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What is a "Climate Emergency"?

Ottawa residents rally outside Ottawa City Hall to demonstrate support for a motion to declare a climate emergency, April 16, 2019. Jean Levac/Postmedia News

Earlier this week, as water levels in the Ottawa River rise in Ontario, Ottawa's city council declared a climate emergency. This wasn't directly related to the flooding, but instead was a broader statement about Ottawa's commitment to fighting climate change. So what is a "climate emergency"? They're part of a global movement, launched in Australia in 2016, which sees local governments as major players in the fight to reduce carbon emissions. There are now more than 450 communities around the world that have declared climate emergencies, representing roughly 40 million people.

Declaring a climate emergency doesn't require any specific actions, meaning that a declaration can mean whatever the community wants it to mean...or not mean.

The goal of a climate emergency declaration is to create a sense of urgency about making cities carbon-neutral. There are many different ways that communities can get there, but treating climate change as an emergency changes the way that people think about it. 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 National Post, "people have a different mode of functioning when they move into emergency mode."

In Canada the emergency climate declaration movement started last year in Quebec, after a summer heat wave claimed 93 lives. 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.”

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