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The Chicago region must drastically accelerate climate action

Collaboration at all levels of government is required to urgently address climate change. On July 13, 2021, the Metropolitan Planning Council hosted a virtual launch of the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus (MMC) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Action Plan identifying climate strategies that can be undertaken by Chicago region municipalities.  The plan defines both climate mitigation and adaptation strategies – efforts to both lessen the impacts of climate change and to help humans adjust to the impacts that are already occurring.

The Chicago region is one of only three regions in the U.S. to have developed a regional climate action plan.

The event was moderated by Geneva, IL Mayor Kevin Burns who served in a leadership role in developing the plan and chairs the MMC Environment Committee and Energy Subcommittee. “The alchemy of creating substantive, equitable and sustainable change requires harnessing enthusiasm, passion, purpose, and potential of hundreds of communities simultaneously,” said Burns.   

The urgency is very real from both a community resilience and economic perspective, as noted by Federal leaders. U.S. Department of Commerce Deputy Secretary Don Graves said, “Last year, we set a record on the climate change front—22 weather and climate events cost the United States over $96 billion. Communities across the country are feeling the impact of climate change. Chicago residents face a range of climate related hazards from extreme heat to drought and floods”.  

NOAA Administrator Dr. Rick Spinrad noted that both data and engagement are critical to effecting change. “NOAA provides products and services for equitable climate adaptation not only in this region but for the nation as a whole. Climate science is the foundation for smart policy and decision-making in a changing world but NOAA science and data are not enough. It takes community and stakeholder engagement to act upon NOAA data and services just as you have done with the plan being released today. This plan can serve as a model for multi-jurisdictional regional collaboration on climate action.” NOAA provides the Climate Resilience Toolkit to train decision makers in the Steps to Resilience, which can be applied across diverse communities.  

Like most other places in the U.S., the Chicago region is already facing major impacts from climate change. The New York Times recently published a feature on how climate change is affecting Lake Michigan, the most important national resource for the greater Chicago area. U.S. Representative Bill Foster (IL-11) noted, “We have failed to take climate action seriously for decades, kicking the can down the road and letting future generations deal with the consequences, but now the consequences are here and visible to everyone.  It is not just Miami and New Orleans that could be underwater but communities here in the Midwest. If we fail to act, we will lose more than dollars, we will endanger communities we love.”  

Political will is the most important ingredient to making the needed changes so our communities can slow and adapt to climate change.  U.S. Representative Sean Casten (IL-06) noted, “We can get bogged down whether or not we have ambition suitable to this moment but I point out the only thing we are short on is ambition. We have talent and tools and science.”  

 Climate Action Requires Multijurisdictional Coordination 

The plan proposes local solutions to this global problem. Edith Makra, Environment Director at the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus and co-author of the plan said, “While we began immediately to halt and drive down greenhouse emissions through mitigation we need to learn to live with the impact for a long time. Our plan empowers local leaders to manage the avoidable and avoid the unmanageable. Climate action must be rooted in equity with the well-being of people at its center.”  

According to the NOAA Climate Program Office’s Dr. Ned Gardiner, who also coauthored the plan, the goal is “to persistently, equitably increase resilience to emerging climate-related hazards. That is an iterative long-term process. Planning for climate change and making necessary changes to prepare people and protect homes, transportation systems and utilities requires coordination at all levels of our society”. The NOAA Climate Program Office utilized the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit (USCRT) in plan development.

 Chicago is one of only three regions in the U.S. to have developed a regional climate action plan, receiving support from the European Commission to do so. The Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy contributed the framework for regional climate action via the EU’s International Urban Cooperation (IUC) program.   

The plan focuses on actions that can be taken by municipalities. As noted by Eero Ailo, Advisor, Energy Transition and Local Governance for the European Commission, during the launch event, the “European Commission logic has been taking a combination of top-down rulemaking and local activities. That combination has turned out to be effective.  We create laws but at the end, the cities are driving the whole thing.” 

To reach the goals, the climate plan lays out eight objectives for mitigating, or lessening the impacts of climate events. Decarbonizing energy sources, decarbonizing transportation, and reducing building energy usage are three of the factors that will make the greatest difference.  The plan sets a climate mitigation goal of net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions with a target of 80% reduction by 2050 and identifies the key sectors in which change will be required to meet that goal and interim targets.  

Strategies listed in the Climate Action Plan will be integrated into the MMC’s Greenest Region Compact Framework, which itself draws from 30 local and nine regional or national sustainability plans.  Other sources of strategies include 22 climate action plans and frameworks from the Chicago region, across the U.S., and Europe. Other tools, such as the UN Sustainable Development GoalsUN Disaster Resilience Scorecard, and CMAP’s Climate Adaptation Guidebook for Municipalities deserve special note. A total of 270 people from 175 organizations including representatives of 53 municipalities and counties in the greater Chicago region participated in workshops and contributed to the development of the plan over a one and one-half year period. 

For example, one of the objectives outlined in the plan is to reduce vehicle miles traveled, which means encouraging residents to drive less and use transit, biking, and walking more. To achieve this municipalities can enact zoning codes that make transit more accessible to more people and businesses. Communities can lead by creating safe infrastructure for walking and biking, and encourage the use of low-carbon transportation through education, incentives, and collaboration. 

“The purpose of this collaborative regional plan is to accelerate climate action at a scale and speed that no one municipality can do alone,” said Dr. Ned Gardiner, NOAA Climate Program Office and co-author of the plan.

Think Globally, Act Locally 

Several municipal leaders provided their perspectives on how their communities are addressing climate challenges and how a regional plan will help them accelerate climate action. They noted that political will is central to advancing action on climate change. 

The Cities of Aurora and Highland Park have both committed to the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy at a municipal level. In 2009, Aurora developed its first sustainability plan. In 2015 the community established the first sustainability advisory board, and this group recently led an update of the sustainability plan using the Greenest Region Compact framework.   

Highland Park assessed emissions from city operations to make changes that are data driven and will have the biggest impact. “Municipalities can set attainable goals. We put in place policies and practices to achieve those goals. It gets back to think globally, act locally,” said Councilmember Kim Stone. Highland Park has a three-year sustainability plan that guides city environmental efforts within a short timeframe to set forth an aggressive work plan with timelines that keep the city from kicking the can down the road on climate action. Councilmember Stone also co-chairs the Go Green Illinois organization that supports citizen environmental groups throughout the suburbs – citizens advocating for action is an important facet of accelerating progress on climate.

Chicago’s Mayor Lori Lightfoot reflected on how what we have learned from the pandemic can inform climate change action, “The past 16 months have made it clear that we must pursue hyperlocal strategies to drive resources into our communities that need the most support. We need a laser-like focus on protecting our communities on the front lines of the climate crisis. We are painfully aware our communities of color are first to be impacted by climate change and more likely to bear the brunt of negative effects.” 

Maya Dutta, the first sustainability coordinator for Waukegan, reflected on the even larger task that lies ahead for communities with a history of environmental justice concerns, that climate action should be focused on improving resident quality of life.  “I am excited about the Climate Action Plan in the Chicago region because is an important tool for the City of Waukegan to provide scientific strategies on how to pursue effective climate action for the challenges we have on a municipal level.” said Dutta.” It establishes a great way to collaborate with our neighboring communities”. The youngest person on the panel, Dutta noted that those of us “who call earth home are the most at risk of a changing climate”.