This story is part of The Reader’s Climate Beacon Newsroom initiative with Solutions Journalism Network to increase our climate change coverage in Omaha.
A funding shift led to a five-month delay on the city’s long-awaited climate action plan. But officials say the plan, first announced nearly two years ago, which would study the city’s vulnerabilities to climate change and recommend steps forward, is progressing. By the end of the summer, officials expect to see a website for city climate work, a schedule for community engagement to allow citizens to help form the plan as well research into current city policy to inform future strategy.
Originally Omaha intended to use one-time grants for the $376,000 it agreed to pay paleBLUEdot, the Minnesota-based climate contractor it selected in March, as well as its partner HDR, a local consulting firm handling community engagement. The city then learned about a $1 million, non-competitive grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the first in a multi-phase process to fund climate planning and implementation.
“We had to, not start over, but we had to press pause to put this application together,” Marco Floreani, deputy chief of staff for economic development to the mayor, said of the EPA program.
Floreani said he expects the city to reach an agreement with the EPA by the end of summer and that work on the climate plan should start Aug. 1.
Initially, the project’s timeline included starting community engagement in April 2023 as well as providing an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions by August. The plan was to be finalized in July 2024.
While those deadlines have shifted, Ted Redmond, co-founder of paleBLUEdot, said his company hasn’t been dormant during the delay. They’ve been assessing the city’s current environmental policies, outlining processes for community engagement, including an online survey, and compiling data for the greenhouse gas inventory. An online survey will be available after the city launches its official Climate Action and Resiliency Plan website.
The EPA grant also requires the city to submit a preliminary climate plan in early 2024, a comprehensive plan two years after the grant is awarded and a status report at the end of the four-year grant period.
Omaha City Council President Pete Festersen said while he’s happy the plan is moving forward, the delay is another frustration in what’s been a long journey toward climate action.
“I’d like to see a much higher priority placed on [climate change],” Festersen said. “I’ve been frustrated with the slow start … and delayed timelines.”
Mayor Jean Stothert first announced her intention to pursue a climate plan in late 2021. Climate action plans assess an area’s vulnerability to climate change as well as outline potential strategies to address it, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions or preparing for flooding. The EPA program also requires cities to address issues in low-income areas, which often are disproportionately affected by climate change.
As of February 2022, 35 of the 50 biggest U.S. cities have adopted climate action plans, including Kansas City, Minneapolis and Chicago. Lincoln passed its own plan in 2021.
After Stothert’s announcement, the development of a request for proposals lingered for about a year within Metro Smart Cities, an organization co-chaired by the mayor that includes representatives from local government, nonprofits and others. The group, which has advised local planning efforts since 2016, is not a public body and has closed meetings.
In September 2022, Festersen proposed a resolution to allocate city money toward the plan, frustrated by the lack of progress and transparency. About a week later Stothert released a timeline for the initiative. Within a few months the city had selected palebLUEdot and HDR to lead the plan.
Today, Floreani said he and a team of city staff, including employees from the planning and public works departments, meet at least weekly on the plan. By working with the EPA, the city is also learning how to utilize the federal Inflation Reduction Act, which authorized $369 billion in climate and energy-related spending and aims to reduce carbon emissions 40% by 2030.
Floreani, Festersen and Redmond agree the key to Omaha’s plan is finding actionable steps to tackle climate change and making sure accountability is baked into the document.
“We don’t want a plan [that sits] on a shelf,” he said. “We really want a plan that can be implemented.”
Festersen said he plans to hold the mayor’s office to that promise because he’s seen plenty of environmental initiatives fizzle out in the 14 years he’s sat on the council. For example, the city used to have an Office for Sustainable Development that primarily ran an energy-efficient homes program. Stothert cut the grant-funded team of three planning employees after being elected in 2013. A spokesperson for Stothert declined a Reader request to interview the mayor.
Festersen and others on the council also advocated for a city-wide plastic bag ban in 2019 that was vetoed by the mayor. The city’s latest 10-year trash contract also drew ire when it was signed in 2019 for the decision to roll back yard waste composting to only two pickup periods a year. City composting is about a sixth of what it was in 2005, according to city trash data. However, new 96-gallon cans have led to a 42% increase in recycling from 2019 to 2022.
But climate change has become something the city can’t ignore as Nebraska faces hotter summers, longer droughts, more severe storms and other ecological shifts. It’s also becoming bad business not to address climate change.
“[Young workers] want to be in a community that’s focused on adaption and being proactive,” said Floreani, who spent several years in the Omaha Chamber of Commerce before joining the city. “From a business perspective, companies are thinking about risk. They want to be in a community — or they want to grow in a community — that is serious about future risks. And a lot of risk can be associated with climate change resiliency issues.”
Several committees will be working on the plan as it comes together, including community stakeholders, focus groups and the team within the city itself. Metro Smart Cities has the final decision on the plan, but Floreani said that’s before it would go to the city’s planning board and the city council.
“[Metro Smart Cities] will have an opportunity to review it and will be part of the planning … and will also be involved in picking recommendations for implementing things like pilot projects or helping us engage the public,” he said. “But ultimately, it’s the City of Omaha’s plan.”
To make sure this is a plan that leads to a new direction in sustainability, Festersen said the city needs to make climate change a priority. For him that means hiring someone who’s focused on leading the climate plan as well as its implementation.
“That’s best practice everywhere this has been done,” he said. “And I think that’s part of the challenge we’re experiencing right now with some delays and some clunky timelines. It’s no one person’s top priority right now. It needs to be driven by someone whose job it is every day to implement.”
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