Last week, Philly released its Climate Resilience Research Agenda, a master climate crisis impact report for the city of Philadelphia. The outlook shows a city, in just the next 25 years, overwhelmed by a Delaware River rising 16 plus feet, summers getting hotter and rains more frequent. We know these conditions lead to more violence, more displacement and a more unhealthy population — particularly among Black and Brown Philadelphians. And, to make matters worse, piled on top of that: two massive, air-clogging junkyard fires in the span of a week are posing health threats to residents.
What we don’t know is what either remaining mayoral candidate plans to do about all this. That’s because neither Republican David Oh, nor Democrat and presumptive next mayor Cherelle Parker, make even a passing mention of climate change or anything else remotely environmental in their platforms.
Not sure how they do that since, well, none of us survive without air to breath, water to drink and land to grow on. But both nominees have managed to disappear it from their stumping lexicon.
Exactly what are both candidates waiting for?
This is odd considering Philadelphia stands as one of the cities with the most environmentally distressed populations in the country. Parker mentions “greening” as an obligatory buzzword in barely two short paragraphs about a promise to once and for all aggressively manage the city’s trash crisis. Yes, trash is a problem, but it’s merely a small fraction of broader conditions of pollution, toxicity, cancer hot-spots and a myriad of chronic diseases aggravated by a dismissed and poorly managed environment. Oh makes no mention of the environment at all on his website.
This reflects a tradition in Philly to diminish environmental alarm bells and concerns as not important, even as the city’s essential life-support systems of air, land and water continue to deteriorate. Much of that is born out of a long history of environmental racism since most of the climate collapse in the city has affected Black and Brown people. Local policymakers have done one of two things depending on their base: Treat it as a sidebar conversation to ignore, or wave it as a progressive credential. Philadelphia’s political and union elite don’t want to hear about it unless there’s an immediate job creation catch … even when you do prove a sustainable and clean-energy focused economy actually creates more jobs.
Hence, the duration of this past campaign found most candidates pushing anything environmental into a corner unless forced. There was only one major candidate’s forum on the environment — and perhaps unsurprisingly Parker (along with grocery magnate Jeff Brown), didn’t show for it, despite a stage full of her competitors. (Even Oh was there.)
This should matter to all of us
That neither major party candidate gives or shows little public respect or care for the poor state of the city’s air, land and water should be of grave concern to every resident. Philly just eked through with a tainted water crisis that found and left many Black residents unwilling to drink from the tap. As demands on aging city water systems grow, who has a response plan for that? What is the plan for accessing cleaner water from sources like the Delaware River or the Schuylkill? Neither candidate has yet offered any thoughtful solutions for the next tap water crisis. We’re left to believe they’ll be ready when it happens.
It’s bigger than a water crisis, however. Philadelphia still ranks high on metro area air pollution lists when it could be doing better — the junkyard fires are a key indicator. That’s not ideal in a place where 21 percent of children (mostly Black) suffer from asthma — more than double the national average. Lead poisoning levels in Philly also remain high without any plan from either nominee to alleviate it. Black maternal mortality rates, along with a variety of pollution and toxin-triggering cancer rates, remain among the highest in the nation.
Where’s the candidate conversation on that and how Philly prepares for it? Even as hotter summers in Philly may worsen gun violence and further degrade public safety, neither candidate mentions it as a factor. There’s no mention of how they plan to capture, as Philly’s mayor, the billions of Biden climate plan dollars flowing into Pennsylvania to actually make a city that’s climate resilient and transform its economy into something that’s climate centered, climate equitable and climate prosperous. Perhaps those dollars could be used to remove all junkyards in Philly once and for all, but no elected official in Philly, much less these two candidates, will talk about it.
Black communities are disproportionately hit hardest by every last one of those environmental and climate catastrophes, and elected officials never address the fact that the state of their living space is the most important struggle for them, and that fixing it not only reduces impacts, but it also generates greater economic opportunity.
Both nominees give off tough-on-crime vibes to tackle Philly’s ongoing violent crime crisis. Yet, neither want to embrace or discuss the, largely, environmentally and climate resilient-based solutions and investments — otherwise touted as the “Green Living Plan” — that are shown to substantially reduce crime. Philly’s police budget has increased 46 percent since 2018 to the $800 million that it is now, while the violence, in that same period, has risen 22 percent. Yet, a combination of Green Living Plan place-based strategies could actually decrease the violent crime rate by up to 75 percent.
It’s not just trash pick-ups alone that will untangle unsafe conditions: It’s removing every last vacant lot or remediating as many as possible to become urban farms and gardens. It’s planting and tendering as many trees throughout the lowest-income neighborhoods as fast as possible and beginning to give Black and Brown residents the cooler tree canopy temperatures that White residents enjoy and the natural stormwater management systems, too. It’s giving those same neighborhoods the resources they need to repair their homes and acclimate them to changing environmental conditions. It’s creating an ecosystem of new green-driven jobs and micro-businesses in those same communities rather than stuffing money into bloated police budgets. Exactly what are both candidates waiting for?
On the community level, Black communities are disproportionately hit hardest by every last one of those environmental and climate catastrophes, and elected officials never address the fact that the state of their living space is the most important struggle for them, and that fixing it not only reduces impacts, but it also generates greater economic opportunity.
There is no excuse for either candidate failing to emphasize what really sustains Philadelphia quality of life: its environment. Crime waves will continue unabated without an environmental solution. A new Sixers stadium will be a waste if it’s not clean-energy powered. Junkyard fires will keep burning and methane gas will keep poisoning our air if elected officials keep tolerating them. Thousands of “green-collar jobs” will never be generated if policymakers don’t know how to (or care to) secure climate resilience dollars. Schools will remain closed and children unable to learn when the buildings are toxic and hot.
Being green is not merely picking up the trash. It’s, truly, being about what gives life to the city and those who reside in it. The next Mayor of Philadelphia must be the complete eco-mayor. Our city will not survive without one.
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From left: Democratic Mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker, a "Love Our Planet" sign from a youth climate change demonstration in San Francisco, and Republican Mayoral candidate David Oh.