Knox City Council meeting which passed a motion to declare (not just recognise) the Climate Emergency

From recognition to declaration: Knox City Council

This is a first! Or, at least, to the best of my knowledge Knox City Council is the first jurisdiction anywhere to upgrade an earlier motion recognising the Climate Emergency in order to explicitly join the ranks of local councils that have declared a Climate Emergency.

On 27 September 2021 Knox City Council adopted a new climate response plan, and in association with that they also recognised the Climate Emergency. Then, this week at their 25 July meeting, Cr Jude Dwight successfully proposed a new motion to explicitly declare a Climate Emergency.

Mayor Susan Laukens supported the motion to reaffirm the council’s commitment to act. “It is real, it is happening and climate scientists have been warning us of extreme weather events,” she said. “We need to be advocating and show leadership in this space”.

The new motion begins:

That Council

  1. Officially and publicly declare a Climate Emergency;
  2. Reaffirms strong commitment to the Climate Emergency and climate change mitigation and adaptation, as evidenced through…

To declare or to recognise – what is the issue?

A note on cedamia’s global list of Climate Emergency Declaration (CED) jurisdictions states that:

We include a jurisdiction if their resolution text includes ‘climate emergency’ or the equivalent in the local language. The resolution can declare, note, acknowledge, recognise (or similar) a climate emergency, or it can place climate emergency in quotation marks.

Accordingly, the earlier Knox City Council was recorded in the global list at the time it occurred (but it has now been updated to reflect the change from ‘recognise’ to ‘declare’).

But what prompted this note and this policy?

Warming banner - declare a Climate Emergency

As the above banner says, the grassroots Climate Emergency Declaration (CED) campaign which began in 2016 clearly asked all levels of government to declare a Climate Emergency. That’s what you do when you become aware of an emergency situation. You declare there is one so that everyone knows to take action if they want to remain safe.

In practice, particularly at first, many jurisdictions used words other than ‘declare’. Apparently they were concerned about unintended legal implications of declaring an emergency. (Even so, in general usage, all Climate Emergency resolutions tend to be reported as being ‘declarations’ regardless of the word actually used.)

Climate Emergency declarations in Australia

The first five CED councils in Australia either recognised, endorsed, or acknowledged the Climate Emergency. From 2020 onwards the vast majority used ‘declare’ in their CED motions but overall only half have done so. Incidentally, in Europe Climate and Ecological Emergency or Climate and Biodiversity Emergency declarations are quite common, but in Australia there have only been two of each, and one more that ‘recognised’ the Climate and Biodiversity Emergency.

Chart showing words used in Climate Emergency Declarations in Australia

Declarations in other countries

The first CED in the UK by Bristol City Council in November 2018 adopted a different solution. They declared a ‘climate emergency’, using quotation marks to signal that this was a new concept rather than necessarily having any sort of legal implications. During 2019 many other UK local councils copied that precedent, but these days new UK declarations usually don’t.

A few of the declarations in Canada and USA have used ‘recognise’ or similar, but the majority have simply used ‘declare’, as do all the CEDs in New Zealand and Japan.

Over the last couple of years there have been occasional cases of declarations in Australia and elsewhere that explicitly state that they should not be interpreted as having any particular legal implications. This seems like a practical way of circumventing debate on whether or not there are any legal issues to complicate declaring a Climate Emergency. For example, the Greater Wellington Council CED motion includes a clause saying, “Notes that the Climate Emergency declaration is made without explicit statutory authority or support.”

So…do CEDs have legal implications?

To be honest, I don’t think they do, but I’m not a lawyer. The campaign to declare a Climate Emergency is a bottom-up grassroots campaign. If CEDs were a top-down initiative there would be legislation saying what a CED is and setting regulations about them, but it isn’t. It came as a complete surprise to CED campaigners that the word ‘declare’ was considered a stumbling block considering that the entire CED concept was new and had no official standing.

However, some countries have legislation concerning other types of emergency declarations and the sorts of temporary powers and obligations that apply during those emergencies. It is understandable therefore that council legal teams wanted to take a cautious approach, at least at first.

All except two of the 20 most recent CEDs in Australia have used ‘declare’, and UK councils no longer bother using quotation marks. Has it now been established that such caution regarding potential legal implications is unnecessary? If you can answer this, please let us know!

In the meantime, I’m not sure if Knox City Council was concerned about legal implications when they used ‘recognise’ in their first CED, or perhaps they were influenced by the precedents set by some other Australian CEDs. Either way, it’s great to see them explicitly declare a Climate Emergency now. It really does sound much stronger.

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