Solar panels on a commercial building located at 799 9th St. NW.
Solar panels on a commercial building located at 799 9th St. NW. Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez

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Over the weekend, news of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s move to axe a critical part of President Joe Biden’s climate plan—an initiative to replace coal and gas with wind, solar, and nuclear energy—met a social media storm. Critics accused Manchin and other representatives opposing the energy replacement plan of holding the planet’s health hostage to fill their fossil fuel-powered pockets. The Biden administration is now scrambling for a Plan B: a tax on carbon dioxide pollution. Meanwhile, the D.C. Office of the People’s Counsel, an independent government agency that advocates for utility customers, hosted a “straight talk” about the climate emergency, climate injustice, and what the District can do regardless of what deal the federal government strikes.

Dennis Chestnut, lifelong Ward 7 resident and a civic ecology practitioner, recalled growing up in Northeast D.C. and witnessing the changes before and after Route 295 was constructed starting in 1957. The highway that separates neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River contributed to flooding in these communities where there was previously none, and ultimately, due to climate change, inundated homes and businesses there, said Chestnut, who is also the former executive director of Groundwork Anacostia River DC Inc.

During the Saturday conversation, local experts highlighted such community stories to show the disproportionate impact the climate crisis has on certain wards and share ideas around what the city and D.C. residents can do to address flooding and heat islands. The D.C. Department of Energy and Environment’s main climate goal is to eliminate greenhouse gases by 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. But climate scientists and climate and consumer advocates at the talk said it’s better to focus on how District residents and the local government can act now rather than wait on abstract, long-term goals.

The first step is often acknowledging what we’re doing wrong: With the climate crisis, “we” refers to the government as much as individuals, climate scientists find. This budget cycle, the D.C. Council reduced by $22 million the budget for Solar for All, a city program that helps install solar on single-family homes and develop community solar projects, and the Weatherization Assistance Program, which helps support home energy-efficiency and local energy jobs, Chris Weiss of the D.C. Environmental Network pointed out.

The next step might be to take stock of available community resources. D.C. has the most certified development corporations in the country, noted Lenwood Coleman, vice president of Solar Development and Operations at Groundswell in D.C. These nonprofits designed to support community economic development can be a vital asset in combating climate change, he said.

“Just think, if we took these large solar rays in the District of Columbia, and created CDCs … not only could [residents] turn around and lower their energy use, but they would sit around the table and decide how the extra [energy units] could be utilized to improve the daily lives and the working relationships of those who live in those communities.” After the three years or so it takes to build a solar panel, despite maintenance costs, the panel pays for itself. Both community organizations and residents can buy or lease solar power options. Chestnut recommended folks look into programs like Community Solar meant to support solar access to reduce energy use.

Greener electrification was another top concern among resident attendees, some of whom asked about switching from gas to heat pumps. Weiss spotlighted the D.C. chapter of the Sierra Club’s electrification campaign, “Beyond Gas,” that projects what a future with gas alternatives could look like. A Nov. 15 panel with the D.C. Environmental Network will explore this topic, he said, so interested residents can stay tuned for that talk.  

Water resiliency is another critical issue for residents, particularly those in D.C. neighborhoods more likely to flood, said Sarah Kogel-Smucker, an environmental and Climate Attorney at OPC-DC. Kogel-Smucker noted that OPC has a water division and works to help residents connect to local government resources and elevate resident voices to inform the city about their concerns and what else the District should be doing.

Chestnut advised residents to visit the DOEE website and get informed about incentive programs like RiverSmart Homes, a project that “incentivizes folks to soften up the surfaces in their yard, change those patios over to something that can help control stormwater.”

Residents should also harness resources and opportunities available from their local civic association groups and advisory neighborhood commissions to get involved and “roll your sleeves up,” he said.

This sleeve-rolling should happen in ways and sectors as diverse as the DMV community, according to Nakisa Glover, founder of climate justice organization Sol Nation and organizer of the Think 100% Hip Hop Caucus. As helpful as government and community resources may be, climate justice education and advocacy won’t reach everyone through the limits of the written word, she pointed out.

We need teachers to educate about disparities within the climate crisis, artists to translate the messages through myriad mediums to reach diverse folks, and families to spread the message in and outside their tribes, Glover said.

“You’re qualified. You are qualified, you … have been given an inherent gift inside of you that is needed to effect change … to put us on a trajectory of justice and mitigating the climate crisis,” she said.

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

Chestnut was misidentified during the panel discussion as the executive director of Groundwork Anacostia River DC Inc. He is the former director.

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Correction: Chestnut was misidentified during the panel discussion as the executive director of Groundwork Anacostia River DC Inc. He is the former director.