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Debate over Guelph declaring a climate emergency heats up

Would it be an important tool to help battle climate change or a potentially divisive move by councillors with their own agenda? Depends who you ask

Some members of city council are polarized on whether the City of Guelph should join some other municipalities in declaring a climate emergency.

Several Canadian cities, including Hamilton this week, have officially declared climate emergencies and some members of council want to see Guelph take that step to enhance and broaden the city’s efforts to battle climate change.

Others, including the mayor, feel declaring a climate emergency could harm the work the city has already done and create division on council that has so far been united in backing the city’s climate initiatives.

Councillors James Gordon and Leanne Piper are floating the idea of Guelph making that declaration of a climate emergency.

“If we are truly going to have an impact in the next 10 years, we have to call it what it is: It’s an emergency. It’s a crisis,” said Ward 5’s Piper in an interview.

“We’ve taken our baby steps. We’ve done the low-hanging fruit. We’ve changed-out the lightbulbs, we’ve insulated the roof, we’ve put water conservation devices on our taps. The low-hanging fruit is done.”

Gordon said such a declaration would give the city a valuable asset.

“Why wouldn’t we use every tool in our toolbox to address this when we know it’s our top priority?” Gordon said, paraphrasing social media chatter.

“There is a symbolic aspect to it, but in order for it to be effective, it has to have proposals, policy items and actions that accompany it,” the Ward 2 councillor said.

“Acknowledging that emergency could be a stimulus to creating action items that go with it,” said Gordon, surprised that the issue is a divisive one.

“We have to acknowledge that there is an emergency.”

Critics around the council horseshoe said the move would be divisive in the community and on council.

“I’m baffled why members of city council would jeopardize our common plan,” said Ward 1 councillor Dan Gibson, adding that the move is a case of “two councillors inserting their own agenda.”

“It’s really about them asking for a blank cheque from the community of Guelph,” added Mayor Cam Guthrie said, “and I just don’t think that is the right way of going about these issues.”

No motion has come forward to council seeking the declaration of climate emergency and one may never come forward.

Both Piper and Gordon said there is no point in bringing forth a motion that would fail that might be divisive and not pass.

“That’s not good for anybody,” Piper said.

She said she is not criticizing the work the city has done and that Guelph is and continues to be a leader in the area of climate change initiatives.

“I’m suggesting that we need to up our game,” she said.

Piper said the declaration would put “a climate change lens on everything we do.”

Gibson and Guthrie said the city has made great strides in the recent past in implementing plans and actions to battle climate change.

“Our actions have spoken louder than declarations over the last four years and we’ve achieved that with the unanimous support of council,” Gibson said. “I’m just not prepared to jeopardize that.”

Piper said that “all actions start with words.”

“A crisis leads to a different set of actions, so we have to declare it, accept it, acknowledge it, then set a course for more actions, bolder actions and immediate actions. More importantly, put the resources towards it.

“Nothing’s going to get done without more money,” Piper said.

On social media, Piper listed three actions as part of a climate emergency action plan: free public transit, requiring new developments to be net-zero carbon emissions and moving the city’s goal of being net zero by 2050 up to 2030.

Gibson said free transit would cost the city $13 million and the city does not have the authority to demand new developments be net zero.

“Declaring a state of emergency over climate change is a mischaracterization of the issue,” Gibson said. “A state of emergency is more suited for short-term crisis.

“I just don’t see the benefits to the community.”

Guthrie said Guelph has “been at the forefront and further ahead when it comes to tackling climate change.

“There’s nothing that I can see, so far, that warrants declaring an alarmist emergency declaration that will do anything further than the good work that the City of Guelph is already doing to address climate change.”

Guthrie said a declaration would infer that all the good work the city has already done “doesn’t carry any weight or doesn’t matter.”

The mayor said that if a declaration was “purely symbolic” he’d be more open to discussing it.

“My feeling is that this is not purely symbolic,” he said.

Guthrie said council does its best work when it is unified. A motion calling for a declaration of climate emergency would create disunity.

“No one wins with disunity,” Guthrie said.