Ten months since our major cities were blanketed by smoke from the Black Summer bushfires and nine months since the National Climate Emergency Summit considered the radical emergency footing that is now Melbourne’s COVID-19 reality, a quiet suburban revolution is taking place.

Leading up to and since the bushfires, a wave of local councils across the country reached across party lines to vote to declare a climate emergency. A Climate Emergency Declaration was a new governance concept that needed to be practically defined. Local governments mobilised and began conversations with their communities to collectively shape the definition and create frameworks for action.

The conversations that had already begun amongst the tireless groups of volunteers driving local climate action groups were spilling out amongst the broader community.

Over summer, neighbours watching their children at the playground or waiting for coffee at their local cafe remarked on the levels of air pollution and shared their shock and grief about the images coming from the fire grounds. These conversations soon developed into discussions about what really matters to each of us, and how that will be impacted by the effects of climate change. Sharing these stories unified community consensus on the need for action, even when they were being told hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from the fires.

Parents were concerned about their children’s breathing, local businesses were concerned about an uncertain outlook, grandparents were concerned about their grandchildren’s future and young people were concerned that governments didn’t seem to be listening. Individuals found in each other a shared feeling of responsibility to act as stewards for their neighbourhood.

What followed the successive council declarations shifted the focus from announcements to what happens next in our communities? How will climate change impact our coastline, our park lands and our native wildlife? How can we make small changes to our homes and they way we live that will make a difference? What can our council do to support a more sustainable and resilient neighbourhood?

These are not just questions for inner city green voters – although a Greens-led coalition within Darebin City Council can be credited with seeding the climate declaration movement and becoming the first local government in the world to declare in 2016. Since then, 32 of the 96 councils that have declared a climate emergency in Australia are in Victoria, representing over 50% of the state’s population. 28 of those have declared a climate emergency since 2019.

This process of declaration is helping communities to better understand where they are on their climate journeys and creates a framework for designing, delivering and evaluating a pathway forward towards a net-zero emissions future.

Local governments are beginning their processes of shaping their climate action plans by listening. Councils are inviting community members, local business and indigenous groups to participate in decisions that have material effects on their community. This process is already beginning to close the gap between local residents and their public administration. For some, it is the first time they have participated in the local government process and actually meeting and engaging with Councillors, many of whom are actively leading local climate advocacy.

When the COVID-19 lockdowns began to impact Melbourne and regional Victoria, these conversations moved online. The virtual format often increased access to participation for community members who found themselves less constrained by physical barriers or competing schedules.

Local governments are on the front line of climate change. They are responsible for creating safe and open public spaces, managing urban growth and our land use, responding to local hazards and emergencies such as extreme weather events, rising temperatures and rising sea levels. Through urban planning, greening public spaces, bio-diversity regeneration projects, waste and water management, local and sustainable procurement, active transport infrastructure and powering council assets with renewable energy, councils are playing a significant role in local climate change risk mitigation and adaptation.

One of councils’ most impactful tools is delivering on local opportunities that link climate action to improved liveability and economic resilience.

Councils can support their communities with education, information and even with innovative finance models to deliver on improved energy efficiency, solar panels, battery storage, moving away from gas, reducing car use and building a circular economy. By driving affordable solutions, these initiatives have impact at scale.

Understanding that local projects can be tools to build climate and economic resilience empowers community members to be a part of the journey towards a solution.

In declaring a climate emergency, councils are taking responsibility over their capacity to effect change at the grassroots. In developing climate response plans, local governments recognise the interdependent role of councils, local organisations, businesses and households. Shared commitments between these groups are made upon a shared responsibility to protect our local communities and leave them in a better condition than we found them.

Climate response plans are now being adopted by leading councils across the country with targets to reach net-zero emissions across both council operations and the broader community, in line with or in front of state and international targets.

Tailored to their local context, the plans provide for a variety of actions and strategies to harness place specific mitigation and adaptation opportunities that also strengthen the local economy by reducing energy costs, providing clean jobs and building local resilience to the impacts of climate change.

One year since the School Strike for Climate rally became one of the largest public demonstrations to take place in Melbourne and across the globe, many people are craving the feeling of being part of a collective. The School Strikes provided visible signs of hope that momentum on positive action is growing, and that change is on the horizon – something that is easy to forget amidst the Zoom fatigue many Melburnians now know too well.

The effective and decisive response to climate action taken by leading councils to date is repairing community trust in local government.

In local municipalities across Australia, our newly elected councillors must now keep up the momentum. They must continue to invest in clean opportunities and green infrastructure close to home in order to support our communities to move forward – together.


Teaser photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/brucedetorres/49353142896/in/photolist-2icaKWQ, public domain