Time for Chicago to act boldly on climate change and bring back the Department of Environment

In early 2020, City Council declared a state of climate emergency. Hiring a few people in the mayor’s office is not enough to tackle the crisis.

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Planting more trees, as volunteers did outside Shriner Children’s Hospital on Oct. 4 to celebrate its 100th anniversary, is part of the city’s climate strategy. But the city needs a Department of Environment, four council members write.

Planting more trees, as volunteers did outside Shriner Children’s Hospital on Oct. 4 to celebrate its 100th anniversary, is part of the city’s climate strategy. But the city needs a Department of Environment, four council members write.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A decade ago, Chicago had a Department of Environment that was tasked with implementing our first ever Climate Action Plan. Released in 2008 with an end date of 2020, the plan was truly ahead of its time, showcasing how cities across the United States and beyond could take the lead in tackling climate change. 

But in 2012, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel disbanded the department, arguing that its work could be spread across multiple departments without impacting efficiency and effectiveness. Unfortunately, that assumption has proved incorrect.

The 2010s were the hottest decade on record, and because a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor, three of Chicago’s five wettest years on record occurred during the same decade. 

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In addition, we lost approximately half of our environmental inspectors during that decade, resulting in steep drops in inspections involving hazardous materials, air quality, and solid waste. And in recent years, Chicago has struggled to adequately protect communities that for decades have borne the brunt of climate change. Examples of this are the Hilco building collapse, the attempt to move General Iron to the Southeast Side, and the recent assertion by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that the city’s planning, zoning and land-use policies have violated Chicagoans’ civil rights. 

With Chicago having failed to meet many of our climate action goals from the 2008 plan, we released a new and equally ambitious Climate Action Plan earlier this year. We’ve also declared our intention to power city buildings with 100% renewable energy by 2025, and have increased requirements for electric vehicle charging infrastructure in large new residential and commercial developments.

We’ve committed to plant 75,000 new trees over the next five years, and have released a waste strategy report with recommendations for improving our dismal recycling and composting rate. 

Time to act boldly

By themselves, however, these new regulations and declarations won’t guarantee that Chicago meets the moment in its ongoing battle against climate change, which continues to disproportionately affect historically underserved communities. Indeed, time is running out for us to act boldly with our budget by re-establishing a Department of Environment. 

In fall 2019, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the creation of the Office of the Environment to be housed within the mayor’s office. Unfortunately, that proposal included only one position — a proposal that was so out of step with the scope of the problem that some dubbed it a “cubicle” of the environment. 

Several weeks ago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that the Office of the Environment would be renamed the Office of Climate and Environmental Equity and include six total positions. But this represents only one additional person beyond the five existing environmental policy team members, and is less than half the size of City Hall’s press office. 

Opponents to a re-established department may argue that we need more time to outline the department’s organizational chart and functions. But this exact work has been happening for over two years, with multiple strong proposals from environmental advocacy organizations, along with the prior department’s 2011 budget, serving as starting points. 

Opponents may also contend that we lack funding for a department. Not true. A new franchise agreement with ComEd could provide ongoing funding, similar to settlement agreements that the city signed with ComEd in 1999 and 2003 to resolve lawsuits. And the mayor’s proposed budget for FY 2023 includes approximately 5,400 funded vacancies; surely, 10–20 of these vacancies could be shifted to a new and sorely needed environment department. 

In fact, a re-established department could ultimately save us money. Improved recycling and composting would mean less city funds being paid to landfills. An expanded tree canopy would lower neighborhood temperatures, thereby reducing the need for air conditioners. Improved stormwater management would reduce the frequency and severity of basement flooding. 

In early 2020, City Council declared a state of climate emergency in Chicago and, in doing so, pledged to “work with the Mayor’s office and city departments to develop a budget that promotes urgent climate action.” A couple additional cubicles in the mayor’s office won’t cut it.

It’s time for City Council and the mayor to re-establish the Chicago Department of Environment. 

Ald. Matt Martin represents the 47th Ward. Ald. Daniel La Spata represents the 1st Ward. Ald. Mike Rodriguez represents the 22nd Ward. Ald. Maria Hadden represents the 49th Ward. 

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