Council: push to declare climate emergency backfires

Above: Members of the public make their own silent declaration at last night’s council meeting. 

 

By KIERAN FINNANE

Last updated 17 September 2019, 12.23pm.

 

A push to get the Town Council to acknowledge the climate emergency and develop a policy around it backfired last night.  Many more people than a fortnight ago filled the public gallery, in the end it was standing room only. T-shirts had been printed, speeches prepared, 17 people took to the microphone, a song was sung … and ground was lost.

 

A fortnight ago Councillor Jimmy Cocking had four votes in the bag for his motions to take the climate emergency declaration for debate  to the next meeting of the Local Government Association of the NT. The four were himself and Councillors Catherine Satour, Marli Banks and Eli Melky.

 

There has been a lot of solidarity between these four on council but last night Cr Melky broke from the ranks. His irritation with the “orchestrated event” by activists during public question time became evident not long into it unfolding.

 

Cr Cocking was in the chair and was happy for council to hear from people in the community backing his motion. However Cr Melky, who is generally a stickler for procedure, was not happy for this to be taking place with Cr Cocking in the chair, as it related to his motion. The speakers should be heard from in the next committee, which he, Cr Melky, would be chairing.

 

Cr Cocking acknowledged that the motion would be referred to that committee for debate. It would be inappropriate for him to be in the chair for debate of his own motion, he explained to the public, but  he allowed them to proceed.

 

After the speech by the first speaker, Sue Fielding (pictured), and as the second, James Young, prepared to make his, Cr Melky pointed out that speakers needed to put a question for council to respond to.

 

Ms Fielding had called on council to bring forward its Climate Action Plan (on the books and funded to the tune of $250,000 per year over four years) in the form of a declaration of climate emergency, linking council and the town to a growing movement of especially local governments around Australia and the world. This, repeated by the majority if not all the speakers, actually went beyond what Cr Cocking was calling for. His motion did not refer to the movement.

 

Ms Fielding also gave examples of actions that such a declaration would involve, some of which are already being addressed by council, even if more could and no doubt should be done. These include recycling initiatives, investment in renewable technologies (extensive solar, an electric car), reducing emissions and energy use, local food production (through its support of the Community Garden) and protection of the water supply.

 

This lack of acknowledgement of what council is already doing got not only Cr Melky but other councillors, including the Mayor, off side.

 

Her question, which was taken up by most of the later speakers, responding to Cr Melky’s point about the necessity of a question, was simply, “Councillors, will you declare a state of climate emergency?”

 

It became clear in the later debate that the word ‘emergency’ – which was indeed the focus of Cr Cocking’s motion – was also acting like a red rag to a bull, as were references to anxieties and fears.

 

By the time the third speech, by Jennifer Taylor, had finished Cr Melky addressed the public directly, asking them to work within the guidelines of council’s meeting procedure, which would mean asking brief questions – he suggested no more than 60 seconds.  A lot of time taken up now would mean less time for debate by councillors later, he pointed out, with “no disrespect to your efforts and wishes”.

 

The following speakers did all keep it brief, but there were 14 of them, with one also speaking also on behalf of Caddie Brain, the organiser of a petition on this subject which has so far gathered around 1000 signatures.

 

Then came the finale, when Barb Molanus on the microphone led the gathering in a song, to the tune of “Shenandoah” with words adapted to their theme. Ms Molanus has a lovely voice, the melody is beautiful, the singing was heartfelt. A smile lingered on the lips of new council CEO Robert Jennings but the majority of councillors were stony-faced and Cr Melky made a last cranky comment to the chair.

 

Right: Calls by Cr de Brenni for more tree planting to respond to our warming town fall flat in face of council’s recent plantings in Bath Street, here, and Palm Circuit below. 

 

The gallery then emptied and when the matter came up for debate, none of the activists were there to listen.

 

Cr Cocking spoke to his motion. A key point was that Alice Springs’ vulnerability represents also an opportunity, to demonstrate how to adapt to a warming world. But he, like many of the speakers, urged councillors to heed the science, and again, the implied climate science denialism on their part was not going down well.

 

Cr Banks spoke in support, but made the counter-intuitive point that an emergency did not “necessarily mean extreme measures”, it was just about “acknowledging” the  issue, concerning to many people, it didn’t have to “be dramatic”.

 

Deputy Mayor Matt Paterson pointed out, speaking against the motion, an emergency is dramatic and he was not comfortable with supporting anything with that word in its title.

 

He also referred to council’s actions in the field, including lobbying the NT Government on climate action, increasing awareness, supporting innovation, investing funds, lowering emissions. He  was concerned that Cr Cocking’s motion was just “a piece of paper”: “Nothing changes.”

 

Cr Jamie de Brenni similarly could not agree with the word ’emergency’. He could agree with “urgency” and for instance wanted some urgency brought to bear on the planting of 900 trees, involving children in the community, “teaching” them how to do it.

 

(This is not council’s strong suit at the present time, with a heavy death toll amongst recent plantings in both Bath Street and on Palm Circuit. Cr Banks later asked a question about the watering regime for the new beds on Palm Circuit; it was taken on notice.)

 

Cr Jacinta Price, attending the meeting by phone, also couldn’t support the word ‘emergency’.

 

She preferred a more “level-headed” approach, “not whipped up into hysteria”, nor “using children to fight adult fights”.

 

Cr Banks countered that her colleagues’ arguments were running “the risk of climate denial”; the intention in using the word ‘emergency’ was to “give direction” to council and to respond to the “overwhelming concern” of the community.

 

Cr Cocking said accepting that an emergency exists would entail dealing with the situation now rather than in 10 years’ time or even later. He pointed to the inaction over 30 years by all levels of government, despite a 1989 policy discussion document by the Liberal and National Parties, which recognised global warming as human-induced and proposed taking a leading role, in Australia and the world, to shape policies that would minimise its impacts.

 

That this hadn’t translated into action, he later argued, was down to the political influence of fossil fuel companies.

 

In relation to council’s existing Climate Action Plan, he said it has good mitigating elements (aimed at lowering council’s carbon emissions, for example) but it has very little detail, if any, on how to adapt to the changes that are upon us – an “angry” last summer, an even worse one expected this year because of the lack of rain.

 

His motion was about council developing policy across the full range of council activities, with a focus on adaptation, how to better live in a hotter world: Alice Springs has an  “international reputation we can leverage”, “we could lead in that space”.

 

Cr Satour commended his “strong and brave motion”. She acknowledged the leadership council has shown to date but saw an opportunity to do more in becoming “part of a global movement”.

 

Mayor Damien Ryan encouraged Cr Cocking to meet with the meet with the CEO and develop a plan “with substance” that he could support. He then took aim at some of the presenters “telling us what we’re doing wrong”, including – a petty swipe – one who was drinking out of a plastic bottle. He also disparaged a council who has made a climate emergency declaration and since promoted a “no meat Monday” in their community.

 

Cr Cocking pointed out that his motion was about developing a policy, not a plan, but said he would take up the Mayor’s suggestion to meet with the CEO.

 

Then Cr Melky, from the chair, launched his attack not only on the motion but on Cr Cocking’s strategy. In an email to the draft motion he had apparently responded that it was  “excellent” but now he said that supporting it in its current form may be doing it a “disadvantage”.

 

With considerable condescension, he pointed out to Cr Cocking what he saw as relevant sections of the Local Government Act, nuances of definition,  and council’s record of action on the climate front in which he had long been involved.

 

The “orchestrated event” by members of the public had been “completely unhelpful”, in his view, in particular in their challenges to council’s leadership – “every one of us in this room stands up every day”.

 

He didn’t want to follow anyone else – referring to being part of the emergency declaration movement. As for Cr Cocking’s call to act as if our house is burning down (quoting Greta Thunberg’s now famous formulation), he likened his motion to a couple of water balloons rather than the big fire hose that would be necessary.

 

As if speaking to a school child, Cr Melky finished by telling Cr Cocking to “go and do your work” and bring back to council “an authentic motion”.

 

Cr Cocking took a breath. He agreed we need a fire hose, and council’s $250,000 a year action plan doesn’t quite cut it given the scale of the challenge. He wants to take action further, across the whole organisation. He reiterated that he will meet with the CEO about the issues and bring more information to council to support his motion at the end-of-month ordinary meeting, when it will be put to a formal vote.

 

 

 

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12 Comments (starting with the most recent)

NB: If you want to reply to a previous comment, start your comment with this notation: @n where n is the number of the comment you want to reply to.
  1. Local 1
    Posted September 22, 2019 at 1:55 pm

    @ Marie: Just a quick couple of extra points Marie, you did ask people to tell you after all.
    The claim that pacific islands are sinking has been proved false.
    Tuvalavu was the prime example used, but it has actually been proven to be growing in land mass, not sinking.
    No regulations as far as insulation when building? We built an extension about six years ago and certainly had to meet regulations when installing the windows, there had to be a certain UV transmission factor / UV radiation block out, required by the regulations.
    As far as swimming pools go, and boot cattle productions, the amount of water is finite, meaning that as pool water evaporates, the water is taken into the atmosphere, and dispersed somewhere around the globe.
    The water used in livestock productions is not gone forever, it all returns to the earth in the end, so please check some statements before making alarmist ones like these.
    I agree we need to do more, but let’s base our arguments on all the facts, and not go off on alarmist falsities.

    View Comment
  2. Watchn
    Posted September 20, 2019 at 5:44 am

    Yes. But what is the “plan”?
    Council don’t run the power station, though they do have the most solar systems in town.
    They have a public solar powered electric car plug in station.
    They have a policy to lobby the NT Government on climate and environmental matters.
    They actively plant and maintain the green spaces of town and manage the WRMF.
    They have a focus on buying electric office cars, only available via one dealership Adelaide.
    They support climate and environmental actions and demonstrations performed by their ratepayers.
    Some of these points I think are what Cr Melky wanted published and spread.
    I don’t think the council is preventing further actions within their powers taking place, just what they already do being acknowledged.
    Bashing the council for not acting or even performing their duties just gets everybody’s shackles up.

    View Comment
  3. Philby
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 8:37 pm

    Quoting Flannery is hardly going to win people over.
    I suggest all read Dr Roy Spencer’s reports on actual observations of climate rather than models which have proven to be very unreliable.
    There is no emergency and this latest socialist push by alarmists is UN propaganda.
    Open your minds and eyes. This reminds me of Hitler and his Nazi cultists and we know how that ended.

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  4. Local Thinker
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 6:29 pm

    Yes, us 20,000 or so Alice locals will save the planet by our actions. Not.
    And quoting Tim Flannery doesn’t serve the climate action cause very well at all. How many of his famous “Weather Makers” claims have come true? Have another read and see.
    Over-population of the planet and volcanic emissions (both above ground and below the seas, which we can do absolutely nothing about) are the biggest threats to earth’s longevity and liveability.
    Other than large meteors from outer space, that is.
    And if we believe humans can tame / moderate Mother Nature’s climate, well, we are kidding ourselves.
    Yes, stop fossil fuel emissions by all means, as their are other sustainable alternatives available now, but in the end we will still be at the mercy of Mother Nature.
    Lets not forget, climate change has been occurring for millions and millions of years before the very “recent” (in Earth’s timeframe terms) Industrial Revolution and consequential man made CO2 emissions accelerated things.
    We need to adapt, as earth’s creatures have done over thousands and thousands of years … but quickly, as trying to modify and “manage” earth’s climate in order for humanity to survive is, in the end, an unrealistic, utopian dream.
    Just say’n.

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  5. Climate Voter
    Posted September 19, 2019 at 2:34 pm

    This was no “backfire”. I attended the meeting.
    The agenda posted online didn’t clarify when the motion for Alice Springs Town Council to declare a state of climate emergency would be raised.
    There was confusion in the gallery about the meeting’s process, and how it was to be handled – hence the timing of public questions, and departure of the crowd.
    But more important is this: The speakers were gracious and informed. They expressed gratitude to the council for the commitment shown to engage with the causes and conditions of climate change.
    They openly shared fears and concerns and appealed to council to bring forward the ASTC Climate Change Action Plan as a matter of urgency.
    They offered to work with council on a climate emergency plan.
    The response of council on the other hand, is of grave concern.
    The conservative block has its head in the sand. How can we have confidence in leaders who lag behind the science, believing the term emergency is inflated?
    Our community deserves more than this. We are educated, alert, and committed to Alice Springs.
    And we are watching – the community needs council to be brave, informed, contemporary, and to provide us with a forward-thinking response without delay.
    There’s no time for a 10 year plan! No time to dither around on points of meeting procedure, or to act bullishly in a pathetic display of self-aggrandisement and power play.
    That won’t save us.
    To hold back on response and keep us out of step with the rest of the country, the rest of the world, ultimately damages this community.
    Confidence in council is at low ebb. Anxiety is high. Step up now and bring us together to respond to the climate emergency we are in the midst of!

    View Comment
  6. Marie
    Posted September 18, 2019 at 12:38 pm

    I simply believe we don’t speak the same language. The Mayor mentioned on ABC “the lack of acknowledgement of what council is already doing”, adding that the council is planning to invest in more electric cars and also is careful with its power usage…
    A Climate Emergency Plan is not about what the council itself is doing to tick the box and show off to the community but about how it involves its citizens to create a healthier and sustainable place to live. And you can do that by educating, informing, sensitising …
    But to do that, we need leaders that understand these things and this is where we get lost in translation.
    Can someone tell me how, with 300+ days of sun/year, we are not a model in term of solar energy and why this town is not running on solar power?
    Can someone tell me, how it is possible that half Australia’s food industry is owned by foreign investors, wrecking the land and sucking out our water?
    Can someone tell me why we waste so much water in the mining industry, swimming pools and cattle industry while we know that the drought will get worse?
    Did you know that producing 1kg of meat requires between 5,000 and 20,000 litres?
    Can someone tell me why in this town there is no building regulation in terms of insulation? Everybody is using the ACs and heaters while a smartly built home would have a lower energy impact.
    A Climate Emergency Plan would sensitise people on all these things, the way we live and eat, and set some targets to reducing the way we buy and consume.
    The Mayor talks about the Alice Springs recycling centre, great but what is really recyclable? Is there any education around it?
    What we need to do is to take the problem at its roots, buy less, buy smart, produce local and ban plastic. With governments, it is always dealing with the problem at the end of the chain, when it is too late!
    Climate change repercussions are global, they are not only drowning islands far away or dying polar bears but they are in our home, on our plates, in our bodies and minds every day.

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  7. Hermann Weber
    Posted September 17, 2019 at 3:26 pm

    What a lot of balderdash. Council should do the work it is required to do, not get involved in global politics.
    I like Watchn. Mining requires a lot of energy and goes where this is coming from. Disposal of heavy metals when their useful life expires poses a problem as well.

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  8. James T Smerk
    Posted September 17, 2019 at 3:08 pm

    The way of the future. Those with the smallest voice getting all the attention because the majority are happy to sit back and not get ‘involved’ in anything.
    Let’s all get up in arms over climate change on a local council level, I’m sure that will fix it.
    We wouldn’t want to focus on issues the council might actually be able to do something about such as homelessness, crime, growing the town and bringing tourists back.

    View Comment
  9. Domenico Pecorari
    Posted September 17, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    It seems to me that some of our more thin-skinned councillors need to focus less upon their hurt feelings and read more.
    As Tim Flannery writes, only today, in his opinion piece in The Conversation: “Many climate scientists think we are already so far down the path of destruction that it is impossible to stabilise the global temperature at 1.5℃ above the pre-industrial average without yet to be developed drawdown technologies such as those that remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. On current trends, within a decade or so, stabilising at 2℃ will likewise be beyond our grasp.
    And on the other side of that threshold, nature’s positive feedback loops promise to fling us into a hostile world. By 2100 — just 80 years away — if our trajectory does not change, it is estimated that Earth will be 4℃ warmer than it was before we began burning fossil fuels.”
    If this does not constitute an emergency in their minds, I don’t know what will.
    To Cr Cocking and the other progressives on council, I say: keep up the good fight.

    View Comment
  10. Jesse
    Posted September 17, 2019 at 1:51 pm

    Rather than criticizing action taken by concerned residents, maybe the council could think about ways to make their meetings more accessible and inclusive for the public. Or even better…take action on concerns that the public have before such actions are required?

    Very disappointing to see Cr Melky backing away from action on climate change and relying on procedure to stifle the voice of the public.

    View Comment
  11. Watchn
    Posted September 17, 2019 at 1:11 pm

    Emergency situation needs emergency actions. Turn off the fossil fuel electricity grid. Mine lithium and other heavy metals to store and support a solar system. Creating industry and employment for thousands.
    If steps like this are not taken, nothing will actually change. And the emergency will continue.

    View Comment
  12. John Bell
    Posted September 17, 2019 at 12:32 pm

    So. Let me get this straight. 14 Climate Change Emergency activists get up on the mike with questions in thousands of words and even in song. But when it came to debating what the emergency actually was or actually entailed, they had done a runner from the gallery? So the heated air of words sort of evaporated into thin air and left answers blowing in the wind, so to speak? What did it all achieve? Anything at all? But it sounds like a good time was had by all. A good night out in the Alice. And that’s the main thing, hey?

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