350 Chicago is so pleased that Mayor Brandon Johnson’s new budget includes resources for reinstating the City’s Department of the Environment which was dismantled under Mayor Rahm Emanuel. While working with the Ready for 100 Chicago Collective on various policy proposals for Chicago’s 2022 Climate Action Plan, Chicago 350 leadership and volunteer researchers were continually dismayed by this gaping void at the City level and Mayor Lightfoot’s conspicuous failure to keep her election promise to reinstate the department. The absence of a Department of the Environment was an embarrassment, indeed a source of shame, for Chicago environmentalists, not only as we compared Chicago to other major U.S. cities but to any city working earnestly to alleviate the cumulative impacts of pollution on frontline communities and to mitigate the effects of climate change for everyone. (See Ready for 100 Chicago Coalition: Chicago Climate Action Plan Policy Priorities. )
As the Chicago Sun Times noted on October 16, reinstatement must be a first step in reestablishing a robust Department of the Environment. While the current plan calls for 10 employees, the department had 60 employees before it was disbanded. Even 60 employees is a relatively small number, however, given all the challenges the city faces. These include but are not limited to ongoing local air and water quality crises, renewable energy setbacks, energy efficiency initiatives at least ten years behind other American cities, biodiversity loss on land and in Lake Michigan, and calamitous failures in environmental law enforcement. (Read more about the above topics in this recent Chicago Sun Times article.)
The appointment of former Chief Sustainability Officer Angela Tovar to a cabinet level position as department head is another reason to celebrate. We are relieved to see continuity here because it is abundantly clear, as the sustainability office admitted last year (while justifiably bemoaning their lack of resources), the 2022 Climate Action Plan needs to be followed up quickly—now more quickly—with strong policy recommendations, widespread legislative initiatives, and real-world implementation strategies. Local environmental groups would love to see well-crafted public-private partnerships as part of the mix toward the goal of achieving the City’s cumulative impact- and carbon-reduction goals. Though Chicago is the poster child for bad public-private-partnerships (because of the notorious parking-meter give away), collaboration on renewable energy and comprehensive electrification will be necessary to play catch up in the critical 5 – 10 years ahead.
We sincerely hope the Mayor and City government set a new standard for transparency on environmental, social, and governance issues. We can’t fix our problems with the “technology” (culture) that created them. In addition to calling for the reinstatement of a Department of the Environment, the Ready for 100 Chicago Collective called for an accountability framework, a diverse oversight board, a cross-department sustainability commission, grants for participatory budgeting, community bodies to help guide policy development, and a community engagement and education initiative. We also advocated for a municipal power purchase agreement for 100% clean energy by 2025 and movement toward a “public owned or democratized utility” to set and enforce clean energy standards. These are not pie in the sky goals, but national best practices gleaned from a three-year collaborative research project. (See Ready for 100 Chicago Coalition: Chicago Climate Action Plan Policy Priorities. )
Climate reduction goals and targets are great but, in some sense, they are the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not sink the ship while we drag our feet on achieving actual results.