Columbia asks residents, businesses to weigh in on climate issues

Last summer, the Columbia City Council made a promise to start taking steps toward reducing climate pollution in the city. Now, the city wants its residents to tell it how.

On Tuesday, Columbia will hold its first of several community listening sessions, giving residents and local businesses a chance to weigh in on the city’s new Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, a multifaceted approach to making the city more sustainable and reducing its carbon footprint.

Columbia isn’t the only city taking local action after the U.S. pulled out of the Paris climate accord — an international agreement to reduce global carbon emissions — last year. Since then, cities across the country, including Missouri’s two largest cities, St. Louis and Kansas City, have vowed to set goals to reduce their own energy use and curb emissions.

Just how cities and other municipalities are approaching those goals has varied, depending on local economies, community priorities and political leanings. And Columbia officials said they want to get a feel for how community members want to prioritize a plan that can cover a range of topics including transportation, housing, waste management, energy policy and more.

“We as a city want to reduce our energy use, but in order to do that we need the residents to buy into that,” said Patricia Weisenfelder, a spokesperson for Columbia. “We realize that not everyone is going to be on board.”

For example, Weisenfelder said, Columbia residents might be resistant to the idea of investing in more public transportation infrastructure, or updating the city’s recycling and renewable energy policies, because many people don’t want to change their habits.

The city and state business communities also have a history of pushing back against environmental policy that some believe would hurt local businesses.

In 2015, the Columbia City Council considered but ultimately withdrew a proposal to ban retailers from using most plastic shopping bags. The move garnered criticism from local businesses, and later that year, state lawmakers passed legislation preventing any Missouri city from enacting a plastic bag ban in the future, or even imposing taxes on plastic or paper bag use.

But not all of Columbia’s business owners see tougher environmental policy at odds with good business practices.

Kim Wade, who owns Columbia-based SilverBox Photographers and also sits on the task force charged with developing the city’s plan, said local businesses have a responsibility to their community to tackle issues like climate change.

Wade said environmentally friendly choices can also be smart for business. “We have resources, we have a proven track record for making really smart business decisions,” she said. “Let’s step up. Let’s be part of the solution.”

Brad Johnson, director of communications and marketing for the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said the organization plans to send a representative to Tuesday’s meeting, but at this point the chamber is unsure whether it will be participating in the plan’s development.

“As of right now, we have no opinion of it,” Johnson said. “We don’t even know if this is something we should be taking note of.”

Weisenfelder said that’s the whole point of the meeting: to get residents and businesses talking about environmental issues and seeing just what everyone is willing to do to tackle them.

In the end, the city’s task force will take the input from Tuesday’s session, and another session in November, to help craft the first draft of the plan, Weisenfelder said. There will then be another public comment period on the draft before submitting a final copy to the city council by next summer, she said.

The meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Columbia’s Activity and Recreation Center. Residents who can’t attend the event can submit their opinions by filling out an online form.

“We want people to participate,” she said. “We don’t want to be telling people what to do. We want them to lead us.”

Missouri Business Alert’s sustainability coverage is funded in part by the Mid-Missouri Solid Waste Management District.

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