Columbus is an inadequate climate refuge

The region is geographically positioned to better navigate rising global temperatures, but current policies do little to advance a greener future.
Columbus skyline
Columbus skylineBy Oz Seyrek on Unsplash

There’s an old joke about two Finnish immigrant farmers in Minnesota who decide to sleep out in the field with the cows. One says to the other, “Dammit, it’s cold out there.” In response, the other gets up and shuts the gate. 

A similar scenario is playing out in Columbus and other cities stranded by their state and federal governments. While Columbus’ climate action plan has some extensive and admirable goals, the scope and other more foundational issues have gone completely unaddressed. The response to climate change has been to get up and shut the gate. But even with the underwhelming climate response, Columbus and the Midwest remain one of the safest places from climate change, a genuine contradiction. 

When an ABC6 headline recently declared Columbus as a “top destination for climate migration,” Mayor Andrew Ginther quickly seized it as an opportunity to tout his Climate Action Plan, getting what James Thurber once called “the Ohio look in his eyes“ – that “dreamy, faraway expression of a man richly meditating on cheering audiences, landslides, and high office.” Ginther tweeted that the plan “plays a big role” in the city’s place on the list. Curiously, the study didn’t mention the city's climate action plan as a part of the appeal, but instead included factors like “practicality, work opportunities, and lifestyle.” Not mentioned in the tweet is that Columbus ranked 23rd, behind cities such as Memphis, Milwaukee, Detroit and Ohio’s own Cleveland. (Cincinnati placed not far behind at 28.)

As extreme weather events from climate change ravage the coasts and regions closer to the equator, the Midwest and the Great Lakes Megaregion have rightly been hailed as the safest places to weather humanity’s turbulent future. However, the very climate issues the region does face – high temperatures, blizzards, weather-induced blackouts, poor air quality, etc. – are being exacerbated by the same politicians and businessmen who are claiming the region as a forward-looking climate refuge.

It’s been a year since the blackouts last summer left hundreds of thousands without power in record-breaking heat for multiple days. Instead of requiring AEP to upgrade its infrastructure on its own dime and making sure power lines are a safe distance from trees, PUCO released a report that absolved AEP of wrongdoing and will soon vote on whether to allow the company to offload upgrade costs to customers by increasing rates by 30 percent. The privatized, deregulated composition of the grid in Ohio is not seen as a political issue at all, since AEP and FirstEnergy are large political donors that have engaged in millions of dollars worth of bribery. The deadly effects of weather-induced blackouts will only continue due to the market-based state of the power grid.

There’s also the issue of air quality. “Columbus is considered for us the most polluted major city in the U.S., and that sounds very harsh. But yeah, it is actually, according to our measurements,” Dolphin Hammes of IQAir told WOSU. Columbus’ air quality was ranked worse than cities like Los Angeles. In response, the city scrambled to deny the claim. The study found that a vast majority of the pollution comes from cars, and yet the city is flirting with building a second outerbelt while continuing as the largest city in the US without passenger rail.

Even the steps the city is taking to counter climate change are riddled with controversy. Ginther recently celebrated a 30 year solar power deal, a move criticized due to the prices being set by a private Florida firm and hidden from the public and City Council. The vast solar farm that was supposed to be in operation this year on the old landfill-turned golf course on the South Side is no closer to being finished than when I wrote an article about it for Scope of Work last July. Even the green-washed privatized gas plant that was scheduled to be completed at Ohio State back in December 2021 is years behind schedule. Meanwhile the smokestacks from OSU’s coal-fired McCracken power plant next to the Shoe can be seen rolling at night when students aren’t looking. (It’s telling that the state’s low landfill rates have led to a massive influx of other states’ trash, earning Ohio a reputation of being the region’s dump.)

Columbus and the Great Lakes Megaregion may very well be a future climate refuge, but what that future looks like, and whether residents continue to deal with massive blackouts, poor air quality and publicly funded private initiatives, is ultimately a political question. These decisions are consciously made in a market-based system that at every step puts profits before people.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Matter News