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Philadelphia appoints climate officer, sets more aggressive carbon reduction goal

One of the city's new goals is achieving net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050, an increase over the previous goal of reducing emissions by 80% in that time frame.

File: Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney from October, 2020.
File: Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney from October, 2020.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration on Friday announced the city’s first Chief Resilience Officer to oversee Philadelphia’s preparedness for climate change, outlined a more aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goal, and said a new Environmental Justice Commission will soon be taking applications for membership.

Saleem Chapman will assume the new climate role, working within the Office of Sustainability, where he served most recently as deputy director.

Officials say coordination of the city’s response to climate change is needed given recent connections between the environment and health, including increased storm activity such as Tropical Storm Isaias, which inundated parts of the city in August.

Chapman said he plans to put “a governance structure in place that really allows us to bring all the right stakeholders to the table to move this work forward.” He will receive a $107,000 salary.

He said a new resilience cabinet will bring together department heads across the city to work in unison toward planning and responding to the impacts of climate change. For example, Chapman cited the flooding during Isaias and its impact on communities such as Eastwick, where people were forced from their homes, and led residents to question the safety of floodwater from polluted Darby Creek and an adjacent Superfund site.

Chapman said the city will assemble a climate science research panel to support resiliency efforts.

Christine Knapp, the director of the Office of Sustainability, said the new position was necessary.

“This will allow us to really focus on climate adaptation and resiliency,” Knapp said. “We need to keep cutting emissions, but we also need to start preparing and protecting ourselves against those risks. And so a best practice is to have somebody serving in that capacity to coordinate across city government agencies.”

She’ll continue to work toward reducing greenhouse emissions and addressing other environmental issues.

Among the city’s other new environmental efforts is a goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050, an increase over the previous goal of reducing emissions by 80% in that time frame. That would put the city on the same goal announced by the Biden administration, which the city believes will be an ally.

Aggressive reductions would have to be made to reduce emissions in buildings, transportation, and waste, officials said. That strategy was outlined in an updated Climate Action Playbook.

“Every day we see new evidence that climate change is real and that is hurting our residents, particularly people of color and low income and working-class residents,” said Mayor Jim Kenney.

Kenney said the impact of climate change includes “hotter temperatures and increased frequency and severity of storms.”

Such warmer weather often impacts low-income communities since there is much less tree canopy and shade than in other parts of the city.

» READ MORE: How climate change makes some parts of the city steamier than others

In addition, city officials said they are seeking applicants for an Environmental Justice Commission, or those who want to keep abreast of it.

Zakia Elliott, who is advising on the assembly of the commission, said it will include 17 members who live in the city and are concerned about exposure to toxins, climate impacts, such as flooding and extreme heat, and other issues.

The commission, which was approved last year, will give a voice to various communities to address racial and class disparities in environmental issues.

Elliott anticipates the application process for the commission will be open by spring “to individuals throughout Philadelphia working toward environmental justice in the community, whether by growing food, advocating for clean air, checking in on neighbors during heat waves, or organizing their community around zoning and development.”

PennFuture, a Pa.-based environmental advocacy organization, applauded the creation of the commission as “a signal to other cities that climate solutions must be led by and center the experiences of the people most impacted by climate change.”