Evanstonians pride ourselves on our leadership in setting bold climate goals. Rightly so. After the previous president withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, Evanston pledged not to renege on our commitments, and in December 2018, City Council passed without dissent a bold Climate Action & Resilience Plan.

The plan “sets a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 … securing 100 percent renewable energy for all Evanston properties by 2030, achieving zero waste by 2050, shifting to low- or non-polluting transportation methods, enhancing Evanston stormwater systems, and, for the first time, ensuring that all residents, including our most vulnerable, are prepared for the impacts of a changing climate.”

But with limited funding and staff, making steady and verifiable progress on the plan has been harder – progress that actually results in lower carbon emissions and strengthened resilience in the face of climate-fueled stresses that already are here.

With the arrival of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, Evanston now has a chance to accelerate our climate action, and assure that Evanston remains a leader in the global quest to assure a just transition to a clean energy future.

We’ll be hearing news in coming weeks about COP26 (UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties), the global convening of countries that, in 2015, resulted in the Paris Agreement. The United States has rejoined; but can our country be trusted to follow through on the commitments that are essential if we’re to avoid global catastrophe? Will Americans leap at the opportunity to secure all of the benefits – in innovation and cost savings, not to mention improved public health – that rapid action promises?  Or will we continue to hold back and let others take the lead?

And what can we do here in Evanston to demonstrate that our climate commitments are more than words? Well, so far, most climate action, especially in this country, has happened at the state and local level. Illinois took a big step forward in September by adopting the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, which centers environmental justice communities and makes Illinois the seventh state and first in the Midwest to require a carbon-free power sector (by 2045). Together with Evanston’s 2018 plan, this gives us an edge over many other U.S. cities. 

But while our goals are bold and intentions good, Evanston has just one staff person assigned to lead implementation of the city’s Climate Action & Resilience Plan, and lacks detailed action plans, staffing and funds to enable us to put plans into practice without delay.  

Too often, cost is held up as a roadblock. ARPA funds offer a one-time opportunity for Evanston to take a significant step forward not just in meeting our existing climate action goals, but in setting an example nationwide for how cities can lead on climate action. We should go big – bigger than staff have suggested and even bigger than some Council members have proposed so far. 

Indeed, the cost of action is much higher than it would have been if policymakers had heeded scientists’ warnings 30 years ago – but the cost of inaction is unthinkable. This year’s weather reports have provided vivid and frequent reminders that climate change is not a theoretical issue, but an emergency that is coming closer to us all. 

Climate action is a matter of justice. Here and worldwide, those who are most vulnerable are already suffering most. For those of us who have been watching climate change for decades, frustration over the lack of ambitious government action at the scale of the problem has been deep. But the clock is ticking – the time is now. 

– Wendy Pollock,
Evanston Environment Board co-chair