Kansas City City Hall
City Hall in Kansas City, Missouri. Credit: Tony Webster / Creative Commons

As Kansas City ramps up a process for updating the city’s climate action plan, stakeholders say they hope the revision will be more inclusive, better funded, and hold leaders more accountable than the original.

The City Council adopted its initial climate action plan in 2008. Passed as a resolution rather than an ordinance, the document was voluntary. No one was clearly charged with meeting the 55 goals laid out in the plan.

The City Council never provided specific funding to carry out the recommendations. No mechanisms were created for ensuring they were achieved, and there was no easy way for residents to monitor progress.

The city did successfully reduce emissions from city operations by more than 40% from 2000 levels — exceeding its goal — but much of the plan was never followed through on. Thirteen years later, “it’s not guiding a whole lot of decisions,” said Robin Ganahl, a local climate activist and member of the steering committee that is guiding the new plan.

In May 2020, the City Council adopted a resolution instructing the city manager’s office to deliver an updated climate protection plan by March 31, 2021. The Climate Protection Steering Committee, appointed by the mayor, and the city’s Office of Environmental Quality were charged with follow-through.

One of the first steps was to solicit thoughts from a broad swath of the community, but COVID-19 concerns and an initial lack of funding for public engagement delayed that process for several months. 

“The front-end community outreach couldn’t be done,” said Tom Grever, an environmental lawyer appointed by the mayor to chair the climate plan steering committee. “Things ground to a halt in a lot of ways.”

The City Council initially allocated $25,000 for the entire project. Eventually the city’s chief environmental officer, Andrew Savastino, persuaded them to hike that to $150,000.

“Every step took longer than we thought it would,” Savastino said. “One thing after another got delayed.”

The city recently hired two environmental justice coordinators and an equity consultant in addition to a consulting firm that is doing the bulk of the analysis and drafting work.

“We want to make sure we’re including all communities,” Savastino said.

The project’s first phase, soliciting feedback from the community, began only a couple of months ago. Ganahl said she plans to press for a document informed by lessons learned from 2008. That means more specific goals and standards passed in a binding ordinance, not an optional resolution. She’ll be pushing for accountability, and for a designated staff member to communicate with departments citywide to ensure the plan is fulfilled.

Savastino expects more scrutiny this time compared to 2008. During the drafting and adoption of that document, he said, “there wasn’t a lot of discussion about implementation. I think this committee will want to be more involved in implementation.”

Steering committee members said they feel a sense of urgency, not just because of the immediate and growing threat of climate change but also because the document could help inform utility resource planning at the state level.

Evergy, the utility that provides Kansas City’s electricity, filed integrated resource plans with state regulators this year in Missouri and Kansas. Those documents spell out what capital expenditures the company envisions over the next 20 years, and related matters like how long it intends to run coal-fired plants and what renewable sources it will develop.

A clear vision of Kansas City’s energy future “is important when those plans are being decided at the state regulatory level,” Ganahl said.

“We don’t have a lot of time to waste,” Ganahl said. “The climate crisis is already here. We see floods and heatwaves killing people and wildlife every week. If it can get to 120 degrees in Canada, it can happen here. We must act fast to stop further warming and ensure our communities are protected from killer heatwaves that are already happening.”

Savastino concurred that timing is critical.

“There’s growing concern that we’re not acting fast enough to make a difference,” he said.

Kristin Riott, another steering committee member and executive director of Bridging the Gap, an environmental nonprofit in Kansas City, senses a lot of support in the city government for grappling with the climate crisis.

“It’s not that anyone in city government doesn’t get it. People know it’s time to act,” she said. But determining how to reallocate limited resources in order to “pivot from a historical set of priorities to the priorities demanded of us in this climate-change era — that’s the big one. It’s a boatload of hard work laid on the plates of people already pretty damned busy.”

Resources are strained in the best of times in Kansas City, she said. The city’s footprint is as large as New York City, but it has only about 6% of the population and a small fraction of the tax base.

Ganahl said she believes the plan will get beyond talk this time, even though she knows clean energy opponents will enter the fray. The community overall has a greater sense of urgency about the climate, she said, and has grown more active and vocal. Furthermore, she added, the city’s new manager, Brian Platt, has “demonstrated strong leadership” on sustainability issues.

And she expects more buy-in from the local utility because a bill passed this year by the Missouri General Assembly legalized a new financial tool known as securitization. It permits utilities to issue customer-backed bonds, which can ease the way for them to close fossil-fueled plants earlier than they might have.

The city plans to continue online engagement along with community sessions and “pop-up activities” through next month. Residents who want to provide input on the plan can find information at https://playbook.kcmo.gov/cprp

The new plan is slated to go to the full council for a vote early next year.

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.