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Mayoral candidates sound off on how they’d handle the climate crisis
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Mayoral candidates sound off on how they’d handle the climate crisis

Of twelve candidates, three attended Tuesday evening’s Climate Mayoral Forum.

While some Philadelphians flocked outdoors to enjoy the unseasonably warm weather on Tuesday evening, one hundred and fifty attendees from 35 zip codes filed into The Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

The unbearable heat served as a crudely ironic backdrop for the Climate Mayoral Forum presented by Green Philly.

Why do Mayors matter for a global problem?

As the sixth-largest city, the next Philadelphia mayor will be one crucial piece to climate solutions. According to the Brookings Institute, the success of federal climate funding is dependent on local leadership, which is responsible for “overseeing and investing in climate improvements on the ground.”

Despite invitations to all of the current candidates, only three of the twelve current Mayoral candidates participated in Tuesday’s event, leaving many undecided voters “unsettled.” Rebecca Rhynhart, Helen Gym, and Warren Bloom answered questions centered on climate.

One week prior, the first of this two-part panel series held a conversion on the Green Philly Living Plan, where four additional candidates were present.

How candidates responded to climate issues

Rhynhart’s passionate, authoritative delivery highlighted that her experience had prepared her to navigate and collaborate with all levels of government effectively. She commented that understanding environmental issues, youth voices, and unifying departmental goals to prioritize broader climate initiatives are all “incredibly important.”

Rebecca Rhynhart

In her opening statement, Gym condemned “fossil fuel infrastructure” as the biggest threat keeping our city “impoverished [and] racially segregated” before stating that “cities must lead because we can’t wait for Congress.” She outlined her key goals, including racial and environmental justice, modernizing schools, and renovating the city’s infrastructure and residences to minimize carbon emissions by any means possible – including bringing in big banks and large-scale private funding to support “rebuilding” Philadelphia.

Bloom admitted that he “doesn’t know as much as [he thought he should]” about the climate topic, instead committing to learning more, appointing subject matter experts, and aligning with long-standing organizations that have been working towards these goals in Philadelphia. He also promised that climate issues, including addressing disparities in Black and Brown communities and reducing our carbon footprint, would be among his “top 10” goals as Mayor.

Warren Bloom

Both Rhynhart and Gym shared a similar priority with pro-business and sustainability stakeholders to find common ground and allocate resources to climate accordingly. “A healthy environment is good for business,” said Gym, and Rhynhart promised to “lead an overarching plan to be carbon neutral by 2050.” All three candidates expressed interest in banning plastic containers like styrofoam.

Gym understands that Philly’s next mayor has to be “bigger than Philly” and pledged a commitment to holding the powerful accountable, including placing reasonable limits on developers to prevent heedless expansions.

Candidates had a few tense moments throughout the evening. When Bloom claimed he was the “only one who biked” on stage, both Gym and Rhynhart rebutted that they each bike.

Another debate sparked when discussing the Mayor’s commitment to climate. Gym gestured to Rhynhart, saying: “[the Mayor] can’t sit on the gas commission… and then talk about a gas commission that has worked against your own public interest, that has undermined people.” Rhynhart rebutted, saying that while she sat on that commission, she “stood up for what was right” and “voted against several projects, LNG being one of them,” and “voted against the appointment of Seth Shapiro.”

Candidates address transit

When asked about improving transit, Rhynhart mentioned “the Kensington issue,” explaining how halting the neighborhood’s open-air drug market while providing compassionate care to those suffering from substance use disorder would improve safety on SEPTA’s local lines.

Gym addressed the reimagining of interconnected transit lines and the importance of accessibility for multimodal travelers, including wheelchair users and caregivers with strollers, and providing free and affordable transit passes for youth, students, and low-income folks.

Busting Up Big Contracts: Procurement and Waste Management

Philadelphia has committed to zero waste by 2050. Rhynhart stated that since Mayor Michael Nutter’s tenure, recycling has plummeted from 21% to the current low of 8%. Her proposed solution comprised thinking creatively, breaking up the $45 million contract with Waste Management, and offering smaller chunks to local businesses.

Gym wanted to turn the Streets Department into two distinct dedicated offices: an Office of Sanitation and Waste Management, and a separate Office of Transit. Additionally, Gym would like to bring back the Zero Litter Cabinet, stating, “We need an alternative to burning our recyclables in freaking Chester.”

When asked about increasing procurement from local businesses, Gym highlighted her experience with breaking-up big contracts and redistributing opportunities to local vendors while working with the Philadelphia School District. Rhynhart promised to create a fighting chance for small businesses to work with the city by cutting down the turnaround time, stating that it currently takes 150 days for the city to pay vendors.

Scholar-journalists from The Bullhorn News, a newspaper run by Philadelphia School District, attended the Forum with their future in mind. “I wish their answers for everything were more youth-focused because this is our generation’s problem,” said one young student.

Watch the full panel:

Philadelphia residents can cast their vote in the mayoral primary election on May 16. Find your polling place and other resources here.

Photos: Lexy Pierce

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Ash (she/they) understands their role as activist-researcher as synonymous with being a good neighbor. After studying Environmental Studies at Temple, Ash started their career working for manifold local sustainable start-ups. They have shared accessible Yoga for over a decade as a means to tend to the inner environment and prevent burnout. Ash pursues community-based projects that explore intersections between environmental justice and health equity. Currently seeking a Master's in public health, Ash serves as a Community Engagement and Research Coordinator on Penn's Urban Health Lab. View all posts by Ashley Tryba
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