Chicago-Area Communities Vow To Slash Carbon Emissions With Ambitious New ‘Climate Action Plan’

Lake Michigan waves
Recent record-high water levels in Lake Michigan and heavy storms have caused erosion and damage along Chicago's shoreline. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Lake Michigan waves
Recent record-high water levels in Lake Michigan and heavy storms have caused erosion and damage along Chicago's shoreline. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Chicago-Area Communities Vow To Slash Carbon Emissions With Ambitious New ‘Climate Action Plan’

There’s an old saying in Chicago: If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute.

The region has certainly seen extremes in recent years: super deep freezes, heavy storms causing flooding and lake erosion, heat waves and drought and heavy lake effect snow this past winter.

Is all this volatile weather a fluke?

Not to climate scientists like Richard Spinrad, the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Even though we are in the middle of the warmest summer on record in the United States, let’s not lose sight of the extreme conditions the Chicago region faces during winter. As the Great Lakes warm, that can fuel more intense lake effect snow storms,” he said.

The West is getting droughts and heat domes, and the East and South are getting more frequent and intense hurricanes, but Spinrad said parts of the Midwest may be most vulnerable to a warming planet.

“Heat is the leading cause of weather-related death in the U.S. The Chicago region is warming faster than the globe as a whole,” he said.

To do something about this, government leaders from more than 200 communities in the Chicago region, with help from NOAA and other climate change experts, have devised an action plan that they say is the first of its kind in the U.S.

The 124-page Climate Action Plan, unveiled this month, contains ideas large and small that cities, suburbs and villages across Cook and the collar counties can implement to mitigate the effects of climate change.

“If we all do something together, the impacts — positive impacts — are better,” said Kevin Burns, mayor of west suburban Geneva.

He’s chairman of the environmental committee for the 275-member Metropolitan Mayors Caucus, which spent the last two years putting the action plan together.

Burns said it’s a roadmap for addressing the environmental changes that are underway and predicted in the future.

“First of all, the plan is not fiat. It’s a framework of collective action to reach a collective goal that we believe we can do by acting in a regional way,” he said.

Organizers of the plan focused their attention on “climate hazards” that they believe could affect people and resources in Chicagoland including heat, flooding, drought, water supply and air quality.

Then they identified climate change mitigation goals such as developing clean energy alternatives, reducing how much people drive, improving energy use in buildings, and managing water and waste in more sustainable ways.

Their bold objective is to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) — the primary greenhouse gas produced by human activities that’s emitted into the earth’s atmosphere — by 80 percent within the next 30 years.

“We have to get off [of] dirty electricity. The grid has to get cleaner and we need more renewable energy,” said Edith Makra, director of environmental initiatives for the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus and one of the two co-authors of the action plan.

She said one direction that local governments could take is revising their codes to make solar power more attractive to homeowners and businesses.

“Untangling processes for permitting [and] inspection, and cleaning up zoning codes so that solar has a glide path [so] there aren’t bureaucratic barriers that are completely unnecessary and not helpful to anyone,” Makra said.

Chicago traffic jam
Motorists stuck in rush hour traffic on the Kennedy Expressway. Sitthixay Ditthavong / Associated Press

Slashing CO2 emissions caused by vehicles is another goal of the action plan.

Supporters believe local governments can help by making simple decisions such as creating more bike lanes and sidewalks, and by supporting the expansion and use of buses and trains. And they say local leaders can encourage the growth of electric vehicles by providing charging stations in their communities.

The action plan also addresses social equity issues that have become part of the climate change discussion and response. The document acknowledges that pollution and climate change have affected Black and Latino communities that, for example, live close to CO2-emitting factories.

“Industry in Waukegan, past and present, has polluted our air, water, land — and has disproportionately affected the health of our community members and critical ecosystems,” said Maya Dutta, sustainability coordinator for the city north of Chicago.

She said it’s important for communities of color to feel included in the action plan.

Dutta said the plan is “a really good way to train people to always be thinking about the environmental justice implications when we are enacting a policy or strategy.”

Although communities across Chicagoland are part of the action plan, it doesn’t include northwest Indiana or southeast Wisconsin, where there is heavy industry that adds to overall CO2 emissions in the region.

Burns, Geneva’s mayor, hopes the action plan will inspire regional partnerships.

“We suspect, and I’m pretty darn confident, that the other regions, particularly those closer to us, will say, ‘We want to join you. How can we do so? How can you help us?’ That’s pretty exciting,” he said.

The framers of the action plan are working to ensure it doesn’t collect dust. They plan to meet with residents and community groups to educate the public on the specifics of the report.

Michael Puente covers Chicago and Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.