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News > Context Spring 2023 > Feature: A Climate Justice Agenda for the Next Mayor

Feature: A Climate Justice Agenda for the Next Mayor

Schuylkill River flooding during Hurricane Ida. Photo: Josh Lippert 
Schuylkill River flooding during Hurricane Ida. Photo: Josh Lippert 

By Christine Knapp 

In August of 2021, Hurricane Ida brought devastation through the Caribbean, Louisiana and ultimately north to Philadelphia and the surrounding region. High winds, heavy rains, and flooding resulted in stunning damage, perhaps most notably turning the Vine Street Expressway into a Venetian canal.  

But while that storm and its impact made front-page news and received federal emergency funding to support its clean-up, it was actually the third major storm event within a year’s time. Just a few months prior, a 100-year flood event brought up to 10 inches of rain to parts of northeast Philadelphia as well as Bucks County. And one year prior to Ida, Tropical Storm Isaias devastated the Eastwick neighborhood of southwest Philadelphia. 

Eastwick is one of the city’s lowest lying areas making it one of the most vulnerable to flood risk. For decades residents have experienced flooding events that have ruined property and forced people from their homes. Climate projections for Philadelphia indicate that flooding is likely to worsen due to a combination of sea level rise and increased frequency and severity of storms and Eastwick is among the neighborhoods that will experience the most direct impacts.  

The reality is that climate change is no longer an issue of future projections and guesswork. The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report¹ from February of this year notably indicated that not only have all past projections come to pass, but that the impacts are arriving even faster than predicted. The report further notes that there is less than a decade to take swift action in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change. 

It is not overstating to say that addressing climate change is THE moral imperative of our lifetime. 

Meeting this challenge will require accelerated action from all levels of government. The Biden-Harris Administration has taken historic action on climate change with the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, which are poised to pump billions of dollars into clean energy technology deployment. However, it is local governments who are best positioned to deliver equitable climate solutions that suit local needs.  

Philadelphia’s next mayor will take office in 2023 and, if elected to two terms, will govern over the most important decade for climate action. So, what should the next Mayor do? 

“WHOLE-OF-GOVERNMENT” APPROACH 

Most importantly, the next Mayor should take a page from the Biden-Harris administration’s “Whole-of-Government” approach to the climate crisis. Tackling a problem of this scale cannot be accomplished by one office, or a few dozen city employees scattered throughout departments. Climate action must be embedded in every decision and every department, from housing and transportation to public safety and education. This approach includes appointing a cabinet-level senior advisor, similar to the role Gina McCarthy played at the beginning of the Biden Administration, coordinating climate policy across the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and many other agencies. In Boston, recently elected Mayor Michelle Wu has appointed a Green New Deal Advisor as a member of her cabinet to work across city agencies to deliver on policies that address climate change, build economic opportunity, and address equity. Both positions have the power of the chief executive behind them to drive progress and build collaboration among agencies.  

Collaboration among agencies can help stretch limited municipal budget dollars further and bring multiple co-benefits. For example, Philadelphia’s heat equity index shows that some neighborhoods of the city can be as much as 22 degrees hotter than others and that areas with more extreme heat tend to be communities of color and low-wealth communities. These areas also tend to have some of the highest incidences of gun violence. A study conducted by the U.S Forest Service2 showed that some crimes — like drug possession — were significantly reduced in areas where green infrastructure had been installed. A cabinet level position could drive collaboration between the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Philadelphia Water Department, and the Office of Policy and Strategic Initiatives for Criminal Justice and Public Safety to focus on tree plantings and other green infrastructure in high crime areas to address both climate change and reduce crime.  

ADVANCE ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE 

Globally and locally, it is low-wealth and marginalized people, particularly Black, brown, and indigenous communities, who are most likely to be harmed by climate change, despite contributing the least to the problem. Climate change is an issue of racial and social equity, and a failure to address it quickly and equitably will harm our most vulnerable residents including the elderly, those with health conditions, and those with fewer resources to protect against or recover from its impacts. The next Mayor must ensure that all actions pursued to address climate change also addresses the environmental injustices experienced by our residents over many decades. Investing in, and empowering, the Environmental Justice Advisory Commission to play a more active role in City decision-making will go a long way. Tackling long-standing disparities in housing quality, access and ownership of land for urban agriculture and other uses, and the cumulative impacts of emissions from industry, highways, and other polluters can help make amends for the past while building a more equitable and sustainable future for all residents.  

FUND CLIMATE-FOCUSED INVESTMENTS  

Another priority for the next Mayor should be identifying increased and sustained funding mechanisms to drive investments needed to meet the scale of the climate crisis. With a need to make major reforms in our energy systems, housing, transportation and other infrastructure, cities around the country are now finding new and creative ways to bring resources to the fight. For example, on the other side of the state, Pittsburgh worked with Resource X, a consulting firm specializing in priority-based budgeting, to identify $41 million³ in the existing budget to direct towards climate, equity, and economic recovery, without increasing taxes. In a different example, in 2018 Portland voters approved the Clean Energy Community Benefits initiative4, which puts a 1% tax on purchases at large retailers to fund home energy retrofits for low-income residents and create green jobs. Consider, theoretically, a one cent tax on at home deliveries, which are causing traffic congestion in every neighborhood of the city, and how many millions of dollars such a tax could generate to expand and improve public transit while reducing congestion and harmful pollution. In a world where remote workers can locate anywhere, cities that invest in making their cities clean, green, healthy, and affordable are going to be those that attract and retain talent. Making climate-focused investments should therefore be a critical part of the economic growth of Philadelphia.  

LEAD BY EXAMPLE 

One of the easiest actions should be ensuring that the City leads by example in every way it can. That means the City should be upgrading its own buildings to reduce energy use, transition to cleaner energy, and prepare buildings like rec centers and libraries for future climate conditions. The City should take advantage of state and federal funding opportunities to transition the City’s fleet to clean and electric vehicles to reduce emissions and save money on fueling and maintenance. Providing recycling and composting in all City facilities, especially those that serve the public would set the right example and help keep our streets litter-free. The City’s parks and natural lands, including trees, should be preserved, protected, and invested in to maximize the benefits they provide to all residents. And the City should use the power of its large procurement needs to invest in local, Black and brown-owned businesses, and more sustainable products.  

The City is also in a unique position as the owner of Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW). Gas use is not only a major source of emissions, but studies are now linking the use of gas stovetops as a cause of childhood asthma5. The next mayor must push PGW to transition to become a clean utility that provides necessary energy services while improving public health and ensuring rate affordability. The next Mayor can appoint members to the Gas Commission and the Philadelphia Facilities Management Corporation that will hold PGW accountable to specific carbon reduction goals and a diversified business strategy.  

EXPAND PARTNERSHIPS 

The next Mayor must create new partnerships to carry forward the work necessary to meet the scale of the problem. For example, the next Mayor could work with: 

-Housing agencies to create more affordable, energy efficient and climate-resilient housing. 

-The Philadelphia School District to ensure their next facilities master plan has a clear plan for creating modern, healthy, and climate-ready buildings that foster learning.  

-The Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission and surrounding counties to build out an electric vehicle-charging strategy. 

And critically, the Mayor needs to work not only with City Council, but also use their platform to push state and federal agencies to advance policies that allow Philadelphia’s ambitions to become a reality.  

These recommendations are by no means simple, they require considerable policy effort and broad buy-in to achieve. To succeed, Philadelphia’s next mayor must instill the appropriate collaborative mentality, beginning during the campaign acknowledging the immediacy and importance of these issues. With that committed, clear, stated direction, Philadelphia can begin to coalesce around an inclusive and equitable vision for our climate future. 

Christine Knapp serves as the Manager of the Community Innovation & Technical Assistance team within the Office of State and Community Energy Programs at the U.S. Department of Energy. She previously served as the Director of the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability. 

CITATIONS 

1.  https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/ 

2.  https://www.fs.usda.gov/research/news/highlights/green-stormwater-infrastructure-reduces-crime 

3.  https://the-atlas.com/projects/budgeting-for-climate--the-city-of-pittsburgh-repurposes-resources-for-a-sustainable-future-1698 

4.  https://www.portlandoregon.gov/auditor/article/674246 

5.  https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/20/1/75 

CAPTION, spread two: 

Members of Philadelphia’s first Environmental Justice Advisory Commission were appointed in February 2022.  

Photo: Christine Knapp 

 

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