Cities Take the lead on Climate and Health

By Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, Executive Director of Maryland Environmental Health Network 

For better or worse, U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord has been a catalyst for states and cities to step up on climate.  The title of the Baltimore City Climate Resolution is simple, “Request for City Action – Supporting the Paris Accord”.  The substance is a call for a more ambitious agenda. It is laden with stunningly achievable goals. If we take we take it seriously, we can chart a path toward an affordable, livable, clean energy future by doing things we ought to do anyway.

Equity, access, justice, and health are the driving principles of the Resolution. Climate Change causes flooding, temperature spikes and increases danger to the elderly, young and anyone (like me) suffering from asthma. Baltimore is staring down two possible futures, resilience or wreckage.  In the new political reality, we are without the promise of federal dollars, it’s time for cities to act on climate and center our efforts to protect the most vulnerable.  It’s only right.

Screen Shot 2017-06-26 at 5.41.16 PMThe Resolution came to be after a brief series of nuanced and thoughtful conversations between City Councilman Cohen and myself, and subsequent outreach to environmental organizations including Blue Water Baltimore, Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Clean Water Action, Energy Justice Network, Baltimore CCAN, Free Your Voice, Environmental Integrity Project, Baltimore People’s Climate Movement, Interfaith Power & Light and Sierra Club.

The Councilman has a background in education and is focused on issues affecting youth. So, why would he  to take on climate? It should be obvious. Climate change is the greatest threat to health and the environment in our lifetime.  What we do now or fail to do now will shape the future.

We were thrilled (!) that a local official made these connections and had the foresight tocome to an environmental health organization to help develop the response to the Paris Accord withdrawal.  The result was a realistic statement of issues and a climate action road-map with direct links to health outcomes.

Our speedy collaboration produced a forward-thinking document that spoke to members of the Baltimore community who do not readily identify themselves as environmentalists, or health advocates.  The Resolution introduced by Councilman Cohen was supported by every City Council member.

How did all of this happen? In a time of reaction about the state and the planet, the
environmental community banded together with our social justice allies to do the right thing because we ought to. An environmental health organization led the charge with groups focused on water, energy, working families, unions, art, agriculture (rural and urban) and united to speak in one voice in local government.  The Councilman opened a door and what followed was special because in working together to craft a response on climate we set aside egos in service of a deeper collaboration for the good that could be accomplished, together.

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The Resolution represents each and all of us who want breathable air and drinkable water that supports basic life-giving services. Most of all, we want the chance to meet the challenge of climate change on our terms and not just those handed to us by the previous generation.

We worked through edits and discussions about equity and how we wish to work as Baltimore Community. We touched on issues of race and gentrification, buses and trains. We called for renewable infrastructure to take the place of industry that has come and gone.  We strategized about commitment to targets that would allow industry to settle here, so the related jobs would be local. The Resolution while not binding, is the start of cooperation based on the understanding that all the issues are our issues.

We want local action on everyday toxics exposure, dirty incineration, infrastructure, affordable and renewable energy, the housing crisis, urban agriculture and the right to food access, oil transport, and emissions reducing diet among other symptomatic issues. The Resolution connects these issues to the big picture of climate. The concluding language of the Resolution demands that the document goes before the General Assembly and Governor. Any action from city government would signal that equity is more than just a watchword.

It is our hope that the actions spelled out in the Resolution will be taken up by the Council, and the Office of Mayor so that Baltimore City will have the chance to shift from rust belt to green belt in our lifetime. If for no other reason than the opportunity to best Pittsburgh’s pledge, it’s time to start locally, and for cities to lead the charge.

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