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‘Huge.’ ‘Amazing.’ As Biden delivers ambitious plan for environment, Illinois should join in

 “This is definitely the biggest day for climate action in 10 years,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director for the Illinois Environmental Council.

President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dinning Room of the White House last week.
AP Photos

Elated environmentalists had a lot to say after President Joe Biden unveiled the environmental executive orders he signed on Wednesday.

“Huge.” “Amazing.” “Exciting.”

“A whole new day in every way.” “So great.”

“A historic commitment.” “Super exciting.” “Thrilled.”

“This is definitely the biggest day for climate action in 10 years,” Jennifer Walling, executive director for the Illinois Environmental Council, told us on Wednesday.

After four years of the Trump administration’s nonstop assaults on the environment, Biden was quick to set a new direction, basing environmental policies on science and putting the environment at the forefront of his goals. Chicago and Illinois would be wise to get on board and help push this agenda as far as possible. The federal government can’t do it alone.

Earlier this month, Chicago became the biggest city to sign on to the “30 by 30” concept of conserving at least 30% of the nation’s land and oceans by 2030, a provision included in Biden’s executive orders. But in Illinois, only 4.1% of land is protected. More land needs to be conserved, and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which has been hobbled by budget cuts in recent years, needs to step up enforcement of environmental protection rules.

Chicago and Illinois also should follow Biden’s lead of making the tackling of climate change part of the job for every governmental agency. For example, the city and state transportation departments should take into account the impact on climate change each time they weigh each new project. And the Legislature should enact the long-delayed Clean Energy Jobs Act, which would expand renewable energy, boost energy conservation, put more electric vehicles on the roads, provide support for displaced fossil fuel workers and their communities and steer jobs to economically challenged communities.

That will require a change of priorities for a state that just let its solar installation industry go over “the solar cliff” — meaning solar companies have started packing up and leaving the state. State incentives for solar installations ran out last month, ending Illinois’ solar boom.

Biden’s executive orders, among other goals, seek to freeze new oil and gas leases on public lands; double off-shore wind-produced energy by 2030 and direct federal agencies to invest in low-income and minority environmental justice communities. The executive orders also create a White House inter-agency council on environmental justice, and a health and climate equity office in the Department of Health and Human Services Department. In addition, the Justice Department will get its environmental justice office.

The executive orders even call for the creation of a modern Civilian Conservation Corps, modeled after the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, that would offer job training and work experience to people through the maintenance and restoration of parks, trails and natural areas. The new Conservation Corps grew out of a suggestion by a Cook County Forest Preserve District employee that was nurtured into a green infrastructure plan by the Openlands environmental group, with support from Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.

“It is pretty clear that the new administration sees the connection between the urgency of the climate crisis and the urgency for combatting structural racism,” Sierra Club Illinois Director Jack Darin told us. “Targeting environmental justice communities for protections and focused investment is long overdue. It is really going to help communities here in Chicago and other Black and Brown communities across Illinois and around the country . . . It could not be a more dramatic turn of events from the crew that just left office.”

The usual opposition already is forming. The fossil fuel industry and its supporters are warning that Biden’s executive orders will kill jobs and force the United States to import more oil. But those are deceitful arguments. The solar energy industry is one of the fastest-growing sources of jobs in the country, and as new renewable energy comes online, it will reduce the need for oil imports.

For the sake of more permanent reform, Congress should enact pro-environment legislation that can’t be undone with the stroke of a pen by a future president. But Biden’s executive orders are steering our nation in the right direction.

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