Sitka High sophomore Darby Osborne testifies to the Sitka Assembly about a resolution that would have declared a “climate emergency.” (KCAW/ROSE)

The Sitka Assembly is not ready to declare a “climate emergency,” or to take specific action to reduce carbon emissions in local government.

The controversial resolution had significant support from the public — especially students — but the standing-room-only audience at this week’s assembly meeting (2-25-20) couldn’t persuade a majority of members to agree to the strongly-worded document. 

During public comment, 25 people testified before a full room. There were regular citizens and some local researchers, but most were students like Sitka High School sophomore Darby Osborne: 

“I have two years until I can vote, five years until I can run for state representative, and fourteen years until I am eligible to run for the US Senate and by then, science is showing that we may be too late,” she said. So I’m asking you now, please, pass this resolution and begin to take the first steps necessary to face this crisis head on.”

Osborne and other like-minded students at both Sitka High, Mt. Edgecumbe, and Pacific High have formed “Youth for Sustainable Futures.” The group participated in a global strike led by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg last fall, and won support for a climate resolution of their own from the Sitka Fish & Game Regional Advisory Committee.

There was also public opposition to declaring a climate emergency in Sitka.  Some asked that the question come before Sitkans on the ballot next fall, and others, like Mike Svenson, pointed to the fishing industry’s dependence on fossil fuels. And he pushed back on the concept of climate change entirely. 

“I’ve heard some of these climate people say they get their spiritualism from trees, fish, animals, sunsets, and other things. Some of us believe in anything for a god and they can go off in a wild direction. Some of us believe in one true omnipresent God, who made everything and he is in control,” he said.

Climate change legislation is already on the books in Sitka’s city hall. The assembly established a climate “task force” in 2008, and in 2010, it adopted a climate action plan that laid out actions city departments should take to reduce emissions by 2020. 

The new resolution is different, with far more urgent language. It refers to a “climate emergency” rather than simply climate change, and cites the Sitka Fish & Game Advisory Committee resolution, along with a recent resolution from the Alaska Federation of Natives– both of which declare a climate change “state of emergency.”

Some assembly members were concerned about parts of the resolution that committed the assembly and administrator to take further action, like directing city staff to develop a plan for how departments could reduce emissions by 2025. The resolution would also require the Local Emergency Planning Commission to report back with a plan to address climate change through hazard mitigation, and would direct the administrator to work with Sitka Tribe of Alaska to find ways to  mitigate climate change. Member Valorie Nelson said the list of action items gave her pause.

“They come with a cost,” she said. “And I would prefer to see it go to a vote of the people and not be just passed on one reading, because these are money action items, when you’re tasking our new administrator with all of these things.” 

Member Kevin Mosher said he didn’t want to put a higher tax burden on anyone.

“It’s too big of an issue for seven members to decide on,” he said. “So I would really encourage that we put this on the ballot this fall.”

But sponsor Kevin Knox said that the cost down the road could be higher if the city didn’t take action.

“I didn’t want it to be another resolution where we’re just giving lip service to something,” he said. “I really did want to see it have action in it, in large part because I think we’ve kicked this can down, far too far down the road. We are facing catastrophic changes in our environment. And if we think that this is going to cost us money now- it’s going to cost our economy and our way of life a great deal later on down the road.” 

Cosponsor Thor Christianson argued that the resolution should be wordsmithed rather than voted down. He didn’t think that concern over the language was justification for inaction. 

“When you say I agree that we have a problem here, but I just don’t like this one. I get sick of hearing that,” he said. Because it just means ‘We’re not going to do anything.'”  

Christianson’s argument did sway his colleagues, however. After 90 minutes devoted to the matter, the resolution failed, 3-4, with members Mosher, Nelson, Wein, and Mayor Paxton opposed.

Read more coverage of the Tuesday (2-25-20) Sitka Assembly meeting here

Watch the full meeting