“Lessons learned” while building climate preparedness—notes from Chicago, Pres. Obama’s home town


If President Obama is looking for ways to formulate a national climate change strategy that extends beyond cap-and-trade, he has no further to look than his home town of Chicago, Illinois.  Under the leadership of Mayor Richard M. Daley, a Chicago Climate Task Force created in 2006 produced an ambitious climate action plan that “is grounded in the science” and simultaneously deals with “mitigation” (avoiding unmanageable impacts by reducing heat-trapping pollution) and “adaptation” (managing unavoidable consequences of climate destabilization).  Chicago now wishes to share its experiences with others, starting with the recent release of a “lessons learned” chronicle that mayors and governors, in fact all policymakers at all levels of government, can benefit from. 

post by Anne Polansky   ?   Also posted on Daily Kos

When President Obama goes to Cophenhagen, he’s likely to go without a new climate law on the books, but he will have strong evidence that state and local governments all across the US are taking the climate problem seriously and enacting measures commensurate with the threat—including his home town.  While we struggle to develop a national climate strategy and policy framework from the top down, it’s already happening, from the bottom up.


Chicago, the third largest city in the US with a population exceeding 2.8 million, sits on the shores of Lake Michigan.  A major transportation and telecommunications hub for North America, Chicago is a major world financial center with a strong industrial presence as well.  It has the second largest central business district (New York City has the largest) and the second largest labor pool in the US with approximately 4.25 million workers in the metropolitan area.  So, a city-wide climate strategy with a broad base of support was no small feat. 

Developed with broad input and involvement from institutions, businesses, and communities throughout Chicago, the Chicago Climate Action Plan outlines five strategies, broken down into 26 actions for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and nine actions to prepare for climate change.  (Other related reports and documents can be found on the main Chicago Climate Action Plan webpage). 

“Cities can really benefit from each other’s experience taking action on climate change. Chicago has benefited from its action plan and has valuable lessons to share, data that is applicable to many other cities, and tools for prioritizing strategies that I hope other cities can adapt.”
—Julia Parzen, author of “Lessons Learned”

In Lessons Learned: Creating the Chicago Climate Action Plan, released in July 2009, key factors driving the Chicago Climate Action Planning process are identified:

• Mayor Daley’s leadership to make Chicago the greenest city in the nation

• the desire of Chicago’s Department of Energy to comprehensively address adaptation and mitigation

• the expertise of the nonprofit community in research and strategy related to climate action

• the excellence of local university research centers, the expertise of the Climate Task Force

• the support from unions and the business community for action to reduce building and other emissions

• the willingness of local foundations to fund a thoughtful climate planning process

Another critical factor identified was the partnership created between the City of Chicago and the Global Philanthropy Partnership, a local nonprofit partner.

The bottom line here is that with the right leadership and a commitment to garnering support among a broad base of stakeholders, much can be done to boost preparedness for climate change, even in a city as large and complex as Chicago. 

The Lessons Learned report also makes a wise observation:  “mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (preparing for climate changes no longer avoidable) overlap and win-win opportunities surface from developing both plans together.”  Having both mitigation and adaptation in the same plan also makes it easier to ensure that mitigation actions improve resiliency and adaptation actions are climate neutral or reduce emissions. 

Win-win examples include:

•  Keeping rainwater on site helps reduce flooding (adaptation) and reduces the need for pumping water, which saves energy (mitigation)
• Trees can ameliorate the urban heat island effect (adaptation) and provide passive cooling, which saves energy (mitigation)

The US Congress should heed this advice in preparing climate legislation:  merely “capping and trading” carbon dioxide permits and promoting clean energy and jobs isn’t enough.  We must also plan and prepare for climate change impacts across all socioeconomic sectors, not just natural resources and public health.  And we must encourage the active pursuit of measures that both reduce emissions and build resiliency against a host of climate change impacts that can disrupt and disturb our lives and livelihoods.   

More about the Chicago Climate Action Plan:

The first thing Chicago Climate Task force did was to sit down with leading climate scientists to learn more about how the city will be affected by climate change. 

They asked three key questions:

• What would happen if we did nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

• How would various levels of reductions of global emissions affect our climate?

• What would the climate change impacts be on Chicago’s infrastructure?

The most obvious impact identified was the likelihood of hotter and more humid summers and more frequent and intense heat waves causing heat-related illness and deterioration in air quality.  Higher temperatures would boost demand for electricity for air conditioning and put stress on power plants. Costs of both police and fire services could be higher—police receive more calls during heat waves—and hot days could result in more fires and power outages.  Changes in precipitation patterns translate into more frequent heavy rains and snow in winter and spring.  Increased intensity of downpours will make travel more dangerous, flood basements, pollute bodies of water, damage crops, stress the city’s infrastructure and disrupt transportation. During summer, rains may fall more heavily but less frequently, translating to more dry spells as well.  Chicago’s native ecosystems are at risk; scientists noted that the city’s plant hardiness zone had already shifted to that of central Illinois in 1990 and that, left unchecked, climate changes could make Chicago’s plant hardiness zone equivalent to that of northern Alabama by the end of the century.

The “mitigation” component of the Plan recognizes buildings and the energy they consume as being responsible for nearly three fourths of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the primary target for achieving reductions through energy efficiency measures.  It promotes greater use of renewable energy, improved transportation systems and ways to reduce vehicle miles traveled, and means for cutting industrial pollution. 

A section on “adaptation” has nine major elements:

1. Manage heat: Update the heat response plan, focusing on vulnerable populations, complete further research into urban heat island effect and pursue ways to cool hot spots

2. Pursue innovative cooling: Launch an effort to seek out innovative ideas for cooling the city and encourage property owners to make green landscape and energy efficiency improvements.

3. Protect air quality: Intensity efforts to reduce ozone-precursors through mitigation programs that reduce driving and emissions from power plants.

4. Manage stormwater: Collaborate with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District on a Chicago Watershed Plan that factors in climate changes and uses vacant land to manage stormwater.

5. Implement Green Urban Design: Implement key steps in Chicago’s Green Urban Design plan to manage heat and flooding. These steps will enable Chicago to capture rain where it falls and reflect away some of the intensity of the sun on hot days.

6. Preserve our plants and trees: Publish a new plant-growing list that focuses on plants that can thrive in altered climates. Also draft a new landscape ordinance to accommodate plants that can tolerate the altered climate.

7. Engage the public: Share climate research findings with groups most affected – social service agencies, garden clubs, etc. Help individual households to take their own steps to reduce flooding and manage heat waves, such as installing rain barrels and back-up power for sump pumps and planting shade trees.

8. Engage businesses: Work with businesses to analyze their vulnerability to climate change and take action.

9. Plan for the future: Use the Green Steering Committee of City Commissioners to oversee City implementation efforts and the Green Ribbon Committee of business and community leaders to assess how the plan is being implemented, recommend revisions, and report to the Mayor and all Chicagoans on our progress.



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