Bethlehem’s Climate Action Plan: An Overview of a Public Meeting to Support Civic Change

On Wednesday, June 17th, the city of Bethlehem, supported by Nurture Nature Center and WSP Global Inc., hosted its first public meetings to incorporate resident input into the creation and implementation of the Bethlehem Climate Action Plan (CAP). Inspired by Bethlehem’s previous successes in implementing more energy efficient utilities and infrastructure into municipal buildings, the city of Bethlehem is invested in doing its part to reduce its contributions to climate change and build resilience and adaptive capacity throughout the city.

The webinar was presented by Matt Dorner, Bethlehem’s Deputy of Public Works and Chief of Engineering; Jeff Irvine, environmental consultant with WSP USA and project director for the Bethlehem CAP; and Kathryn Semmens, the Science Director at the Nurture Nature Center. The meeting was designed to reflect on the ways the city of Bethlehem already has worked towards addressing climate change, to review the science of the necessity of the Climate Action Plan, to outline the roadmap towards creating the CAP, and to solicit questions and commentary from the public about what the Bethlehem community needs to prioritize. About one hundred Bethlehem citizens attended the noon webinar, contributing many nuanced points of emphasis for the community and the CAP designers to consider. Here, I will reflect on some of the most resonant points that community members and the webinar brought to light about our collective efforts to address the climate crisis.

The Urgency of the Bethlehem Climate Action Plan

To start off the webinar, Matt Dorner reflected on the efficiency initiatives the city implemented in recent years, including updating boilers, using LED lights, replacing windows, and improving wastewater treatment. Between 2005 and 2017, Bethlehem saw a 37% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. Community wide, Bethlehem increased recycling and made the Greenway, creating more climate friendly travel opportunities and greening city spaces. But as Kathryn Semmens went on to explain, there is much more to be done to address the full scale of this crisis.

Using a compelling combination of graphs, NASA data, and interactive maps, Semmens quickly demonstrated the rigor of the scientific information that climate change is happening, and that human influences are playing a critical role in enhancing its effects. In Semmens’ succinct description, she highlighted the role of greenhouse gasses in changing the chemical makeup, and thus temperature, of earth’s atmosphere, and how even small changes in temperature can radically change many aspects of our climates. Increases in atmospheric temperature means reduction of the number of cold nights, and an increase in hot days every year.  Such a shift in temperatures would have significant human health impacts such as increased likelihood of heat strokes, and would disrupt agriculture cycles that need certain cold temperatures to produce crops. Increases in atmospheric temperature also increases the moisture load of the air. This effect essentially supercharges the water cycle, resulting in more extreme weather events like flooding, and increasing the days of precipitation each year. More precipitation, for Pennsylvania in particular, means increased disease and pest risk. PA is already one of the highest in the nation in Lyme cases, and Semmens suggests that there are strong reasons to think that tick flourishing is related to the increased rate of precipitation. Looking at resources like and The Climate Explorer we can see that the best available science predicts a radical climate shift for Pennsylvania. To really conceptualize this, consider an analogy. By 2050, Philadelphia will have the climate of Richmond, VA, and Pittsburgh will have the climate of Washington D.C.

Kate Semmens shared data that reflects on the impact of climate change in PA. Photo Credit: Hannah Provost.

Semmens noted that carbon dioxide, while not the most potent greenhouse gas, stays in our atmosphere the longest, and is one of the most frequent emissions of human activity. Thus, carbon emissions is Bethlehem’s biggest and most effective target. But Semmens also reminds us that none of our green technologies is a silver bullet, and that community behavioral change is also necessary for us to slow down these changes, and adapt to those which are inevitable. All of the science that Semmens summarized is a key part in constructing the contours of the Bethlehem CAP.

The Bethlehem Climate Action Plan 

Jeff Irvine quickly outlined the roadmap to making the CAP. There are two primary goals for the CAP designers. First, reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the Bethlehem community. Second, designers seek to increase adaptations and resilience to climate changes. Additional benefits that the plan hopes to accomplish include social equity, environmental flourishing, and economic opportunity. In July 2020, the city hopes to formulate specific goals and strategies, with public forums for feedback on the CAP proposal in the fall and winter of 2020. The city hopes to publish the plan in 2021.

The Community Conversation 

To frame the public forum portion of the webinar, the moderators first asked community members how the plan might embody equity in its implementation. Community members suggested strategies such as subsidizing energy efficiency in housing projects so that low-income community members would not be penalized for the green energy initiative. They also emphasized actively incorporating input from Black, Latinx, and indigenous residents into initiatives. To that end, one community member specifically highlighted the necessary challenge of coming up with ways to move beyond webinars for community engagement, while still being pandemic-safe, in order to make sure that input by low-income community members is practical and possible. In the context of the Black Lives Matter protests, and the emotional and physical energy of Black communities expended during this time, another forum participant inquired whether it might be most effective to alter the timeline of the Bethlehem CAP, in order to ensure that Black community members do not face another barrier in participating in these kinds of forums due to divided attention in necessary activism for their own rights and communities. Other potential aspects of the plan suggested planning greening initiatives, such as planting trees or developing green spaces, particularly for lower-income neighborhoods, or zoning or auditing warehouses, whose waste tends to affect the low-income communities close by.

A screenshot of some of the contributions of community members, solicited during the digital CAP meeting. Photo Credit: Hannah Provost.

Importantly, one community member questioned the process of the Climate Action Plan, rather than its goals and outcomes. This participant inquired after actual and direct input by Bethlehem community members, rather than just idea-sourcing and “a pat on the head.” Though not much time was spent reflecting on the possibility of more complete participatory control, this idea is crucial for ensuring that the concerns for equity, justice, and inclusion are actually implemented in the plan.

When asked what the community hopes the CAP will achieve, the primary answers from participating community members included: justice, health, renewable energy, support for Black communities, greening the city, and resilience. The particular emphasis on racial justice and health reveals that the community is deeply invested in thinking through the Bethlehem CAP as a climate justice initiative that can only be implemented if it does so while fully addressing the social inequities in our community as well. The group’s priority rankings also reflected this, balancing reducing greenhouse gas emissions with improved equitable outcomes and improving resilience.

The conversation about the Bethlehem Action Plan has only just begun, but the community clearly is committed to and concerned about the plan being just and equitable in addition to significantly making Bethlehem better prepared to respond to our changing environment. To make sure that this community reflection is not just a democratic gesture, it is on the CAP team and the community to incorporate these resonant and poignant needs as the CAP moves forward.

If you missed it, and want to hear more, the full recording of each of the webinars can be found at

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