Ontario, now that they've declared a climate emergency?

Well, two things.

For those that have already declared it, I would say make sure you follow it up with action. Like I said off the top, some of the climate emergency motions or declarations do have specifics in them already.

For those that don't, it's really important that this becomes a rallying cry and not just words, because climate change necessitates action.

What we've done in Kingston with the ambitious goals that I've mentioned and with the different actions the municipality has taken, we've also convened a climate working group.

Climate change is all about community building and ensuring that action is actually happening.- Robert Kiley

So we've brought together university partners, construction partners, people in our community that are themselves responsible for many of our emissions to say 'how can we work together and what solutions can we share across different businesses, different institutions to ensure that we can all reduce our emissions at a rate that will make for a sustainable future?'

So it's very action-oriented, it's ensuring that this doesn't just become talk — because that's another thing that can turn people off in the political process; politicians [saying] one thing and seem to do another, or say a lot and then don't do anything.

Climate change is all about community building and ensuring that action is actually happening. So strike a working group, get some good goals in order and then work with your community to reach them.

About the Author

Jonathan Pinto is a reporter/editor at CBC Windsor, primarily assigned to Afternoon Drive, CBC Radio's regional afternoon show for southwestern Ontario. Email jonathan.pinto@cbc.ca.

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