On September 20, Mayor John Tory announced that Toronto will declare a climate emergency, which the Toronto City Council will consider at its October 2 meeting.
According to a series of tweets from Tory, the climate crisis “poses a major risk to our city’s residents and businesses.” The purpose of his declaration is “naming, framing, and deepening Toronto’s commitment to protecting [the city] from climate change.”
Tory’s announcement coincided with the first round of Global Climate Strikes and follows an open call by more than 50 community organizations for the City Council to declare a climate emergency. It also follows in the footsteps of increasingly severe weather events in Toronto, according to the city’s Resilience Strategy.
If the City Council adopts the declaration, Toronto would be joining over 800 local governments that have already declared a climate emergency around the world. However, the declaration is largely symbolic, and includes no new program or initiative proposals.
“Words are great. Symbolic politics is important. But the declaration of a climate emergency has to be reconciled with real climate conscious policies,” wrote Professor Teresa Kramarz, Co-Director of the Munk School’s Environmental Governance Lab, in an email to The Varsity.
Kramarz added that individuals have to “push the Mayor and city council… [to define] clear mechanisms of accountability that connect words of emergency to deeds that are commensurate with such a designation.”
Tory’s announcement also highlighted TransformTO and Toronto’s Resilience Strategy, which are two ongoing initiatives the city is using to address the climate crisis.
By 2050, TransformTO aims for an 80 per cent reduction in Toronto’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from 1990 levels. Its strategies include ensuring that constructing new buildings produces less GHG emissions, increasing renewable energy sources, instigating more walking and cycling by Toronto residents, and diverting waste from landfills.
On September 26, Tory asked that the City Council commit to accelerating the goals laid out by TransformTO, including achieving net zero GHG emissions before 2050. This, alongside the declaration of climate emergency, will be considered on October 2.
Toronto’s Resilience Strategy is a broader initiative designed to help Torontonians adapt to a number of issues, specifically the effects of the climate crisis.
“Declaring a climate emergency will only be helpful if it’s backed up by aggressive policies to reduce emissions in the city of Toronto,” wrote Jessica Green, an associate professor at the Department of Political Science and the School of the Environment, in an email to The Varsity.
She suggested that the city should start with “more public transportation at low to no-cost, congestion pricing, and zero-emissions standards for all new buildings.”
“It will seem radical to many, but inaction will be worse,” noted Green.
Leap UofT, a climate justice and activism group on campus, was one of the signatories on the open call sent out to the City Council.
“I think we can get very focused on what we’re doing on campus and not look outward into the city as a whole,” said Julia DaSilva, a co-founder of Leap UofT.
DaSilva believes it’s important for university students to get “involved in community-wide organizing as well.”
On the shifting of language surrounding “climate change” to more urgent terms such as “crisis” and “emergency,” semiotics professor Marcel Danesi said that, “Every time you change a word you’re labeling a new reality, you’re bringing it into focus.”
“If it’s a crisis then it’s something different than a change, it’s a change for the worse and therefore we need to take action. Yes, words do matter,” Danesi explained.