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Yellowknife council shies away from declaring climate 'emergency'

Coun. Julian Morse gave a long-winded but heartfelt explanation of climate change to youth activist Elle Kokelj, saying there is still hope for the future and shifting towards more sustainable living. Brett McGarry / NNSL photo
Ella Kokelj, right, and her supporters, all teens, made a plea with council to declare a municipal climate emergency on Oct. 15.
Brett McGarry / NNSL photo

With municipalities across Canada declaring a climate emergency, Ella Kokelj, a Yellowknife high school student and board member at Ecology North, made a plea to city council to follow suit.

"Here in the North we are experiencing the effects of warming climate up close and personal," said Kokelj.

"We are seeing the environment change in ways we haven't seen before. It is not just out in the bush that the impacts of climate change are being felt, but right here at home in our city. From thawing permafrost affecting roads, air strips and infrastructure stability to uncontrollable wildfires, (climate change presents) a direct risk to human health and safety. This is a daily reality that costs us, causes stress and changes how we must do things."

Kokelj asked the city to follow other cities from around the world and declare a climate emergency and integrate climate action into every aspect of policy building and decision making. She also suggested retro-fitting homes to reduce energy consumption, using biomass to heat homes and transitioning to electric vehicles.

Council, however, did not embrace the suggestion with open arms.

Many members of council pointed out the actions the city has already taken to be a leader among Canadian municipalities in environmental action.

"I looked up 'emergency' in the Collins dictionary," said Coun. Niels Konge.

"When I think about all the work we've done and the word 'emergency,' I don't think those things mesh."

Konge pointed out that Yellowknife has taken clear action on climate in putting in biomass district heating systems, investing in solar panels and having one of the most stringent building bylaws in the country.

"This council and past councils have actually been very responsible in creating policy and bylaws to address a lot of the things you've mentioned," said Konge.

He went on to ask Kokelj where she thinks the city can improve with their actions on environmental action.

"I think that I cannot fully respond to that because I am 17 years old and I do not know every single thing that has gone on but we can reach out and get back to you," said Kokelj.

Coun. Stacie Smith echoed some of Konge's sentiments, saying the city is already on the forefront of municipal climate action.

"We are actively moving forward in terms of the environment and reducing our carbon footprint," said Smith.

"There's only so far we can go without jumping off, for lack of a better term, the deep end."

Other councillors acknowledged that the globe is certainly facing a larger climate emergency, but want to ensure that declaring an emergency would not simply be empty words.

"I'd like to see us take action, but my only reservation about declaring a climate emergency is declaring it and then just leaving it," said Coun. Julian Morse.

"I want us to act like it's an emergency, not just say it."

Coun. Julian Morse gave a long-winded but heartfelt explanation of his stance on climate change to youth activist Ella Kokelj, saying there is still hope for the future and shifting towards more sustainable living.
Brett McGarry / NNSL photo

Coun. Shauna Morgan said with the city already enacting a community energy plan, it is important to already act on the plan in place as opposed to reopening it and further changing targets and goals.

Council members highlighted the courage it took Kokelj to stand up to the "lackluster and unsmiling faces" of council and talk about something important to her. She wreceived a round of applause at the conclusion of her time.

While Konge poised a challenge to youth, to develop technology that can turn Yellowknife's overflowing garbage problem into energy, Morgan pointed out it shouldn't be up to the next generation to solve climate issues.

Whether to declare a climate emergency will come before committee for future discussion. In the meantime, the plan is for members of the city administration to have more talks with Kokelj.

The city has already committed to reducing corporate carbon emissions by 50 per cent by 2025 using 2009 as the baseline year in their City of Yellowknife Corporate and Community Energy Plan 2015-2025.