Will extreme weather put climate in the crosshairs of local government?
This column was published in Postmedia's Kenora Miner & News on April 28, 2022. It is available on the newspaper's website.
As humanity moves ever closer to the brink in the fight against climate change, extreme weather across our region may signal more of what’s to come. Faced with these threats, we often look to provincial and federal lawmakers to enact policies to address emissions and respond to global climate initiatives. Municipalities are generally thought of as wardens of day-to-day matters, such as water conservation, land use planning, and waste management. But local governments have an important role to play in mitigating climate risks too. Few have put their jurisdiction to work.
And they should. First and foremost, it is local governments that bear the cost of emergency response. Most are under-resourced for the major threats posed by extreme weather conditions. Many others struggle to even mobilize aid to support evacuees when other communities are threatened by flooding and wildfires – never mind their own set of looming climate-related risks.
While the science of climate change has been settled for a long time, frankly, most of our region’s population has been sheltered from observable consequences until recent years. Today, the obvious increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather simply cannot be ignored. It is a pattern consistent with what scientists have been telling us. Certainly, Mother Nature’s rampage through British Columbia last summer (torching the community of Lytton the day after it recorded the highest-ever temperature in Canada) has raised fears of catastrophe in this forest region too.
Indeed, the local consequences of climate inaction are now very apparent, dangerous, and costly – with fires, floods, and air quality becoming part of our seasonal DNA. Just last week, heavy rains caused widespread flooding, highway washouts, and damage to property across the Northwest. Some municipalities declared states of emergency (with Fort Frances citing the failure of municipal infrastructure to keep up with the deluge). And last summer, much of the region was blanketed in smoke from massive forest fires, protracted by extremely dry conditions.
To be sure, evidence of climate change has been with us in parts of the region for some time – particularly the far north, where shorter winters and rising temperatures threaten transportation corridors, food security, and access to medical care. But it is only in recent years that the full effects have been realized in the neck of the woods where we find municipalities.
Ontario law gives municipalities the power to enact by-laws respecting the “economic, social and environmental well-being of the municipality, including respecting climate change”. This phrasing from the legislation reflects the stark reality that climate change is a threat to our civilization and the general welfare of communities of all sizes across the province. Sadly, few cities have utilized this jurisdiction in a comprehensive manner.
The question to be asked of municipalities is how prepared they are to respond to climate-related emergencies. Almost all our region’s municipalities are surrounded by flammable woodlands, have areas prone to flooding, and are home to vulnerable populations at risk from low air quality. Are official plans, first responders, and local permitting, planning, and business by-laws mitigating or exacerbating these risks?
One municipality in southern Ontario has decided to take matters into its own hands rather than wait for senior levels of government to act. On March 28, 2022, Council in Fort Erie adopted a resolution that commits to implement a “Climate Change Adaptation Plan” which addresses impacts on the municipality caused by a warming planet. The plan is to account for financial and human resource impacts, and changes to building codes and other policies.
Some larger Ontario cities are acting too, including by tying climate programs to economic development. According to the Globe and Mail, in Waterloo and Peterborough, municipal economic development offices looked at economic opportunities associated with climate actions. Other cities, like Ottawa and Vancouver, have issued green bonds to finance climate-friendly projects.
But local municipal lawmakers in our region don’t need to look that far afield for leadership and guidance on climate and environmental sustainability. Area Indigenous communities’ longstanding stewardship of this territory – with which they have a cultural and spiritual connection – has given rise to local policy and programming to address climate change and adapt to the threats it poses.
Grand Council Treaty #3, a governing body for 28 First Nations, declared a climate emergency back in 2019. Its administration includes a dedicated Territorial Planning Unit that continues to show leadership on climate issues by promoting youth education, sustainable practices, and technologies that can reduce carbon footprints. Treaty #3’s great earth law, Manito Aki Inakonigaawin, asserts Anishinaabe jurisdiction and governance through a lens that emphasizes their duties and responsibilities to protect, care for, and respect the land.
As our communities move forward in the shadow of a global climate emergency, it is no longer sufficient for local governments to take a backseat in mitigating the threat of climate change. More must be done to respond to regional risks and mobilize local knowledge to protect citizens, property, and our natural environment. With Ontarians headed into a busy provincial and municipal electoral season, these concerns should be top of mind at front doors and townhalls across the region.
Douglas W. Judson is a lawyer and community advocate based in Northwestern Ontario/Treaty #3 territory. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @dwjudson.