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At a meeting yesterday councillors discussed whether to make the declaration, which would have followed in the footsteps of Dunedin City and other New Zealand councils.
However, Cr Michael Deaker changed the motion on the table during the discussion.
Its replacement said the council agreed Otago must continue to prepare for climate change and the emergency situations it would present in the region.
It followed that the council would give a high priority to adaptation to climate change, especially in flood and drainage schemes, South Dunedin and to minimising its carbon emissions.
While some people saw declaring an emergency as the next step, he thought the issue was too important for the ''symbolic'' motion.
His motion passed eight to three.
This meant Cr Ella Lawton was unable to put forward a more direct motion, which included the council creating an ''ambitious science work programme'' to better understand Otago climate change impacts, advocating for greater central Government leadership and action, and increasing the visibility of the council's climate change work.
''Congratulations, we can do nothing, awesome,'' she said when Cr Deaker's motion passed.
However, even her motion stopped short of declaring the emergency.
Many councillors were concerned about the wording of ''climate emergency''.
Council chairman Stephen Woodhead said instead of the declaration the council could commit in the future to looking at its emissions from services it managed including public transport, and from its organisation more generally.
Cr Gretchen Robertson said she acknowledged climate change was an extremely important issue, but declaring an emergency did not hold the organisation to account.
If people wanted to influence its work they should submit on its annual plans, she said.
Cr Bryan Scott said he thought it was appropriate to keep the wording of a climate change emergency.
Dunedin environmental campaigner and 350 Otepoti spokesman Jack Brazil said it was ironic the council did not want to use the term ''climate crisis'' out of a fear of tokenism.
''They changed their motion to tokenistically do nothing and pat themselves on the back.''