The NWT’s environment and climate change minister avoided calling climate change an emergency when asked if he would do so by a fellow MLA in the legislature on Tuesday.
Shane Thompson said climate change was having a “profound effect” on the territory, which at one point this summer saw more than half of its residents displaced – mostly to southern Canada – by wildfires approaching various communities.
Thompson said climate change had been a “key part” of his government’s mandate and “will continue to affect our territory many ways into the future.”
But he did not bite when repeatedly prompted to call the situation a crisis or emergency by Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly.
This isn’t the first time O’Reilly has probed the government on its wording.
On Tuesday, he quoted an earlier answer given by Thompson’s cabinet colleague, infrastructure minister Diane Archie, who in May told O’Reilly: “We recognize climate change is a highly political issue, so we are conscious – in using the terminology – that we could be dismissed or polarized by individuals who are holding very different views.”
But Tuesday’s exchange went further than words, as O’Reilly pressed for more movement on the territory’s emissions reduction targets, with Thompson similarly careful not to openly support shifting the target to net-zero.
“To be perfectly frank, climate change is an emergency,” director of energy Robert Sexton told Cabin Radio in July. “It’s been clear to us for some time, and most other observers, that it’s time to revise our approach – probably in a fairly significant way.”
Thompson, though, told O’Reilly: “There is a need to balance a healthy economy with climate change mitigation. The NWT’s approach needs to be achievable, given our remoteness and cold climate.”
For example, even the NWT minister responsible for the carbon tax, which is required by the federal government, has said she is no fan of it. Critics of the carbon tax say financial penalties on residents in diesel-only communities make no sense with no alternatives currently available to them, and ministers have expressed concern that rushing mitigation measures could make the northern cost of living intolerable.
Thompson told O’Reilly any change in emissions target would come from a five-year review of the GNWT’s energy strategy, which is now under way and which is expected to take into account issues like the cost to residents. A public feedback window for that review has been extended until October 12.
O’Reilly, who has occupied the role of self-appointed environmental watchdog in his eight years as an MLA, is critical of the GNWT’s use of three separate but linked plans: the Department of Finance-led carbon tax, the Department of Environment and Climate Change’s strategic framework and the Department of Infrastructure’s energy strategy.
He says those provide “three separate and disparate reports” rather than integrated reporting that would tell the public, in understandable terms, how the territorial government is responding to climate change.
“I’m hoping that the next government takes the climate emergency much more seriously and puts in place legislation that will establish clear line leadership and priorities,” O’Reilly had said earlier in the day.
“We need a declaration that there is a climate emergency … We need legislation to back that up, where one department is in charge and coordinates a whole-of-government approach.”
Correction: October 4, 2023 – 21:58 MT. This article initially suggested a public feedback window on the energy strategy review closed in August. In fact, that window has been extended until October 12.