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Activists question whether Kansas City draft climate plan really puts most vulnerable at its heart

Environmentalists in Kansas City say they will push to make sure the city's draft climate action plan responds to the needs of under-resourced communities that are often the most adversely affected by climate change.
Nomin Ujiyediin
Kansas News Service
Environmentalists in Kansas City say they will push to make sure the city's draft climate action plan responds to the needs of under-resourced communities that are often the most adversely affected by climate change.

The city says its Climate Protection and Resilience Plan is a living document that will be shaped by future public input. But some wonder if environmental justice will drive the outcome as promised, and if those who often suffer excessive utility bills and flooding will see changes.

The initial draft of the Climate Protection and Resilience Plan released by Kansas City officials last week left some with more questions than it answered.

Will it increase utility bills, affect rents or even force some residents out of their neighborhoods?

“This plan, while appearing as a good first step, is not as equitable as it claims to be,” said Laela Zaidi, a leader of Sunrise Movement KC. “It discusses building upgrades, renewable energy and electric vehicles, but it doesn't spell out how these actions will directly benefit poor or working-class people and communities of color."

When officials released the 119-page draft last week, they described what they ultimately wanted was a document that all Kansas Citians could use to understand and address climate change in their daily lives. They called it a roadmap to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2040, to address severe weather, flooding, extreme heat, and other adverse effects of climate change in the Kansas City area.

At the same time, officials said they put environmental justice at the center of the plan, noting poverty, racism, and other forms of discrimination marginalizes under-resourced communities and puts them most at risk of climate-related adversity.

Throughout months of virtual community meetings, activists like Zaidi asked questions about accountability and funding, and the extent to which public dollars would be committed.

“Without specific commitments, we are going to end up relying on private dollars and corporations, which will lead to a continuation of the same systems that displace people and leave them poor," she said.

Beth Pauley, program director at the Hutchinson, Kansas-based nonprofit Climate + Energy Project is a member of the steering committee that worked with the city to craft the plan. Pauley says she saw her job as keeping the politicians and policy makers honest as they defined long term strategies. She admits it wasn’t easy.

“There has been a lot of healthy dialogue and conflict as part of the process,” she said.

But Pauley worries the roadmap doesn’t address the power dynamics that perpetuate these systemic inequities.

“People who are most severely affected by the climate crisis are the same ones who regularly experience electricity shutoffs, high energy bills, high gas bills, eviction,” she said. “Are any of those metrics built into the plan to draw those connections? I don’t think they are currently.”

Kansas City officials defended this latest draft plan as its most aggressive and comprehensive yet. In a statement to KCUR, City Manager Brian Platt said the document was a roadmap for where the city will head in the near future to address climate change, but that officials recognize it relies on input from the community.

"The Climate Protection and Resiliency Plan is built on a foundation of public input, equity, partnership with neighborhoods and climate advocacy groups,” Platte said. ”It is just the first of many steps in the community feedback and engagement process and doubles down on a lot of the great efforts already underway.”

Long time coming

Kansas City has been committed to a climate planning process for more than 15 years, but this latest iteration outlines strategies to address the intensifying climate crisis. It moves up a proposed deadline for carbon neutrality, defines strategies for different geographical parts of the city, and makes explicit “equity-centered planning.”

The document outlines six strategies across six categories to make Kansas City more resilient to climate change: mobility, energy supply, natural systems, homes and buildings, food and waste, and materials.

Claus Wawrzinek, a long-time environmental activist, attended many virtual meetings with the Office of Environmental Quality as it debated the city’s climate plan. He voiced his concern, along with other environmental activists, when some city officials attempted to transfer the OEQ out of the city manager’s office to the Neighborhoods and Community Services Department. The activists suggested the move would diminish oversight of environmental issues, particularly the implementation of the Climate Protection and Resilience Plan.

Wawrzinek agrees the city has offered the opportunity for community input but remains concerned many who participated are either already embracing green policies and practices or have a corporate interest in whatever is decided.

“The Climate Protection and Resilience Plan includes some important steps to reduce negative impact from climate change, but it may not go far enough,” he said. “Many of the steps depend on proper funding and political will.”

The draft documents of the Climate Protection and Resilience Plan are available for public engagement on the Kansas City website at playbook.kcmo.gov/cprp-mobilize until April 12.

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