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Chicago aldermen declare ‘state of climate emergency’

The non-binding resolution sounds the alarm without mandating specific action, though Ald. George Cardenas (12th) and co-sponsor Ald. Matt Martin (47th), vowed to get going on a half-dozen “shovel-ready” ordinances.

Howard Beach was closed to the public after suffering erosion due to powerful storms in the Chicago area last month.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Citing “catastrophic lakefront erosion,” citywide flooding and severe weather events that have suddenly become commonplace, Chicago aldermen on Monday declared a “state of climate emergency.”

The non-binding resolution approved by the City Council’s Committee on Health and Environmental Protection sounds the alarm but does not mandate specific action.

Instead, Health Committee Chairman George Cardenas (12th) and his co-sponsor, Ald. Matt Martin (47th), vowed to move a half-dozen “shovel-ready” ordinances that will push the agenda forward.

That includes holding a subject matter hearing on Chicago’s dismal 9% recycling rate — a hearing that holds private recycling contractors accountable and at least explores the possibility of, as Cardenas put it, offering residents and businesses “incentives” to recycle.

“We need to figure out what the next steps will be there because 9% is way too low,” Martin said.

“Another one would be partnering with the state to get more green alleys in place to reduce flooding. Another thing would be electrifying our bus fleet. Re-establishing a Department of Environment. Using more funds, including menu funds, in wards like mine where it makes sense to plant more trees.”

Cardenas said it’s realistic to set a 2030 target date for: converting city buildings to renewable energy; converting the city fleet, including snow plows and garbage trucks, to electric vehicles; and requiring private fleets, like Amazon trucks, to follow suit.

“Those are meaningful goals,” Cardenas said.

In the meantime, the city is already taking concrete steps by purchasing renewable energy credits and doing “energy benchmarking” of Chicago buildings.

The chairman acknowledged former Mayor Richard M. Daley established similarly lofty goals in a 2008 Climate Action Plan that pretty much gathered dust.

But, he said: “The urgency has changed, right? The data tells you that [the day of reckoning] is coming sooner than we expected. ... As early as 2040, cities are gonna be under water.”

Martin has already joined forces with Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) on a pending ordinance requiring new parking garages and most new multi-unit residential buildings to be wired to support charging stations for electric vehicles.

Their ordinance would apply to new construction projects submitted to the city after June 30, 2020. It would require developers of residential buildings of at least five units that provide parking to include wiring for the charging stations for 20 percent of the spaces.

The same 20 percent rule would apply for any new development with at least 30 parking spaces not set aside for residents, such as a public parking garage.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot campaigned on a promise to re-establish the city’s Department of Environment. But so far, she has only created a $150,000-a-year Office of Environment - one that still lacks a permanent chief -after inheriting an $838 million budget shortfall.

That’s not good enough to satisfy Martin.

“Spreading those responsibilities between the mayor’s office, Public Health, the Department of Transportation — that’s not sufficient. We need a dedicated aspect of our city bureaucracy that’s focused exclusively on that,” Martin said.

“We need to walk and chew gum at the same time. We know we have a public safety, public health crisis. Our finances are in tatters. We need to have more equitable development. Put a Department of Environment place as well, and then, it starts to rise to the level of where a lot of the other critical initiatives that the mayor has been pushing forward.”

The mayor’s office said a full-blown Department of Environment was “not financially practical” given the “historic” budget shortfall.

But Lightfoot is committed to a “proactive environmental agenda that puts equity at its center” and is in the process of hiring a “Chief Sustainability Officer” with a “dedicated focus on climate and environmental issues.”

Among those testifying at Monday’s hearing was Tom Balanoff, president of SEIU Local 1 and the SEIU Illinois State Council. SEIU Local 1 is among a coalition of unions that owns the Sun-Times.

Balanoff argued that the “biggest contributor to the climate crisis is the fossil fuel industry.” He put in a pitch for passage of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which “addresses climate change and reduces pollution to eventually power the state entirely on renewable energy. That’s where we need to get.”

“While profitable companies dump toxic pollution in our communities and cut and run on Illinois workers, CEJA creates new jobs in a clean energy industry and ensures that these jobs are created in communities that have seen the worst impact of climate change,” Balanoff said.

Last fall, Inspector General Joe Ferguson gave Lightfoot all of the evidence she needed to bring back the Department of Environment.

Ferguson released an audit essentially accusing the city’s Department of Public Health of endangering Chicagoans by abdicating its responsibility to enforce air pollution standards.

From 2015 through 2017, the Health Department met its own internal goals for the frequency of air quality inspections less than half the time, the audit states.