Over 100 people packed into the council chambers at City Hall in Whitehorse on Sept. 23. Eleven of them spoke to council in an attempt to persuade them to declare a climate change emergency in Whitehorse, which after about an hour of talk and debate, finally happened. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

City of Whitehorse declares climate change emergency

One of many communities around the world to make a declaration

“I declare a climate change emergency in the City of Whitehorse.”

With those words from Mayor Dan Curtis and a strike of the gavel, the at-capacity crowd packing the Whitehorse city council chambers gallery and hallway outside the room erupted in lengthy applause.

In a 5-1 vote at its Sept. 23 meeting, council declared a climate change emergency, following a number of other jurisdictions around the globe, including Old Crow.

Council chambers was filled to capacity – at 110 people permitted inside the room – with many more remaining in the hallway outside to be present for the vote.

Coun. Samson Hartland was the only council member to vote against the declaration and accompanying plans to further explore how to best address the issue. In voting against the declaration Hartland expressed concerns over the financial impact and said he would rather continue focusing on efforts already underway by the city rather than following what other communities are doing in declaring the emergency.

Coun. Laura Cabott was absent from the council meeting and therefore did not vote.

The vote came months after Coun. Steve Roddick first proposed the declaration in June. He originally also attached a number of initiatives to the proposal to address climate change.

As he spoke at this week’s meeting, Roddick said it was clear what he had brought forward would not pass a vote by council.

“I must respect their position,” he said.

With that, he put forward amendments essentially deleting clauses that would impact city finances and replacing those with measures directing city staff to use self-assessment tools provided by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to look at where the city is in addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions ahead of council’s next review of its strategic priorities in 2020. Efforts could then be made to incorporate climate change actions into the list of priorities.

The amended motion, Roddick said, is where he believes council “can find common ground.”

Coun. Jocelyn Curteanu had originally countered Roddick’s proposal with an amendment that would call on the federal government for action rather than declaring an emergency outright.

Curteanu was the first council member to speak on the issue ahead of the vote, asking to withdraw her motion.

The city has made amazing strides towards addressing climate change, she said, but to continue and even “step it up a notch” everyone needs to be on the same page.

She then suggested the city should be planning climate change action as a team and formally withdrew the motion, a move that was greeted with applause.

Council then focused on Roddick’s motion that would declare the climate change emergency.

As council members took turns addressing the proposal, they were quick to highlight city efforts that have and continue to address climate change and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions – things like transit improvements, efficiencies in building construction, more bike paths and so on.

Coun. Jan Stick also highlighted the importance of words that were repeated again and again by the 11 delegates who had spoken in favour of the declaration early in the meeting.

“Words are important,” she said.

Among the words that continued to come up were “act now”, “doable”, “opportunity”, “sustainable.”

“This motion involves all of those things,” she said, speaking to Roddick’s amendments.

As she added, declaring the emergency recognizes the impact climate change is having on the world.

She praised Roddick for his work to come back to council with a resolution more “palatable” for other council members.

Both Curtis and Curteanu also praised Roddick for his work on the motion and in bringing forward the tools the city can use to address climate change.

Curteanu also confirmed with city staff there’s no legal liability in declaring the emergency, noting that gave her more confidence in supporting the amendment.

She noted that through the strategic priorities the city could focus on climate change.

“Today’s the beginning,” Curtis said.

The city has done much to address climate change, but there’s a lot more it will have to do moving forward, he said.

Coun. Dan Boyd, who attended the meeting by conference call, did not speak to the motion but did voice his vote in favour.

Speaking to reporters following the meeting, Roddick said the issue was too important not to try to find a compromise where the climate emergency would be recognized and greater action pursued.

“I feel relieved we’ve gotten to this point,” he said, stressing there is “much more to do.”

He also added throughout the entire process he’s been reaching out to other council members on the proposal and they have in turn shared their thoughts with him.

The vote, he said, shows the work that everyone has put in.

Curtis also spoke to reporters, stating the city has heard loud and clear that whatever the city has been doing, there’s a need to do more.

That message was evident as each of the 11 delegates spoke to council, calling for the emergency to be declared.

“It is an emergency,” Jody Overduin said, stressing the impact decisions today will have on future generations.

That was also the focus of local youth who came before council and spoke of being scared about what the future holds.

As 17-year-old Emma Marnik described (referring to a quote originally made by activist Greta Thunberg): “I am watching my home burn.”

She argued she shouldn’t have to come before council and convince the city she and other youth need a future.

Planning Institute of B.C. president Lesley Cabott (also the sister of Coun. Laura Cabott and former manager of planning for the city) pointed to a number of federal funding programs the city has or could potentially access for initiatives that would help address climate change.

She also invited the city to take advantage of some of the resources provided by the institute such as an upcoming webinar on planning in light of climate change emergencies.

“Be bold, thoughtful and lead,” she told council.

The declaration came following a climate strike – one of many that happened around the world – calling for government action on climate change the afternoon of Sept. 20. Another one is scheduled for noon on Sept. 27 at city hall.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

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