Why hasn’t mayor made good on promise to create Department of Environment?

How is it possible to even begin to meet the city’s climate objectives without a dedicated Department of Environment to ensure that Chicago can even dream of being a leader on climate?

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Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall on June 22.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot presides over a Chicago City Council meeting at City Hall on June 22.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

As a mayoral candidate, Lori Lightfoot promised us her administration would reinstate the Department of Environment, which had been dismantled by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. We are still waiting!

In May, the city released its proposed 2022 Climate Action Plan, which states: “Chicago’s new climate goals set a course to reduce the city’s carbon emissions 62% by 2040. Anchored in values of economic inclusion and savings, pollution burden reduction, and equitable access to critical infrastructure and community health and resilience, the 2022 CAP prioritizes delivering meaningful community benefits and system improvements as the City continues to lead on climate.”

Those are lofty goals. How is it possible to even begin to meet the city’s objectives without a dedicated Department of Environment to oversee and ensure that Chicago can even dream of being a leader on climate?

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Other major global cities like New York and San Francisco have a Department of Environment or equivalent. We are the third-largest city in the United States. Why has Chicago still not re-established ours?

In presenting the new Climate Action Plan, Lightfoot said, “The 2022 CAP is a strategic document that outlines updated goals and actions that city departments and sister agencies can lead, in coordination with community partners, institutions, civic leaders and residents, to mitigate the disastrous effects of climate change and to collectively realize a thriving green economy for all of our 77 communities.”

How is it possible to coordinate all of those city departments and sister agencies without a single, dedicated Department of Environment to lead the way?

Currently, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development said Chicago is violating the civil rights of its residents by relocating polluting businesses from white communities into Black and Latino areas that already are overwhelmed with environmental and health issues. This conclusion was the result of what federal officials found after a nearly two-year investigation, as stated in the July 19 Chicago Sun-Times article by Brett Chase.

HUD is demanding that Chicago change its unlawful planning, zoning and land-use policies so they don’t discriminate against communities of color, according to a letter HUD sent to the city.

This screams a need for the Department of Environment.

Without a dedicated department, we have seen a decline in environmental enforcement and inspections, hazardous material inspections and annual inspections as well as general enforcement of environmental policies.

The $188 million in the budget for the Climate Action Plan and the We Will initiative make it very clear that Lightfoot wants to invest in climate mitigation, but without the Department of Environment, the city will be left unprepared to meet the demands of today’s climate crisis.

We want a department that is dedicated to environmental justice, creating a circular economy, climate resiliency, protecting Chicago’s parks and natural spaces, and improving the quality of life for all Chicagoans.

The city of Chicago’s FY2023 budget will be critical in re-establishing the Department of Environment. Funding a full, permanent department should be considered as part of the budgetary discussions and must be included in the FY 2023 budget.

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Jane Ruby is president of the League of Women Voters Chicago.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

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