Coun. Steve Roddick discussing deeming climate change an emergency during a city council meeting in Whitehorse on June 17. Two climate change motions will come back to council on Sept. 23 after the issue was set aside for the summer. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)

Whitehorse council set to revisit climate change emergency declaration

Council to vote on climate change motions Sept. 23

The city of Whitehorse is set to revisit the idea of declaring a climate change emergency on Sept. 23.

That’s when two climate change motions will come back to council for a vote after the city pressed the pause button on the issue over the summer.

In June, council voted to defer both Coun. Steve Roddick’s motion to have the city declare a climate change emergency as well as Coun. Jocelyn Curteanu’s motion to instead urge the federal government to take action on climate change as the city also pursues its own initiatives on the matter.

Reports on both motions were presented to council Sept. 16 by acting planning and sustainability manager Glenda Koh with manager of legislative services Catherine Constable also on-hand to outline the process for the votes.

No recommendations were provided. Rather there was an analysis of each option with Constable explaining members would first vote on Curteanu’s motion as it had originally came forward as an amendment to Roddick’s.

If Curteanu’s motion is defeated then council will consider Roddick’s motion.

If both motions are defeated and a member of council wants to pursue the issue further, a new notice of motion would then have to come forward at a future council meeting.

Under Roddick’s call, administration would be directed to enhance the city’s response to the impacts of climate change by establishing an internal task force focused on adaptation and actions to accelerate the implementation of already-existing climate plans.

A “carbon budget” identifying emissions coming from capital projects and purchases could also be produced.

City staff would also explore collaborative efforts as part of the upcoming Yukon Climate Change, Energy and Green Economy Strategy. A draft strategy is expected to be released later this fall.

Meanwhile, Curteanu’s motion calls instead for work by the federal government with other countries to address climate change. It also outlined action for the city including incorporating environmental stewardship into operations and encouraging residents to do their part.

Curteanu brought her motion forward after taking issue with using the word emergency.

“I think of an emergency as an event that happens suddenly, quickly and often unexpectedly; that is immediately and extensively destructive, seriously endangering lives and/or properties,” she explained when she put her motion forward in June, though she added there’s no question climate change is a critical issue.

The reports presented Sept. 16 on each motion outlined potential costs associated with the actions that could come from each.

Creating the internal task force proposed by Roddick, for example, is estimated at $20,000 in administrative support, staff time and more.

Hiring a climate change specialist to coordinate a corporate city response, a potential action identified out of both motions, could cost a minimum of $115,000 annually.

While the city is hiring for a position that will focus on energy reduction thanks to a two-year funding agreement with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, that position will focus largely on the city reducing energy as opposed to climate change.

While both had a number of potential costs based on potential actions coming out of the motions, Koh and Constable stressed during a lengthy council discussion the actions outlined do not represent an implementation plan and are just there as examples of possible outcomes for each motion.

The costs, Koh explained, would be aimed more at “finding a way forward” and understanding the risks associated with climate change.

While Coun. Samson Hartland highlighted potential costs, Roddick was quick to suggest there would be no financial impact in declaring a climate change emergency.

Constable suggested the city could seek a legal opinion confirming that with Roddick then wondering aloud if the city can check with every other jurisdiction that’s made the declaration.

In a further email to local media Sept. 17, Roddick said it is important to clarify the difference between declaring an emergency and a “state of emergency” as set out in the territory’s Municipal Act.

Declaring a climate change emergency, he stated in his email, triggers only the actions that are explicitly detailed in the declaration unlike declaring a “state of emergency”.

Whether the city deals with the costs through initiatives aimed at addressing climate change or by having to fix infrastructure impacted by climate change down the road, there will be costs, Roddick pointed out.

“These costs are going to come down the line,” he said. “We need to prepare our citizens and our city.”

A 2017 publication by the Yukon government pointed to a number of costs associated with the impacts of climate change.

Among them the territory has spent an additional $200,000 per year since 2005 to maintain the Dempster Highway; melting permafrost has taken its toll on buildings like the Ross River School and the Art and Margaret Fry Recreation Centre in Dawson.

Coun. Dan Boyd, meanwhile, argued the city is already working on adaptation through initiatives like fuel-risk managements and Fire Smart work among other projects outlined in the city budget.

Curteanu was also quick to point out that at the end of the day, the city has to manage with the resources it has available.

As council members contemplate the two administrative reports put forward, Climate Action Whitehorse has posted the Sept. 23 vote as an event on its Facebook page, calling on residents to “join us in showing council how important this issue is.”

It goes on to state the last time it was considered there was a standing-room only crowd in council chambers and it’s hoped the turnout will increase even more this time.

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

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