Climate and justice intertwine

By Midge Pierce

Despite a city official’s claim that more than 100 people move to Portland daily, Mayor Ted Wheeler promised attendees at last month’s Let’s Talk Climate  session that he would reduce carbon emissions and drive the City toward 100% renewables by 2050.

To get there, Wheeler said Portland Gas & Electric must be dissuaded from turning its coal-fired Boardman plant into a gas-fired “stranded asset” that will be obsolete as the transition to renewables quickens.

On the personal level, he called on citizens to reduce carbon footprints, stop “abusing” single occupancy vehicles and to support environmental justice.

The sanctuary of Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church on Belmont St. felt like an old-time revival meeting as a receptive audience broke into cheers and applause during the forum advocating for sustainability, reductions in personal consumption and social justice.

In a preview of what to expect in this month’s release of a Climate Action Plan, Wheeler pledged to focus on minimizing risks to populations vulnerable to flooding and heat waves caused by nearby highways and treeless, low-lying neighborhoods.

“We used to be leaders,” he said. Reducing Co2 emissions by 21% is not enough. Now we need to catch up with progress made by Washington state and California.

Decrying the current White House administration’s proposed budgetary evisceration of the Environmental Protection Agency, he told the crowd to move the action line from defense to offense. “We are not going back to 1990 – we’re headed to 2050”.

Enroute the City intends to address injustices such as carbon emissions impacting poorest neighborhoods most.

City sustainability officer Michael Armstrong described foundational cities in which landuse gets the right balance between people, their mobility and their ability to pay for services.

He called on transportation without autos. Cars that remain should be electric with 100% renewable power supplies. Then he urged homeowners to better insulate homes. “Let’s do it,” he said. “Seventy to 80% of houses have no insulation.” Those who can afford it, he said, should help those who can’t.

He floated ideas like community purchases of solar power that give all citizens economic value and stability in exchange for a slice of the energy pie.

“This is a moral issue. Those who did the least, suffer the most. We don’t succeed in carbon (reduction), if we don’t succeed on equity.”

Citing the mind-boggling numbers of new people moving to Portland daily, Transportation chief Leah Treat called on Portlanders to get out of gas-powered cars and walk, bike and telecommute.

Co2 emissions from transportation are now the leading cause of increasing the carbon footprint, she said, criticizing the highway-inflating transportation package working its way through Salem as too narrowly focused.

A priority of her department is making streets and sidewalks safer for the vulnerable. People are more likely to choose low carbon transportation options like walking, she said, if streets are safe. Progress in East Portland, where there have been multiple pedestrian fatalities, is underway.

Ideal solutions would include dedicated bus lanes, separate infrastructure for cycles, streetcars and pedestrians. Such improvements are unlikely given tight reins on federal funds. Even Trimet’s proposed Division Rapid Transit Bus may not get the grant it needs to move forward.

Parking issues came from an audience that split over whether there is enough vs anti-parking claims that too much encourages unnecessary car use.

Treat explained that her department is dependent on revenue from parking garages even if it seems “antithetical to the good work of the Climate Action Plan.”

Midway through the event, new City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly stepped forward from a pew to steer the conversation toward affordable housing and the impact of involuntary displacements on climate and equity.

She said that a big difference between poor and affluent neighborhoods is trees, adding that treeless urban heat islands near highways are inequitably shared by the economically disadvantaged.

“Historic neighborhoods are less dense than ever,” she said to an audience loaded with Infill supporters.

“Preservationists have to get past the attitude that nothing can change.”

After a discussion about why young people weren’t included in decision-making, Armstrong said there is currently a youth commissioner slot open on the City Climate Coalition.

As the forum wrapped up, he pleaded for citizens to make the right little as well as big choices. “Do the low carbon thing every time.” For those who can’t afford choice, he said “make the people who can afford it, do it.”

Audience questions ended with quintessential Portland moments.

Citizens called for a stop to banking with Wells Fargo and several called on the City to stop using banks with investments in the Dakota Pipeline.

One asked the City to encourage vegetarian diets to reduce methane emissions and another called for locally-made long underwear.

Climate and justice intertwine

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