An activist friend told me recently about an email she received doubting the urgency of addressing climate change. The person argued that if climate change was truly a crisis, our elected leaders and governments at all levels would be saying so, and, since relatively few politicians seem truly alarmed, there really is no need to panic.
Although scientists are telling us we’re facing a Code Red climate catastrophe, most politicians have failed to communicate any true urgency for action. The complacency reminds me of the initial Soviet response to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion and meltdown – silence. In fact, citizens sat out on their balconies and watched the blue haze over the reactor throughout the first night and conducted their lives normally the next day. They later died. The Soviets were not used to sharing uncomfortable truths. However, when the truth was incontrovertible, and the emergency finally declared, Soviet citizens were heroic in risking their lives to contain what was left of the reactor. There was no mad panic but bravery and focus. They prevented the radioactive lava flow from leaching into the water table and contaminating the Black Sea. Many sacrificed their lives in doing so.
An infinitely worse catastrophe is brewing as we speak, albeit largely hidden from view in day to day life. Scientists from around the world are trying to warn us that climate change is on course to destroy civilization as we know it.
Now, at this, the 11th hour, a growing number of politicians – but tragically, almost no Conservatives – are acknowledging the dire science. They are assuming their leadership responsibility and telling their constituents the truth: we are facing a climate emergency. Nearly 40 Canadian cities, including Kingston, Hamilton, London, and Ottawa, have made climate emergency declarations. The federal government, too, has followed suit. Peterborough City Council needs to assume its leadership responsibility and do the same.
In October, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) raised the threat advisory of catastrophic climate change from orange to a pulsating scarlet red. If the planet warms by much more than 1.5-degrees Celsius (we are already at 1.1 C degrees of warming), the result will be soaring death rates, huge waves of climate refugees, devastating coastal flooding, and unprecedented planet-wide species extinction. The predicted economic cost is counted in the tens of trillions of dollars.
Canada is warming at twice the global average. Communities across the country are facing debilitating heat, wildfires, and severe flooding. The climate crisis is threatening our economy, our ecosystems, our infrastructure, and our health. As Peterborough’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Rosanna Salvaterra, stated recently, “Global warming has changed weather patterns to the point where weather-related emergencies have now become the leading threat to our safety.”
The IPCC report does provide a glimmer of hope, however: Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius is still possible. To get there, however, greenhouse gas emissions will have to be cut by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, and then brought to zero by 2050. If mounting the necessary response in such a short time frame doesn’t represent an emergency, I don’t know what does.
Why a declaration?
Declaring a climate emergency is a critical first step to launching the comprehensive mobilization required to avoid the worst ravages of climate change. It would be no less than a call to action on the part of the entire community. Here’s why it’s necessary.
1. As someone who has been talking about climate change for years – and especially its impact on nature in the Kawarthas – I am still surprised by how few people, businesses or organizations in Peterborough are truly engaged with this issue or appear to understand the severity of what we’re up against. This even includes many young people who stand to be most affected. As Dr. Dianne Saxe, the former Ontario Environment Commissioner, says repeatedly, “The climate crisis is SO MUCH WORSE than people think.”
2. Because Council has a responsibility to keep the community safe and well, citizens need to know the truth if they’re to act in their own best interests. We need to be preparing our homes for the coming severe weather events like floods, severe droughts, and crippling summer heat. We are likely to be facing long-lasting blackouts and maybe even food shortages. Climate change also exacerbates inequalities, disproportionately affecting the poorest and most vulnerable.
3. Addressing the climate crisis is something we must do together. We are well beyond the point where personal action can make the necessary difference. A declaration can help make collective action a reality and focus people’s attention ahead of the fall election. It would also provide “social license” for people to share their climate change concerns with others. Right now, talking about the climate crisis is almost a no-go zone for many.
4. The quickest path to meaningful action is at the local level. Cities and local governments have historically been the spark for progress, from minimum wage to civil rights. Local action will inspire other communities to follow and build a mandate for much-needed national mobilizations. As the owners and operators of most of Ontario’s infrastructure, municipalities are at the front line of climate damage and have the most to lose from climate inaction. According to Dr. Saxe, they are also much more vulnerable to liability lawsuits than senior levels of government.
5. A declaration would support the Greater Peterborough Climate Action Plan, which the City has endorsed. For example, the Community Sector of the plan recommends strategies such as “fostering a culture of climate change awareness” and “encouraging civic engagement around climate change.” Actions include “Supporting Sustainable Peterborough in delivering ongoing education and outreach on climate change, hosting regular events focused on climate change, and developing a charter and guidelines to foster meaningful community engagement.
Despite these arguments, not everyone is convinced – including some councillors.
1. Some people may argue that these declarations are merely symbolic, empty gestures. However, climate emergency declarations don’t typically contain specific policy measures. They simply draw an important line in the sand. In an emergency, there is no room for backsliding. In this way, they are a symbol of a municipality’s commitment to fighting and communicating the dire threat of the climate crisis through future measures and serve as a guidepost to help cities focus on climate mitigation and adaptation when making decisions.
2. It’s true that Council needs to address other emergencies such as Peterborough’s opioid crisis and the shortage of affordable housing. Nowhere is it written, however, that emergencies don’t happen at the same time. We also need to remember that the climate crisis is a multiplier, which will make every other imaginable emergency even worse.
3. It can also be argued that Peterborough is already taking climate action through its Climate Change Action Plan, adopted in 2016. However, the city’s emissions targets and timelines are now outdated in light of the latest IPCC and other major reports.
4. Finally, there is the rationale that the City does not have the financial resources to take further climate action. However, no new spending is required, at least not initially. A declaration would serve primarily as an appeal to the community as a whole for greater awareness, engagement and action around climate change. Council may, of course, decide to allocate funds in a future budget.
Let’s not forget that the climate crisis is already emptying our collective pockets. In Ontario alone, insured losses from extreme weather events exceeded $1.3 billion in 2018. Uninsured losses may have been three times as high. And these figures only cover losses measured directly in money, omitting mental and physical health impacts and a wide range of ecological repercussions.
Although Council itself should decide how best to exercise leadership, there are many potential avenues for action. Most importantly, a plan should be made to inform and engage the entire community. This could even include facilitating ward-based, small group conversations in which friends and neighbours come together to share their climate concerns and to consider possible steps forward.
The City could also form a Climate Change Task Force with representation from all sectors of the community. The task force would take advantage of local expertise and knowledge to formulate and deliver a plan to educate and engage the community around climate change and to find ways to reduce emissions.
As for the City of Peterborough itself, a declaration could mean that each city department and project must be looked at from a climate change perspective. For example, municipalities play a lead role in land-use planning. Land use is a major driver of greenhouse gas emissions in Ontario, because sprawl forces dependency on cars. Ontarians are driving more than ever. The City’s eventual goal should be no less than what the IPCC says is necessary: a 45% greenhouse gas emission reduction by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.
What can you do?
Please consider showing your support for a Peterborough Declaration of Climate Emergency by calling or emailing your councillor. Simply Google “Mayor and Council – City of Peterborough” for contact information. It is important that the declaration be made before October’s federal election so that climate change is first and foremost in peoples’ minds at the voting booth.
For a democracy to function, truth must be the foundation. If we understand the truth – and most of us don’t when it comes to climate change – we can make informed choices. The window for action has almost closed. This is why a climate emergency declaration is so important. It’s all about telling people the truth as revealed by science.