School Board Declares Climate Emergency in Unanimous Motion

At the meeting of the Upper Grand District School Board on Tuesday, trustees voted unanimously to declare a climate emergency. The motion will create a new climate change committee of the board, which will look for ways to reduce the carbon footprint at Guelph and area public schools, and promote others to lead by example.

“This is something that I felt like I had to do,” said Mark Bailey who brought the motion to the board. “I guess I needed to feel as if I’m working towards being part of the solution.”

Bailey explained that his motion was almost a year in the making, and was only recently ratified by the Business Operations Committee after a lot of feedback and consultation with the 11 other members of the board, including the two student trustees.

“I’m glad that I didn’t push things through because working with all the other trustees, and understanding their concerns and their points of view, we were able to create a resolution that was satisfying for absolutely everyone,” he said.

That satisfying motion has six parts.

Part one is simple, seeing the board declare a climate emergency, and recognize that “climate change threatens our students, board, region, province, nation, humanity and the natural world.”

Parts two through five is to establish a Trustee Climate Change Committee, which is made up four elected trustees and one of the two student trustees, and direct them to report back to the Business Operations standing committee with a plan to raise awareness on climate change issues, reduce the board’s carbon footprint, identify the climate impacts of board decision-making, and develop a climate action statement for the board.

The sixth part of the motion is to direct the chair of the board to “write to encourage the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association and every other publicly funded school board in Ontario to adopt a similar resolution.”

“My vision is that we reach out to our system of communities and to our students to develop a serious, effective and meaningful plan together,” explained Bailey who added that the directions will be up to the Committee.

“It won’t just be political leadership imposing a vision on everyone else,” Bailey said. “It will be working with stakeholders and coming up with a real teamwork approach: How can we engage our system and our students in meaningful dialogue, and come up with a meaningful plan together that seriously addresses this emergency?”

One of the people delegating at the board meeting Tuesday was Ruth Szaefer, an organizer of the Fridays for Future protests in Guelph. She applauds the direction from the Upper Grand District School Board, and said that it will give the young people who have been coming out to those protests in the last year something they’ve been asking for.

“The youth are screaming for help, and right now, they have such a powerful voice in this whole thing, but they are not in positions of power yet to make the decisions that are necessary,” Szaefer said. “They really need the backing of adults, and anyone who’s in a position of influence, and they really need them to step up.”

Szaefer said that the board’s motion also makes sense because it will let students find a way to connect the science their learning about climate change, to the public policy they need to enact to make a difference.

“The education system and the curriculum could really use this declaration as a means of bridging the gap in education between the knowledge that the scientists have, and to the opinions and general understanding of the public,” Szaefer said. “The education system really has a has a role to play in closing that knowledge gap.”

Whether or not the school board’s motion will have an effect on other local governments in declaring a climate emergency is another question.

“I’m hoping that it will absolutely connect with the municipality and that they’ll revisit it,” said Szaefer referring to city council’s failed motion to declare a climate emergency earlier this year. “It’s tricky because in order for council to revisit the declaration of emergency, as opposed to crisis, there needs to be a councillor who previously voted no for the motion to now step up and vote yes.”

Bailey, meanwhile, wants to focus on making the board’s climate emergency initiatives the best they can be. “If it has a positive effect on other organizations, great, I’m just focused on doing everything we can at the school board.”

And what is everything? Bailey said that they’ll be looking at everything from teleconferencing, to using less paper for meeting materials.

“What can we do to look at our individual carbon footprint, everything from the cars we drive, to the food we eat, to how our homes are heated. How can we create awareness so that we really start walking the walk?” Bailey asks. “We’ve all declared this emergency, and we want to do something about it, so how can we really start to have an impact?”

Szaefer, who’s organizing another climate strike for this Friday at noon in St. George’s Square, added that this is another sign of how the public is making climate change a priority. “Climate change was a huge topic in the election, and I think the results did show that,” she said.

Photo Credit: Saffron Binder speaking at the the Global Climate Strike in Market Square this past September.

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