You might assume that Chicago dislikes environmentalists, judging by the response they get along Michigan Avenue. They loiter on its crowded sidewalks, trying to stop people with the brightness of their T-shirts, the authority of their clipboards and the innocence of their question: “Do you have a minute to save the earth?”
Almost no passerby has that minute, let alone $20 to donate to the cause. What most people have is a scowl, a dismissive wave of the hand and the accelerating stride of a running back. In a city synonymous with Al Capone, do-gooder appeals are about as practical as a citizen’s arrest. But although 2.8 million residents of Chicago may scoff at the notion that noble intentions can stop climate change, that doesn’t mean they think the problem can’t be solved. The city’s leaders know that to get people to save the earth, you must appeal to their bank accounts, not just their consciences. And those leaders are putting their reputation on the line to prove it.
In September, Chicago unveiled an action plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to one quarter below 1990 levels by 2020, followed by reductions through 2050 that would slash emissions by 80 percent. Up to 400,000 homes and 9,200 skyscrapers and factories would require energy-efficient retrofits in the next 12 years. All 21 coal-burning power plants throughout Illinois would need to be refurbished, too, requiring statewide cooperation. Another 450,000 riders would have to wedge themselves into elevated trains and buses every day—a 30 percent increase—rather than commute by car. “I don’t know of another municipal plan that is this ambitious or comprehensive,” says Rebecca Stanfield, a senior energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The timing is right. Because the U.S. government has declined to support international treaties and emission caps, fixing climate problems has fallen to cities and states, many of which have a serious head start over Chicago. Portland, Ore., has already cut its per capita emissions to 12.5 percent below 1990 levels by making greater use of public transportation and drawing 10 percent of its electricity from sources such as hydro and wind. In Seattle emissions are 8 percent below 1990 levels, a figure that could slide further once a light-rail line connecting downtown to the regional airport opens next year. Two years ago California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to bring the entire state’s emissions down to 1990 levels by 2020 through higher fuel standards and the capture of methane from landfills, among other strategies.
But none of these places must overcome the heritage of steel mills and stockyards that haunts Chicago. The worst air in the nation hangs over the metropolis, according to an Environmental Protection Agency database of chemicals that area companies release into the atmosphere. Younger cities can claim the mantle of the green movement in part because they never inherited a culture bred on coal, abundant in Illinois. “It’s a little unfair to compare different cities in different regions,” says Pat Hogan, regional policy coordinator for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “Places like Seattle and Portland can achieve carbon neutrality largely because they depend on hydropower.” Not to mention that unlike cities on the West Coast, Chicago endures extreme winters and summers that keep radiators and air conditioners running full blast.
All these liabilities make Chicago a definitive test case in the fight against global warming. Most U.S. cities resemble Chicago: aging infrastructure, hulking factories, old power grids, and voters with a fierce loyalty to fossil fuels who are more likely to be watching TV than climbing mountains. If Chicago can slash greenhouse gas emissions, then any city can.
Enter the Wunderkind
Sadhu Johnston is in charge of making the Chicago Climate Action Plan something more than 60 colorful pages printed on recycled paper. Johnston, 34, looks young enough to be mistaken for a college student, instead of the Chicago government’s chief environmental officer. His first name originates in Sanskrit, referring to Hindus who live outside of society to contemplate the nature of God. Johnston works for the closest thing the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago politics has to a deity: Mayor Richard M. Daley, who as the eldest son of “mayor for life” Richard J. Daley assumed office in 1989, a year before Johnston could legally drive.