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Assessing the Hennepin County Climate Action Plan

The Hennepin County Board of Commissioners adopted its first Climate Action Plan on May 4. Unfortunately, the plan falls short of what it needs to do.

On May 4 the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners adopted its first Climate Action Plan. This came after a lengthy process, culminating in a final plan with the stated vision of advancing equity and creating a coordinated approach to planning and policy development.

A comprehensive plan to address climate change is a necessary step toward coordinating county resources to ensure an equitable future for all of our residents. Unfortunately, this plan falls short of what it needs to do, which is address and advance climate justice and prioritize those who are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change.

The Sierra Club North Star Chapter and MN350 have been open in our critiques of the Climate Action Plan. While some of our recommendations have been incorporated, it is important to be transparent around the plan’s shortcomings. A strong Climate Action Plan has the potential to transform our local landscape in a way that benefits all county residents, while centering Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities that are most affected by climate change. Instead we have observed repetition of the same harmful patterns that have historically marginalized BIPOC people.

A problematic, frustrating feedback process

Disappointingly, when the county released the final draft of the plan in late April, the public was given less than a week to read, review, and respond to its 91 pages. This followed a problematic and frustrating feedback process. For example, the county’s own summary of public comments stated that participants were “concerned” about Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) contributing to poor air quality, but the final plan claimed community members only “sought clarity” about HERC’s role in the county’s climate plan. This misrepresentation of public comments is deeply concerning. Community members weren’t seeking clarity on this issue. They, in fact, were raising a strong and valid concern about the HERC’s air pollution that was ignored.

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Some other concerns in the feedback summary that were not adequately addressed in the plan include:

  • The link between toxic air quality, climate pollution and exacerbation of COVID-19, which disproportionately affects BIPOC communities.
  • Stronger goals for electrification of the transportation sector, which is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Continued and legitimate engagement with front-line communities.
  • Comprehensive and detailed zero waste solutions.
  • The relationship between climate change, food access and affordable, ecologically sound shelter.
  • The necessity of embodying an approach to climate action that centers climate justice.
  • An integral climate justice approach that considers the inter-relationship and cumulative impacts from environmental disadvantage and harm caused by the way the county has developed its climate footprint.

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After significant pushback from residents, and leadership from Commissioners Angela Conley and Irene Fernando, the board voted to postpone approval of the plan for two weeks, in order to allow for additional public input and improvements. One notable change, initiated by Conley and approved by the Board of Commissioners, was removing the statement that the county “views HERC as an asset in fighting climate change” from the plan. While this reflects a more honest assessment of the HERC, the final plan still fails to recognize that the HERC is a source of toxic air pollution, carbon emissions and has a disproportionate impact on BIPOC and low income communities.

African American residents in north Minneapolis live, on average, 11 fewer years than whites, and what residents call the “toxic corridor,” including the HERC incinerator, is recognized as an agent of less breath and earlier death. Protecting the HERC as a contributor to Hennepin County’s bottom line makes the county culpable in choosing the making of profit over the protection and sanctity of life. This blunt point raises the question of how the county determines what data really matter as it considers its responsibility and opportunity to promote health and commonwealth in the region. For all those reasons, we are pushing for HERC’s closure.

Plan strengthened through community input

We recognize and appreciate some of the changes that were made in the final rounds in response to public feedback, in particular the strengthening of goals to address transportation pollution — now Minnesota’s great source of climate emissions. If we are serious about climate, reducing vehicles miles traveled (VMT) is not optional, and that means real investments in transit, walking and biking as well as land use reforms to allow more housing near transit lines and closer to job centers. Linking transit justice with economic, racial and environmental justice would make the county a contributor to anti-racism and environmental justice rather than a perpetuator of harm.

Sam Grant
Sam Grant
In the plan, the county commits to advance Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MnDOT) goal of 20% reduction in vehicle miles traveled by 2050, by developing a more ambitious goal for Hennepin County that reflects its role as a large and densely populated county. We ask, how can the county design and implement a transportation plan that centers transit justice?

Charles Frempong-Longdon Jr.
Charles Frempong-Longdon Jr.
We also want to uplift other positive aspects of the final plan, including how it addresses climate resilience and preparedness, community education, green jobs creation, and the additional detail and insight into future implementation. We still wonder, given the perpetual unemployment, income and opportunity disparities in the county, how can the county put more emphasis on the utilization of a commitment to climate justice to demonstrably increase racial justice?

Putting our values into action

Climate justice cannot be piecemeal, as we are living in social and ecological systems that are deeply connected to one another. A comprehensive plan must center and engage with the imaginative solutions brought forward by front-line communities, and we encourage our representatives at all levels of government to think boldly, and push for ambitious possibilities.

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With that in mind, we continue to urge officials and residents of Hennepin County to:

  • Begin to implement the VMT reduction goal immediately in the 2022 budget — both capital and operating. If we are serious about recognizing its responsibility and unique position to reduce VMT, we must increase investment in transit, bicycling and walking and also not invest in additional lane miles, which induce more traffic, pollution and sprawl. These obviously needed action steps do not require further study and can be enhanced as the county further develops its Hennepin-specific VMT reduction targets.
  • Engage with elected officials and regulators. We share the urgency around climate action, and must also recognize how deeply rooted and intentional engagement with those most impacted is central to developing effective and just solutions.
  • Immediately stop any activities that support longer term operation of the HERC, such as lobbying for it to be considered renewable energy, which it is not.
  • Begin planning for closure of the HERC. This will mean 1) planning for a transition to a zero waste system, 2) adopting more stringent air quality testing standards that address volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and polycyclic organic matter (POMs) in assessments around community air quality, including enrollment of the HERC in the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Urban Air Quality project, and 3) supporting and collaborating with community members toward the creation of a Health Disparities Framework that will focus on addressing the needs of residents suffering from the long-term effects of environmental racism.
  • Finally, we must apply an intersectional, integrated lens on climate justice that braids a commitment to this through every aspect of the plan, and the only way to do that well is with the direct, constant engagement of people from most impacted communities.

In this way, we can build a Hennepin County that is cleaner, healthier, and more equitable for all its residents.

Sam Grant is the executive director of MN350, an organization deeply committed to responding to the climate crisis by organizing for climate justice. Sam has been organizing, teaching and consulting at the intersections of environmental, economic, racial and cultural justice since the 1980s.

Charles Frempong-Longdon Jr. is an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club’s Healthy Communities Campaign.

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