If a councillor is not a hard climate denier but argues against the council acknowledging/declaring and mobilising on the climate emergency, their arguments are probably as follows:
Argument #1: If Council declares a climate emergency, it will have to follow up with emergency action and through the acknowledgment could become financially liable.
Response: Without an appropriate climate emergency declaration and planning, Council is more likely to be left legally exposed because climate risk management will not be prioritised.
There are often two components to this general concern: firstly, that a climate emergency acknowledgement would mean Council would need to follow up with action, and secondly, the potential for Council liability if it didn't follow up the acknowledgement with commensurate action.
The obvious response to the first part of this concern is: Yes, of course Council has to follow up with commensurate action, which means prioritising climate risks.
With regard to liability, the thinking goes that if the severity of climate risk is acknowledged and Council does not adequately prepared for the risks, (eg, for unprecedented flooding) if the risk is realised, the council could be liable for damages. However, 'ignorance' of the severity of climate risk is no longer a legal defence.
It is Council's business to be aware a full range of climate threats, as relate to the physical landscape and infrastructure, planning and delivery of basic council services, and general wellbeing of the community. This is made very clear in this 2016 Australian legal assessment of 'Directors' climate liability exposure increasing exponentially'.
Climate science and mainstream assessment of resulting risks is too established across most sectors for 'ignorance' to be seen as anything but 'negligence'.
Council's exposure to future litigation around inaction on climate change only strengthens the argument that Council should acknowledge/declare climate emergency to ensure priority is given to climate risk management (via the declaration and climate emergency plan, prioritised in Council's strategic plan) Without the acknowledgement/declaration, climate risk management will not be prioritised and Council will be left exposed.
Furthermore, any council that is considering a climate emergency declaration should have been informed to a significant degree by community activists, staff or other councillors, and hence in any future litigation, would not be able to claim ignorance. For example, in 2017-18, CACE emailed every Australia with an email address a letter outlining the climate emergency and what council could do in response.
We could see a future time when today's community activists are presenting in court their efforts to get emergency action by local council staff and councillors.
It is true that Council liability would be more likely to occur from failure to build resilience in the community to mitigate impacts, as opposed to failure to reduce emissions; however, it is a happy coincidence that resilience building and emissions reduction often go hand in hand: creating biochar from organic waste makes soil more resilient to drought while also reducing emissions; growing food locally builds community resilience and reduces emissions; making a grid more resilient means it is likely to rely more on renewables and storage, so will also have lower emissions etc.
Argument #2: Council is already doing everything it can regarding climate.
Response: Is the council telling the community we are in a climate emergency? What proportion of discretionary spending went on climate related lines in the current budget? Is organic waste diverted from landfill? Does Council prioritise climate initiatives in their strategic plan? What climate related measures is the CEO held to account on? If Council is actually doing all it can then why not acknowledge/declare a climate emergency?
Emergency thinking and acting is a paradigm shift from business as usual and the same goes for climate emergency thinking and acting. A council doing everything they can assesses everything they do with a climate emergency lens:
-basic operations are assessed and revised with regard to the emissions reduction and resilience building (see #3 below)
-discretionary spending is directed towards the climate emergency
-the CEO is assessed primarily against measures from the climate emergency plan
-the urgency is reflected in Council's strategic plan.
Argument #3: Our community want us to stick to basic services.
Response: Basic services are all levers for climate emergency action, both local resilience building and reducing emissions.
Even if limiting the council portfolio to its bare minimum (which varies by country and council type), this does not prevent council from putting a climate emergency lens across their basic services: rates, roads, rubbish, buildings, power purchases, community services, and planning and implementing best practice.
Where the funds are not available the lobbying the state and federal government comes into play. CACE is building a clearinghouse of ideas on its Post Declaration page.
Argument #4: Climate emergency is the business of state and federal governments, not councils.
Response: Are state and federal governments currently leading a climate emergency response?
Global emissions are still going up and we've set off numerous positive feedback loops/reached tipping points. Yes, ultimately state and federal government are in control of the big economic regulatory levers but getting state and federal governments to the climate emergency is, to understate the issue, an uphill push. Councils are the ones to get the ball rolling.
Councils also have broad portfolios with many levers for reducing and drawing down emissions and getting the community on board. When a central government declares a climate emergency, they will look to local governments and ask 'Right, now what are you going to do?'. Councils need to start preparing now.
Ask the councillor: if not the international council campaign, how else do you see the planet being saved? The alternative is giving up.
Argument #5: A climate emergency declaration would be 'virtue signalling'.
Response: A climate emergency declaration is not virtue signalling if Council is prepared to follow up the words with real action.
Virtue signalling involves expressing opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one's moral correctness on a particular issue. If a council is prepared to take strong action or even mobilise, this demonstrates that the declaration is more than an empty gesture.
Image Source: InDaily