On April 22 – Earth Day – a steady stream of people filed into the Cylburn Arboretum’s Vollmer Visitor Center. Cylburn used to be a private estate but is now a preserve for trees, plants, and gardens. The space is lush and green. 

Over 100 attendees were there to discuss the city’s climate action plan update. The City of Baltimore published its first Climate Action Plan in 2012 and is now creating a new roadmap to achieve emissions reduction goals set by Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration in 2022. The city is looking to be carbon neutral by the year 2045.

“Human activity has been the main driver of climate change, primarily due to fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas,” reads a pamphlet handed out to attendees. “Burning these fuels releases greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane, which caused various shifts in weather conditions that can be felt in the city today.”

“The purpose of the Climate Action Plan is really about emissions reduction,” Aubrey Germ, climate and resilience planner at the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, explained once attendees were all checked in and seated. She said that what they are doing is trying to reduce Baltimore’s carbon footprint.

“The purpose of the Climate Action Plan is really about emissions reduction,” Aubrey Germ, climate and resilience planner at the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, explained.

“And so that obviously comes from the use of cars, our buildings, our power grid, all of that…so this is a plan that really touches all aspects of our life here in Baltimore.”

We are already beginning to feel the effects of climate change, and people in poor communities and communities of color often feel the effects the most. These places tend to feel temperature extremes more severely and be more impacted by drought and flooding.

In April, the Biden administration announced the creation of the White House Office of Environmental Justice to address just this issue.

“Every federal agency must take into account environmental and health impacts on communities and work to prevent those negative impacts,” Biden said.

At the Arboretum, attendees were sectioned off into groups where they discussed four topics: buildings, and how to make them more energy efficient; renewable energy, what it is and how to utilize it; transportation, and how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cars and buses; and waste, and how to better dispose of the things we don’t need. 

At a table where a group was discussing buildings, group members suggested that the city make it compulsory that new buildings be energy efficient. They said leaders should consider making information about energy-efficient buildings available in different languages so that more people can understand. At each table, a group leader took notes, helped guide the conversation, and offered additional information.

The community engagement part of this project began in October of 2021. Officials at the Office of Sustainability say they have worked hard to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table when it comes to this plan. 

The community engagement part of this project began in October of 2021. Officials at the Office of Sustainability say they have worked hard to make sure that everyone has a seat at the table when it comes to this plan.

Currently, city officials are analyzing the results of the various community input sessions.

“We are also working on developing and prioritizing greenhouse gas emissions reduction actions that will be included in the plan, as well as performing a financial analysis of municipal actions to better understand costs and benefits of implementation,” Germ said. “Then, a draft of the plan will be available for public comment. Public comments will be incorporated, and then the final version of the CAP will be adopted by the city’s Planning Commission.”

The Office of Sustainability describes civic engagement as a big priority.

“The Sustainability Office is focused on regenerating and strengthening our city through collaborative action,” Germ told Baltimore Beat. “We strive to implement sustainability and climate solutions that address social and racial equity, economic growth, and environmental action. Our office centers justice and equity in everything we do.” 

The city has enlisted Ryan Kennedy, an associate professor at the University of Houston’s Department of Political Science, to boost community buy-in further. 

“The work that I do is primarily in the area of what we call democratic deliberation,” Kennedy said over the phone, a few days after the event at the Arboretum. 

“There’s a long philosophical tradition about how to encourage a deeper discussion about political issues and really engage with the public in these kinds of deeper discussions. And so, I’ve been working for the last 15 years or so on various projects to try and make that happen.” 

He said oftentimes, discussions about city issues attract two types of people from two extremes. He calls them the lovers and the haters: people who are firmly for something or decidedly against it. He and city representatives are looking beyond that.

“We wanted to have something that’s representative of the community,” he said.

Kennedy said this work isn’t easy, but city leaders have been dedicated to it.

Rejjia Camphor was one of the participants in the arboretum event. Camphor, who lives in Walbrook, runs a project that she founded called Sister Stream Catcher, a community clean-up effort she began to address dumping in the city and to clean up the Hanlon Park stream.

“I just noticed in my neighborhood…there’s a huge problem with illegal dumping and litter,” she said. “And every time I would see it — whether I’d be on the bus stop, whether I’d be walking home or just even in my own backyard alley — I would get so angry.”

Camphor said she’s been looking to connect with other people doing environmental justice work in Baltimore, and that’s how she learned about the city’s climate action plan.

“It was really nice to be in that space because I felt like people were dedicating time to actually try to give input to solutions, instead of…being in a place of inaction,” she says about the workshop.

Still, she says she maintains some skepticism about what will happen next. She says city leaders often offer opportunities for people to speak up — but it’s hard to tell if leaders are actually listening.

“Every year, you have people making statements about needing more funding and more community to address illegal dumping, and to address littering, to offer more services for people, like rec centers that need to be reopened. You have all of that, you have all of this input around these things and resources that community members are asking for,” she said.  

“My skepticism is still present because amidst this plan being enacted, amidst the review of this…plan being given input from residents, my thing is like, we have seen time and time again input from the residents given and ignored.”

An earlier version of this story gave the wrong year by which Baltimore hopes to be carbon neutral. 

Lisa Snowden is Editor-in-Chief and cofounder of Baltimore Beat. Previously, she was an editor at Baltimore City Paper, Baltimore Sun, and The Real News Network. Her work has also appeared in Essence,...