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A brief history of climate action in America’s City for Health

A brief history of climate action in America’s City for Health

“To change everything we need everyone.” The quote has been a rallying cry in the climate justice movement around the world, and it holds as true in Rochester as it does anywhere.

Over the last several years Rochester has taken serious steps to mitigate our climate footprint. These steps have originated from every sector of the city – from grassroots activists, from politicians, from the utility company, and even from the DMC. There is a lot of work still to be done to achieve climate neutrality. So let’s take stock of just how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go on this Earth Day.

In 2009 the Rochester City Council took its very first official step to address climate change by creating the Energy Commission. The Commission is a citizen’s advisory panel tasked with reducing the city’s climate footprint. This committed group of local residents has not always had their recommendations welcomed by city council; nevertheless, they persisted. In 2014 they started to lobby for the authorization and funding to create an Energy Action Plan. They eventually convinced council, and the plan was completed in 2016. The plan faced over a year of delays at council before it was unanimously adopted in July 2017.

Many residents pressed the city forward over that eight-year stretch. In 2014, Mary and Ivan Idso co-founded the first Rochester EarthFest. That first year saw just a couple dozen activists gather with protest signs to stand in solidarity for a cleaner tomorrow. Flash forward to today, and EarthFest has grown welcome thousands each year in at the Expo, Climate March, and dozens of events throughout the city over the course of a week each year.

Just over a year that first EarthFest, Mayor Ardell Brede issued his visionary proclamation “That together we will strive to achieve a goal of attaining 100 percent renewable energy by 2031.” (Learn more about those efforts here.)

Two months later, Rochester Public Utilities (RPU) turned off the downtown Silver Lake coal plant, forever. That same year in its 2015 infrastructure plan update, RPU pledged to power Rochester completely coal free by 2031.

The next year in 2016, the Destination Medical Center Corporation Board (DMC) adopted a sustainability resolution. The resolution included goals such as reducing overall energy use intensity as the city grows, implementing energy innovations such multiple buildings sharing a single heating/cool system, and a net-zero energy district.

The month before city council adopted the Energy Action Plan in 2017, RPU created Rochester’s first community solar program where for an upfront fee residents can subscribe to offsite solar panels to reduce their carbon footprint. That same month, city council approved funding jointly with the DMC to create the Rochester’s first sustainability director position. Kevin Bright was hired several months later to help implement the DMC’s sustainability resolution and the city’s energy action plan.

Now, a few months in to 2018, we are on the brink of another step forward. This coming Tuesday climate justice advocates will rally at RPU to ask the board to include a pathway to 100 percent renewable energy in their forthcoming infrastructure plan update.

Yet even if RPU rises to the challenge on Tuesday, Rochester still faces many challenges to live out its identity as America’s city for health. Our neighbors in Winona County have fought for years to keep the fracking industry out of their neighborhoods and its effects out of their lungs. New oil pipelines threaten the boundary waters and the treaty rights of Indigenous peoples who have called this place home long before our forebears arrived. Climate change has geometrically increased the frequency of hundred year storms in the state. Regardless of these injustices, Rochester just invested $60 million in a natural gas plant and still has plans on the books to build another nearly 8 times bigger within a decade.

If we are going to be America’s City for Health, Rochester must do better. But to change everything, it’s going to take everyone. So come join the movement this weekend at the EarthFest Expo on Saturday and the People’s Climate March on Sunday, and demand action from RPU on Tuesday. We’ll see you there.

Rick Morris is the Rochester Clean Energy Organizer for the Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter. 

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