Skip to content

The heated debate over a heating Earth

Some on city council want to declare a climate emergency, others aren't so sure. But is the debate a waste of time?
climate change shutterstock

Climate change is real, it’s happening and it freaks us out.

The existential crisis of our time brings us a host of additional questions that there are no good answers to. Can we act in time to stop the worst? Is it already too late? Are we frightening ourselves into inaction?

This is why the idea of calling a climate emergency is so appealing. If you see a fire, you yell “fire!” and everyone springs to action. People start moving towards the exits, others look for the fire extinguisher, a couple of people call 9-1-1.

In Halifax, Quebec City, and, most recently, Kingston and Hamilton, municipalities across Canada are declaring climate emergencies, and now some members of Guelph City Council are considering a similar action.

Of course, this is a matter of pride for Guelph. We’re supposed to be the green ones! We invented the Blue Box! We elected the first Green MPP! To not be the first to declare a climate emergency… shame on us.

And the emergency is real. This week, Cyclone Idai destroyed 90 per cent of Mozambique’s fourth largest city, Beira, killing over 1,000 people in the process.

Guelph has seemed blissfully apart from the growing issues around climate change, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t been reacting. City council has made a commitment to move to net zero and 100 per cent renewables, we have a Climate Change office in City Hall and we’re a finalist for the Smart Cities Challenge for our circular food economy proposal.

We’re working our butts off on climate change over here!

So what’s the difference in acting like there’s a climate emergency and actually declaring one?

“I am a person of action, not platitudes of words, and my fear that these types of discussions get us away from actions and it’s more about just optics,” Mayor Cam Guthrie told local media.

But so much of the climate change debate is about optics. It has to be. There’s a powerful faction that’s given undo influence by the media who denies that a problem is even happening.

I would also make the argument that there’s a more subtle form of climate denial. Spring came in this week and I saw a lot of news anchors and weather people talk about how grateful we should be to emerge from a punishing winter.

Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine because winter doesn’t have feelings. It doesn’t come every 21 of December to punish us. We don’t “deserve” spring weather in any more significant way then we “deserve” a banana split , or a trip to Disneyland.

It’s a sad statement on the modern Canadian that we seem unable to handle snow and cold in spite of our modern trappings. This is a country that used to pride itself on its virility in the face of winter, kind of like House Stark in Game of Thrones. “Winter is coming?” More like, “Bring it on!”

But this past winter we didn’t have a serious snowfall until mid-January, we didn’t have any real, long-sustained deep cold weather till February. To hear it described though we endured a winter of astonishing length and intensity.

Now that that’s out of my system, let’s get back to the politics.

Yes, declaring a climate emergency is political. It’s political because we some how have made science political. We recently had the U.S. ambassador, wife of a coal executive, tell the media that she believes “both sides” of climate change science.

Meanwhile, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has given us 12 year before the worst-case scenario is baked in. Might a dozen years till the irreparable end of the world constitute a crisis?

To declare an emergency has a way of sharpening the mind and creating focus, but like some of our skeptical members of city council, I don’t want to declare an emergency for the sake of declaring an emergency. Let’s not do things because all the cool kids are doing them.

As my grandmother often said, if your friend went and jumped off the bridge, would you have to do it too? Of course, the argument can be made that climate change is taking us all off the proverbial bridge.

Is there something that the city can be doing to fight climate change that we’re not already doing? And if there isn’t, then why do we need to declare an emergency in order to get it done?

In the meantime, as we debate about whether or not we should declare an emergency, we expend our most precious resource, time, by debating about how we define the problem versus actually working a solution.

But the struggle is real. We know there’s an emergency, but we don’t act like it. And we still have to debate about whether or not to call an emergency an “emergency”.

I hate to say it, but we might be doomed.