City Council declares City of Richmond to be in a state of climate emergency

Illustration by Seulgi Smith

Katrina Lee, Contributing Writer

Richmond has become one of the 2,006 local governments across the world to declare to be in a state of climate emergency, according to the Climate Emergency Declaration and Mobilisation website.

On Sept. 13, Richmond City Council members voted to pass a resolution declaring the “existence of a climate and ecological emergency that threatens the city of Richmond, the surrounding region, the Commonwealth of Virginia, civilization, humanity, and the natural world.”

Barry O’Keefe, a Richmond climate activist, stated in an email that he has been advocating for this declaration since 2019 through awareness, protests and petitions. A week before the vote, O’Keefe, other climate activists and City Council members gathered for a Climate Emergency Rally on the steps of Richmond City Hall to advocate for this resolution. 

“With Richmond now regularly breaking annual rainfall and temperature records, Richmonders are already feeling the direct impacts of the accelerating climate emergency,” O’Keefe stated in a press release.

Sheri Shannon is the co-founder of Southside ReLeaf, a local nonprofit which works to address environmental and climate justice issues in South Richmond. 

“Our communities cannot afford inaction from its leaders as our health, livelihood and life expectancy are on the line,” stated Shannon in O’Keefe’s press release. “Right now, Southside residents bear the brunt of decades of disinvestment and harmful policies that has left generations of Richmonders displaced, under-resourced and marginalized.”

The resolution was originally introduced on July 27 by Richmond’s 2nd District City Councilwoman Katherine Jordan. She stated in an email that the climate crisis was one of the primary reasons she ran for office.

“The resolution expresses our unified commitment on council to being an environmental leader in the region, and when realized through the required follow-up legislation (resolutions are non-binding) it will help protect our businesses and residents from the worsening effects of climate change,” Jordan stated in an email. 

Climate change continues to increase the intensity and number of national disasters, including massive wildfires, doughts, hurricanes and floods, according to the United Nations. Global temperatures are expected to rise by up to 3.2 Celsius by 2100 as well.  

Climate change is “a long-term change in the average weather patterns that have come to define Earth’s local, regional and global climates,” according to NASA.

City Hall is located in downtown Richmond, where City Council members recently voted to declare Richmond in a state of climate emergency. Photo by Alessandro Latour

Associate professor Scott Neubauer, who teaches in the biology department, said this climate emergency reflects both “foreseeable, imminent” risk that the city of Richmond is facing as well as a sense of urgency to deal with the climate crisis. 

“If we look at the data, we can see things are beginning to change,” Neubauer said. “Every year since 2016, we have been experiencing the highest temperatures that humans have ever recorded on the planet.”

Director of Sustainability at the VCU Office of Sustainability Ann Kildahl said it was “good” to see the city council make this declaration and that VCU is moving in the same direction to limit the university’s impact on the Earth.

“I think the effect on VCU will be to reinforce our commitment to addressing climate and

broader sustainability challenges in the months and years ahead,” Kildahl said.

2020 was the second-warmest year recorded, right behind the 2016 temperature record. 2020 was 1.84 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the baseline 1951-1980 mean, according to NASA.

Due to the passing of this resolution, Richmond can now begin taking “meaningful steps” to enact policy that decreases the city’s impact on the environment, stated O’Keefe.

“The City must reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent from 2010 levels by no later than 2030, and reach net zero by 2050, in order to stabilize a 1.5° C (2.4° F) temperature increase to have a chance at avoiding profound and disastrous impacts on the city’s local climate, ecosystem, and communities,” according to the resolution.

Some policy commitments made by the resolution include to electrify the city’s vehicles, to increase funding to the city’s Urban Forestry work and to adjust the Office of Sustainability so that it has more power to enact its recommendations, according to O’Keefe’s press release

The resolution also addresses how climate change has been and will continue to  

“disproportionately impact Black neighborhoods in South and East Richmond,” which contributes to the reasoning of declaring a state of climate emergency.

The resolution also commits to create a new Office of Sustainability for the city to “oversee a community-wide mobilization effort to be implemented by all departments and agencies of the City, and provide for the powers and resources necessary to coordinate the City’s climate and environmental programs.”

O’Keefe explained how his children are one of the driving forces for his advocacy and push toward this declaration.

“I have two children, ages one and four. God willing they will live into the 2090s and beyond, and stand to suffer greatly at the hands of our generation’s ignorance and cowardice,” O’Keefe stated in an email. “We have no right to remain inactive with so much precious life at stake.”

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