Why Kingston has declared a climate emergency — and what that really means

This week, the city became the first in Ontario to pass such a motion. But will it lead to action?
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on March 7, 2019
city view of Kingston, Ontario
Kingston’s climate action plan was ranked number one in a November 2018 survey of municipal climate action plans from across the country. (iStock.com/merrilyanne)

KINGSTON — Following in the footsteps of Vancouver, Halifax, and more than 300 municipalities in Quebec, Kingston city council unanimously passed a motion on Tuesday night to declare a climate emergency.

“Therefore be it resolved, that the City of Kingston, officially declare a climate emergency for the purposes of naming, framing, and deepening our commitment to protecting our economy, our eco systems, and our community from climate change,” read the motion brought forward by councillor Robert Kiley.

Kingston has called itself “Canada’s most sustainable city” since 2009; its climate action plan, released in 2014, was ranked number one in a November 2018 survey of municipal climate action plans from across the country. Now it’s the first Ontario city to declare such an emergency.

The declaration itself is not tied to specific actions, activities, or funding. But councillors believe that its symbolic value is critically important.

“Previous councils have addressed climate change in piecemeal fashion and sometimes quite effectively,” first-time councillor Kiley told TVO.org before the vote. “But there’s been no honest assessment of why we need to take action. It’s an emergency. And it requires a proportionate response.”

Kiley points to increases in flooding, Lyme disease, and “one-in-100-year” storms as consequences of climate change that are already being felt in Kingston.

“Unless we mitigate now … it will be costly for the city of Kingston,” said Kiley.

Councillor Wayne Hill likened the city’s responsibility to act on climate change to efforts made during the Second World War.

“The war involved the whole planet. It resulted in food insecurity. It resulted in deaths. These are possible outcomes unless we act,” Hill said during the debate.

Margaret Klein Salamon, the founder and executive director of the Climate Mobilization — an international network of organizers and policymakers aiming to initiate a “WWII-scale” mobilization around climate — says that reversing course on climate change will require this kind of effort from cities around the world.

“This is an existential crisis of epic proportions. Everyone is in danger,” says Klein Salamon. “We need all hands on deck. Governments should spend without limit to save as much life as possible.”

If that sounds like hyperbole, that’s because the climate-change discussion has been dominated by euphemisms for so long, says Klein Salamon, who is also a clinical psychologist.

“There’s been a huge amount of understatement in discussing climate change, and it has led to proposals that are vastly inadequate,” she says. “There’s no time left. We are already over the cliff. We need to not just hit the brakes, but hit reverse.”

Klein Salamon acknowledges that in the United States, where the climate-emergency movement has been gaining traction, local leaders haven’t always managed to translate words into action. Hoboken, New Jersey, and Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, both of which declared climate emergencies in 2017, have been slow to take action, she says. But she remains encouraged by what she sees. (In February, Hoboken mayor Ravi Bhalla announced that the city will be powering municipal buildings entirely from renewable sources starting in April.)

“In both those cities, and elsewhere, we’ve seen that declaring a climate emergency and committing to action is energizing,” says Klein Salamon. “This is understood as a first step, not at all as a sufficient achievement. Obviously, the most important thing is yet to come: fulfilling the commitment.”

In Vancouver, where council voted on a similar motion in January, city staff are currently working on a report that will lay out recommendations on how to realize its climate goals.

“There are other cities that are watching Vancouver to see what it looks like to step up to this emergency,” Vancouver councillor Christine Boyle told TVO.org. “So there is some pressure there to set an example and be bold.”

“Of course, the next step is to not just name it, but to show our residents and the rest of the country that we mean it.”

Kingston councillors are hoping that the declaration will galvanize them as they head into budget planning for next year.

Kiley was pleased to see his motion adopted unanimously by council, but he acknowledges that difficult work lies ahead. The true test for this council, he says, will be how it responds to the declaration.

“None of us deserve to be re-elected if we don’t come up with more aggressive, more measurable, more action-oriented plans to make sure that we reduce our emissions drastically.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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