The starting point for handling our climate emergency? Treat it like a house on fire.

If we’re going to take climate change seriously, we need to treat it like a house on fire. That analogy came from not just one, but two presenters in two separate ICLEI Daring Cities sessions yesterday, hailing from two different continents.

“If your house is on fire, then everyone needs to respond to put it out… everybody needs to act to adapt and mitigate (climate change),” said Oliver Moran, Deputy Lord Mayor of the City of Cork. Moran, who is also Chair of the city’s multi-departmental Climate Action Committee went on to observe that not unlike when a house is burning, there needs to be a sense of urgency that is parlayed into action that is “cross functional… and is reflected across the organization,” tied to initiatives ranging from flood early warning systems to intelligent transportation projects.

Meanwhile during the “I’ve Declared a Climate Emergency, What Do I Do Now?” session, Margaret Hender, the Co-Founder of Australian grass roots organization CEDAMIA noted that when a declaration of a climate emergency is made by any level of  government  “it signals that the government itself will be acting as if our house is on fire,” making members of the public realize that “government needs to make different decisions than normal, about budget allocations, deployment of the workforce… and also to set different behaviour guidelines for the community for the duration of the emergency.”

Hender went on to observe that the significance of formally declaring a climate emergency for the benefit of the general public is that “in times of emergency ordinary people tend to rise to the occasion and act collectively for the common good in ways they might not in normal times… so they need to know very clearly that it is an emergency.”

Thus far over 2,000 cities representing over one-billion citizens from around the world have made climate emergency declarations and not surprisingly, a majority of municipalities represented in yesterday’s sessions have taken that step. One of the reasons the Mayor of Budapest Gergely Karácsony was elected in 2019 was because of his promise to push through a declaration of climate emergency once in office. And yesterday, Ada Amon, the Chief Advisor to the Mayor on Climate Affairs (City of Budapest) spoke about how her city is using that declaration as a lever to accelerate positive steps toward mitigating climate change, including the creation of sustainable energy and climate action plans. Consequently “with every action the municipality makes, climate is an important factor… that requires a lot of cooperation between the different departments,” she observed.

The city is also coming to terms with the fact that climate related initiatives such as district heating and goals such as cutting their carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030 “require a lot of money” and in order to help bring at least some of their projects to fruition, “we’re looking for higher inclusion and involvement… with the European funding facilities.”

One city represented yesterday which surprisingly has yet to formally declare a climate emergency is Turku, Finland. Surprising, in that Turku has established one of the world’s most ambitious goals of achieving carbon neutrality by 2029.

“Why have we not declared it (climate emergency) yet?” Turku Climate Director Risto Veivo asked session attendees. “Perhaps the reason is… we have worked on climate policy over the last 12 years… and we were one of the first (city) councils to have a climate plan.” As such he says there has been no need to declare any sort of emergency “in order to get (climate mitigation) work going.”

Veivo said the city hasn’t yet ruled out making a climate emergency declaration, but he wondered if such a move might not be more impactful by doing so “in a coordinated manner among (municipal networks),” whether within Finland, the European parliament or via such groups as ICLEI “so that we can support each other and echo the messages (being conveyed) clearly.”

Whether cities make a formal declaration regarding climate change or not, Aaron Hawkins, Mayor of the City of Dunedin, New Zealand emphasized that beyond making a statement, we need to quickly come to terms with the fact that “climate action is not just the biggest environmental challenge we face… but also (our) biggest social justice issue.”

Hawkins described his city’s decision to fast-track its goal of becoming carbon neutral from 2050 to 2030 as “incredibly difficult… but a more ambitious target has focused our efforts on action in a way that a 2050 target was never going to.” He said this aggressive stance was entirely consistent with the city’s longstanding commitment to fighting climate change. “In 2014 we were the first city to divest ourselves of the fossil fuel industry and in 2015 we joined what was then the compact of mayors and joined the campaign to ban offshore oil and gas exploration, which finally happened in our country in 2018.”

Offering a real world perspective when it comes to tackling climate change initiatives, Hawkins admitted candidly that “doing things is where stuff gets hard because just as school strike kids can create pressure on us to do good things, those with a vested interest in the status quo… or at the very least with a lack of imagination or ambition around (climate change) work can easily create pressure on us to do nothing.”

Currently Dunedin is grappling with a transport sector that is responsible for 40 percent of the city’s carbon emissions… a figure that Hawkins described as infuriating as “it’s the easiest problem to solve because… we know there are different ways of moving around and through our city (that are more carbon friendly).” At the same time he says they’re dealing with “entrenched resistance… and cognitive dissonance,” whereby people say, “yes climate change is very important and we need  to be acting on this… but the solutions can’t cost us a single car space in the city centre.”

Speaking on behalf of the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, Stephen Cowan said that his city’s climate awakening began in 2014 when “we took a series of actions to protect the ecology and improve the environment. We were the first council to ban (the weed killer) glyphosate in Britain… we had resident led commissions (on biodiversity, parks and air quality) and we set out with an ambition to divest from fossil fuels in our pension fund.”

He said the net effect for his city of declaring a climate emergency in 2019 and  setting a goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030 has been “a game changer in the way we’ve worked with residents and many other local groups.”

However there is still much work that needs to be done to win everyday citizens over towards “embracing a carbon positive lifestyle,” Cowan said. Because “we’re asking people to change everything in their life, from the way they heat their home to how they travel around the city.”

To bring about such transformative change, as Cowan’s co-presenter Mayor Hawkins of Dunedin pointed out earlier, cities have to stop trying to “build compromise into solutions” in the face of naysayers and instead “have the courage to make future focused decisions on behalf of our communities.”