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Ottawa joins growing number of Canadian cities to declare a climate emergency. But what does that mean?

Ottawa joins growing number of Canadian cities to declare a climate emergency. But what does that mean?
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OTTAWA — This week, as water levels in the Ottawa River continue to rise, flooding homes in Gatineau and threatening properties on both sides of the river, Ottawa’s city council declared a climate emergency.

The emergency declarations are part of a global movement, launched in Australia in 2016, which sees local governments as key to a boots-on-the-ground approach to reducing carbon emissions. It has since become a decentralized campaign, with a number of municipalities in the U.K., the U.S. and Canada issuing their own declarations. Matt Renner, deputy director of the Climate Mobilization Project, a U.S. organization pushing for a “World War II-scale” effort to fight climate change, told the Post there are now more than 450 communities worldwide that have declared climate emergencies, representing roughly 40 million people.

The fact that the movement is so loosely organized is perhaps both a strength and a weakness. Declaring a climate emergency doesn’t require any specific actions — individual cities can take whatever steps they choose to reduce emissions. This means, of course, that a declaration can mean whatever a community wants it to mean — or, presumably, it can mean nothing at all.

Renner said the goal of a climate emergency declaration is to create a sense of urgency about making cities carbon-neutral. There are different ways they can get there, in part by retrofitting buildings, improving public transit and promoting local food production. But Renner said treating climate change as an emergency changes the way people think about it. “People have a different mode of functioning when they move into emergency mode,” he said. “It’s a way to focus the mind.”

In Canada, the emergency climate declaration movement began last year in Quebec, after a summer heat wave claimed 93 lives. A group of organizers began approaching Quebec municipalities about endorsing a declaration stating that climate change “has now become a major issue threatening security around the world,” and that “an urgent shift to a carbon-neutral society” is required. More than 300 Quebec municipalities have endorsed the declaration, including major cities like Montreal, Quebec City, Sherbrooke and Trois-Rivières.

“We understood immediately that higher levels of government… can drag their feet on climate issues, but local governments are increasingly concerned,” as they have to deal with the fallout from floods, heatwaves and violent storms, said Normand Beaudet, one of the organizers.

Outside Quebec, Vancouver was the first city to declare a climate emergency, in January. This week, city staff reported back to council with a number of recommendations to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Their goals include that two-thirds of trips in Vancouver should be made by walking, cycling or public transit by 2030, and that zero-emissions vehicles should be responsible for half the kilometres driven on Vancouver roads by 2030. Council will vote on the recommendations next week.

“I think the declaration is an important first step in naming the urgency and recognizing the need to act in line with that urgency,” said Coun. Christine Boyle. “But it’s just the first step, and what matters is how we live to up to that.”

Ottawa’s declaration also comes with actions attached: staff will update the city’s air-quality and climate change management plan, and a sponsors group of council will make further recommendations. Coun. Scott Moffatt said he’s not interested in a purely symbolic gesture. “I don’t care about the optics of what we do,” he said. “I just want to do things that matter and I want to do things that actually have results.”

But elsewhere, Moffatt said, the declaration runs the risk of being little more than “just words on a piece of paper.” He pointed to Kingston, the first Ontario community to declare a climate emergency, as an example. “I know Kingston’s was relatively useless,” he said. “The motion itself has no bearing and doesn’t change anything.”

At the heart of the movement is a sense that the quickest path to meaningful action on climate change is at the local level, not through gridlocked federal and provincial legislatures. With Canada’s federal carbon tax poised to become a major election issue, those who support the emergency declarations seem to feel that carbon pricing, despite all the political oxygen it eats up, is almost a sideshow.

For them, the real fight is happening on a different stage. “Our position is that carbon taxes are insufficient and that our time is better spent focused on the only strategy that we’ve seen really work for a threat this big, which is a war-time mobilization effort,” Renner said. “All hands on deck.”

No visions, no wavering lights, no breathing wood. It’s less about being at one with all forms of life and more about just getting through the day

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