Climate emergency declared in CK

Simon Swanek and Reanne Rekker giving a deputation at a council meeting on Monday, July 15, 2019 and the Civic Centre in Chatham. (Photo via Zero Waste CK Facebook)

Chatham-Kent Council is taking steps to help combat the impact that climate change may have locally.

During Monday night’s council meeting, councillors unanimously voted in favour of a motion to declare a climate emergency in the municipality.

South Kent Councillor Trevor Thompson was behind the motion. In hopes of building a more “resilient community,” Thompson said his intention with the motion is to consider the impacts of climate change and use it as a “lens” when it comes to future planning and strategic direction within the municipality. The motion also asks that “staff work swiftly to identify target areas in municipal policy through which specific changes can have the greatest impact to reduce our individual and collective environmental impact.”

In order to give the motion a little more direction, Councillor Melissa Harrigan made an amendment to add that municipal staff prepare a report with information and recommendations for concrete and cost-effective initiatives to address the climate change emergency ahead of the 2020 budget deliberations. After making the amendment, Harrigan said the motion was something she supports “wholeheartedly.”

“The impact of climate change is not just something we’re feeling today. It’s not just about the wet spring and the dry summer. It’s about the long-term sustainability of this community,” said Harrigan. “If we want to see Chatham-Kent grow, we need to see it grow in a positive environment and that includes climate.”

Although the motion ended up passing unanimously, it wasn’t without some questions and concerns from councillors.

Councillor Doug Sulman expressed concerns that declaring it an official emergency may come with some negative repercussions. He also noted that the municipality has already started to work on an environmental plan, including recently hiring an environmental planner.

“‘I don’t know why we wouldn’t be doing that anyway without taking on words that take on emotion with that, which is emergency,” he said. “There are two sides to this ’emergency’, not two sides to climate change but two sides to whether you call it an emergency.”

However, Thompson pointed to dozens of other cities and municipalities across the country that have used the term “emergency” when it comes to addressing climate change.

“For me, everyone else is using that terminology so we should too… I don’t think it makes a difference but working in the political game long enough, I would hate to see something come down the pipeline from the federal government saying ‘we’re going to put aside some money for municipalities that have declared an emergency’ and then it turns out that we declared a crisis and we don’t get any money,” said Thompson.

Before the motion was discussed, council heard a deputation from members of the local environmental group, Zero Waste Chatham-Kent. Members Simon Swanek and Reanne Rekker urged council to support the motion and look at ways that the municipality can support initiatives to solve climate issues. After the motion was passed, Swanek and Rekker told Blackburn News that they were “elated” with the decision.

“It’s the first time either of us has made a deputation so we were a little nervous going into it but obviously it was a very positive result,” said Swanek. “I think the support, even in the comments of the majority of the councillors who did speak, I think the support was pretty clear.”

Although he has received a large amount of support for his motion, over the last few weeks Thompson has also got some pushback from residents who question what the decision to declare a climate emergency means and how it may impact tax dollars. Thompson admitted there will be some tough decisions and “short term pain” when it comes to keeping climate change in mind while planning. However, he believes that being better prepared for the extremes of changing weather will benefit the municipality and its residents in the long run.

“When I think about tax dollars, I don’t think about ways of spending it, I think about ways of saving it. I think that got lost a little bit in people’s reaction,” he said. “Because on a high level, it is a very partisan issue, climate and carbon and all that stuff. Honestly, my interest comes down to how do we protect our investments? How do we protect our future? In 25 years from now, I don’t want a councillor sitting here thinking ‘those folks should have dealt with this 25 years ago.”