PHL Councilmember Katherine Gilmore Richardson (At-Large) | ecoWURD oped
The Covid-19 pandemic has drastically changed our lives, much in the way climate change will if not addressed. If greenhouse gas emissions aren’t slowed, temperatures will continue to rise and extreme weather will wreak havoc on every sector of the global economy, making the losses we’ve seen from Covid-19 look miniscule. This current disaster gives us an opportunity to rebuild our economy in a way that changes the systems that have caused damage for far too long and create real opportunity for all.
Right here in Philadelphia, we are already feeling the impacts of climate change.
A report came out recently showing average winter temperatures have risen 4.8 degrees in Philadelphia since 1970, and the winter season has 19 more days with above normal temperatures. This summer, we also had record breaking average temperatures, with minimums about 5 degrees warmer than they were in the 1960s. We also see more flooding from extreme weather events like Hurricane Isaias.
And these impacts aren’t felt equitably. In the summer, some neighborhoods, like Hunting Park, can experience temperatures that are 20 degrees higher because there are fewer trees and green spaces and more exposed asphalt and black roofs. Others, like Eastwick, have been devastated from flooding because of the way development has constricted the flow of rivers and creeks. The neighborhoods that are most negatively impacted are those of Black and Brown people, and recent research has found correlation between where the worst impacts of climate change will be and the practice of redlining. These communities are more likely to be near polluting industries and to see significant related health impacts like asthma, low pre-term birth weight, and most recently, Covid-19.
Our City of Philadelphia has set a foundation for this intersectional work. For example, the Philadelphia Energy Campaign, spearheaded by Council President Darrell Clarke, has four key goals: creating jobs, strengthening communities, cutting energy bills, and reducing pollution and supporting public health. By working to address multiple intersecting issues at once – employment; affordable, healthy housing; energy insecurity; small business development; climate change; and public health – the Energy Campaign can leverage investment to improve the overall livelihood of residents. The Philadelphia Energy Authority (PEA), which leads the Energy Campaign, has prioritized multiple sectors in this work, but I will just focus on one: Low to Moderate Income Housing. This program focuses on creating and preserving affordable homes through energy and water efficiency projects, whole home repairs, and clean energy installation. These projects reduce energy insecurity, help Philadelphians stay in their homes, improve indoor air quality, and lower carbon emissions. The projects also create opportunities for local businesses and direct contractors to hire local workers, thereby creating new jobs. PEA also supports job training programs for opportunity youth to help build a strong pipeline into these jobs for people who often face barriers to employment.
As this one example demonstrates, by directing our attention to address the intersectional challenges our city faces, we can make significant improvements while being more efficient with our spending. For those reasons and more, I introduced a “Green Recovery” Resolution in City Council that lays out a bold vision for our future: to prioritize climate action and environmental justice as a way to rebuild our economy and stave off future disasters. That Resolution was supported by eleven of my colleagues, including the entire Committee on the Environment, and passed on December 3.
We must be strategic in our recovery from Covid-19. Prioritizing climate action and environmental justice will help us be on the cutting edge of the new green economy, invest in every community, address the systemic inequity that has kept generations of Philadelphians in poverty, improve public health, lower our greenhouse gas emissions, and become climate resilient.
Making these investments will require us to think differently about costs, shifting our mindset from a take-make-waste model to one that is regenerative. Finding ways to make these investments within the confines of our current financial situation will be a challenge, but that only requires us to be more innovative and efficient in our policies, programs, and spending. For example, some cities have started using Environmental Impact Bonds and other impact-based financing models; the District of Columbia was the first to try this, and other major cities like Atlanta and Baltimore are doing this, as well. I have reached out to the Kenney Administration’s recovery team to discuss all the different ways we can achieve these goals. These changes will be expensive, but nothing will cost more than our continued inaction. Everyone should live in neighborhoods that have well-maintained green spaces and schools, clean, safe streets, multi-modal transportation options, strong local businesses, and affordable homes, and we can make this vision a reality.
I am grateful for the support from my colleagues in City Council who see and support this vision, and I am looking forward to working with them, the Administration, and most importantly, Philadelphia’s residents and business owners. We must understand their priorities, needs, and hopes for their neighborhoods and to do the work to ensure that safe, livable, climate resilient communities become a reality for all. There is still much work to do, but I believe this is an important first step. We journey on.
KATHERINE GILMORE RICHARDSON is currently serving her first term as an At-Large member of Philadelphia City Council, and she is the Chair of the Committee on the Environment. Councilmember Gilmore Richardson is the youngest woman ever elected to Philadelphia City Council At-Large and the youngest Black woman ever elected to Philadelphia City Council.