Editorial: An emergency that lacks some urgency

Anyone driving past Whitehorse city hall last Monday may have thought there was some sort of community bike sale going on based on the number of wheels parked outside.

Inside, the council chambers were at capacity and eager attendees spilled out into the hallways. It was the kind of crowd that experienced municipal reporters say they haven’t seen since the possibility of a Whitehorse Walmart was first discussed.

Everyone was there to watch city council join the flurry of leaders across the world who have declared a climate change emergency.

Despite the loud cheers, it’s hard to ignore that the only declaration that Whitehorse council managed to pass was a watered-down amended version that lacked some of the heft that was in the original proposal.

These kind of declarations open themselves up to deserved criticism when there are no concrete actions attached.

While Whitehorse has agreed to complete a few self-assessment checklists on its climate change preparedness, residents will have to trust that the city assesses itself honestly and that actual action is coming.

Without actions alongside the pontificating declarations can feel more like pandering.

The original proposal was put forward by Coun. Steve Roddick. It had some concrete actions that would have made the City of Whitehorse stand out from the more than 100 other communities that have acknowledged that the climate is changing and we are heading for catastrophe if no one steps in.

Roddick originally proposed that, among other things, the city create an internal task force to actually get a sense of how the city was being impacted by climate change and make recommendations for what to do next.

He also proposed that for future budgets the city take into account the carbon emissions associated with major projects.

Those kind of concrete actions were too much for city council. Roddick made it clear this week that he didn’t have the votes to pass what he had originally proposed. In choosing to make amendments Roddick said he believed that passing something was better than passing nothing.

Roddick saved his colleagues from having to face the wrath of the people watching, but in attempting to make the declaration more palatable and amending it so that staff had to complete a couple checklists – Roddick took some of the teeth out of what what he had originally proposed.

It could have been valuable to voters — and maybe a more shrewd political move — to see who from the mayor and councillors was prepared to publicly vote against declaring an emergency if it meant they actually had to act.

Despite what the angry online commenters — and at least one local federal election candidate — will likely say underneath this editorial, climate change is a real danger and the science shows that it is happening more rapidly in the North.

At earlier meetings some councillors expressed concerns that acting might — gasp — cost money.

Yes, actions cost money but so does inaction.

Reports to council already acknowledge that anecdotally climate change is costing the city cash from bills associated with increased precipitation and damage to infrastructure.

Elected governments can’t make good decisions without good data. The two self-assessment forms on the city’s “adaptation maturity” and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction that council has agreed to complete will provide some information, but Roddick’s original proposal would have offered more.

The city does many things to help the environment from increasing its organic diversion program to constructing the new operations building to be energy efficient and potentially include biomass. Unfortunately the activities are piecemeal.

Whitehorse does not accurately track greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions created by the city.

Some data is collected using the city’s electricity, oil and propane bills but other sources: the fleet of vehicles, air conditioning, waste water treatment, for example, are not tracked.

A report to council acknowledges the city’s method of measuring things “does not conform to any particular data collection protocol” which presumably makes it difficult to track whether decisions are actually working in reducing GHG to meet the city’s stated targets of a 10 per cent reduction by 2020.

Roddick’s original motion would have given the current council — and as importantly, future councils — a much clearer idea of what they were working with.

What we’ve been left with still has the potential to be better than nothing.

By reducing the requirements attached to the declaration Whitehorse politicians are actually raising the expectations of the community.

It will now be up to those politicians to prove to the 100+ people who cheered at the council meeting and many more at home that they are actually willing to make changes.

It’s not enough just to continue to rhyme off what the city is already doing. Residents will have to watch the next few budgets to see if the city is willing to act as though it is dealing with an emergency.

Odds are that next council meeting will be back to a near-empty gallery. With fewer people watching council needs to prove through its actions that when they declared an emergency they really were planning to do more for the environment — not just add more hot air.

(AJ)

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