Climate change disasters and responses to them are in the news everywhere in the world this year — that is, almost everywhere, since they are conspicuously absent from discussion in the Philadelphia mayor’s race (as reported in The Citizen).
The primary race for mayor included two forums at the Academy of Natural Sciences focused specifically on the environment: The Green Living Plan Mayoral Forum on March 29 and the Green Philly Climate and Environment Mayoral Forum on April 4. Our presumed next mayor Cherelle Parker did not show up for either and it felt like a slight to the large number of citizens and local organizations for whom clean air, clean water and a stable climate are top priority issues.
And what are we to make of her website that for other issues identifies at least some detailed policy prescriptions, while ‘Cleaning and Greening’ is limited to expanded trash pickup in commercial corridors? As valuable as that might be, it is only a very small part of cleaning — and there is no mention of greening at all.
The hottest summer in recorded history is not a good time to decide the environment can be ignored or to respond only by picking up trash. If safety and education are indeed two of Parker’s primary concerns, consider the following:
- A report by the Center for Climate Integrity projects that Philadelphia will need to spend $3.3 billion to adapt to increasing heat, precipitation, and rising seas in just the next 16 years. That only covers the cost of adaptation (like air conditioning schools that Parker wants to keep open year-round) and doesn’t pay for the weather disasters we can expect.
- Data from Climate Central, recently reported in the Inquirer, rated Philadelphia one of the worst cities in America for the number of people affected by the ‘urban heat island effect’ where a neighborhood’s temperatures are significantly higher due to concrete, asphalt and buildings with little or no relief from trees or green space.
- A May research report from Drexel tells Philadelphia to expect more heat waves, more extreme precipitation and rising sea levels.
- CNBC’s 2023 annual assessment of America’s Top States for Business ranked Pennsylvania as one of the 10 states least prepared for extreme weather.
- Philadelphia has long had a childhood asthma rate twice the national average, and experiences many ‘unhealthy air quality action days’ alerts issued by the Department of Environmental Protection.
- And we are a city where gas is widely used for cooking and heating. The health impacts of gas in the home, particularly for cooking, has been widely reported in recent months.
Parker does not need to wait until January to connect with our extensive environmental community and show she plans to be a mayor for everyone, and to demonstrate the skill she talked about so often while campaigning — that she can bring people with dissimilar views together to collaborate and solve problems.
Clearly Parker has the support of many of our building trade unions. The work needed to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, to insulate and electrify many of our half-million-plus buildings, to make Philadelphia a resilient and energy efficient city means enormous job opportunities. Unions and environmental groups, often at odds, need to come together around these goals of rebuilding the city for a fossil-free future while protecting workers and providing affordable energy. The mayor can and should build this alliance.
What else can Mayor Parker do?
The environment isn’t Parker’s jam, and that’s OK; it doesn’t have to be. She can still lead in building an actual clean and green city by listening to the environmental community, putting sustainability-minded people in policy positions and giving them her full-throated support. The Office of Sustainability’s Climate Action Playbook is a good place to start in defining the environmental goals of her administration.
Making PGW, the largest municipally owned gas utility in the U.S., part of the solution instead of a huge part of our problem can no longer be kicked down the road. According to the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, PGW accounts for 20 percent of Philadelphia’s carbon emissions.
Philadelphia can never reach its net zero goals without eliminating reliance on methane gas. The transformation of Philadelphia to a city that runs on clean energy needs to meet not only our emissions reduction goals, it needs to do so while providing affordable energy for all customers during the transition, as well as protecting PGW workers. This will not be easy, and it will take time.
Fortunately for the next mayor some baby steps to determine what that future looks like have been initiated. PGW should provide an update this fall on the geothermal feasibility study it did its best to avoid but was pressured into by local environmental advocates; and the Building Electrification Institute has a workforce study underway addressing worker implications of a transition away from gas here in Philadelphia. In addition, the city’s Office of Sustainability is working on plans for alleviating energy poverty in Philadelphia and for local implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act Congress enacted last year.
PGW has yet to embrace the need for a transformation, but the next mayor can make this happen through promoting the need for a net zero future and through appointments to the Gas Commission and the Philadelphia Facilities Management Corporation (PFMC). Turning PGW around will be a legacy move.
Beyond advancing both the transformation of PGW and the Climate Action Playbook, additional clean and green groundwork has already been laid in other areas. Circular Philly has recently published two papers: Single-Use Plastic Legislation for Philadelphia: A Policy Guide and Construction and Demolition Recycling Legislation for Philadelphia: A Policy Guide. The mayor can be an advocate for these policies and work with Council on implementing legislation.
Just over a year ago Philadelphia Citizen issued Philly’s Climate Change Report Card and while we did not outright fail, the grades were dismal. Time is running out and there is much the next mayor needs to do.
Karen Melton is a retiree and local environmental activist. She is a volunteer with Citizens’ Climate Lobby — Philly Chapter, SE PA Sierra Club, the Weavers Way Plastic Reduction Taskforce and Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center.
The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who represent that it is their own work and their own opinion based on true facts that they know firsthand.
MORE MESSAGES FOR PRESUMPTIVE MAYOR PARKER