Chandra Farley, Atlanta’s chief sustainability officer.

When Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens took office a year ago, I wrote a column about the urgency of rebuilding the city’s once-robust and nationally recognized climate resilience program. Resilient cities are those that develop the capacity to absorb shocks and stresses while maintaining functions and systems.  

A year later, there’s good news to report, but also a long list of work to be accomplished. In addition, it’s not yet clear to what degree the mayor and Atlanta City Council will expedite and fund necessary programs to safeguard the city from more intense storms, flooding, extreme droughts, and worsening heat waves.

From Success to Disappointment 

In 2009, then-mayor Shirley Franklin appointed Atlanta’s first chief sustainability officer. The initiative was dedicated to finding solutions to mitigate the impacts of the growing climate crisis on infrastructure and people, especially the disadvantaged. Vulnerable populations face the greatest risks from global heating to their physical and mental health, air, water, food, and shelter – and also higher energy costs as a percentage of their income.  

Franklin’s successor, Kasim Reed, impressively grew the city’s Office of Sustainability and Resilience in size and scope, taking advantage of the federal Better Buildings Challenge. The groundbreaking Atlanta BBC, a public-private initiative, reached its goal of reducing energy and water consumption in the city by 20 percent using sophisticated benchmarking technology. The program delivered: millions of metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions were avoided, a billion gallons of water saved, city and business operating costs reduced, hundreds of jobs created, and public health improved, according to the final ABBC report. 

A Climate Action Plan with benchmarks to track progress was adopted in 2015 by the city council – targeting energy and water use in buildings, transportation, parks, food security, and more. In 2019, the council approved Clean Energy Atlanta, a plan to achieve 100 percent clean energy sources for municipal and community needs by 2035. The stage was set for Atlanta to continue its role as a national leader in climate resilience, but Reed’s successor, Keisha Lance-Bottoms, had other priorities. During the Bottoms administration sustainability programs were buried within another office where they languished for years under changing leadership, a smaller budget, and a much smaller staff. The sustainability chief was no longer part of the mayor’s cabinet. 

Energy Advocate Appointed

Although it took Mayor Dickens nine months to appoint a new chief sustainability officer, he hit a home run, by all accounts, when he tapped Chandra Farley for the job. I spoke to her recently to learn about her first one hundred days and priorities. 

From the moment I met her, virtually, Farley’s people skills were evident. She views herself as a “people partner,” an approach that has helped her move government agencies and communities toward a new clean energy, climate-resilient economy. She notes that the only way to achieve this new economy is to work through a lens of environmental justice—to achieve 100 percent clean energy for 100 percent of the people. 

Farley’s warmth, calm demeanor, and openness are welcome assets. Her passion for her work is obvious, as is her expertise in the sustainability realm. After speaking with her, I feel more confident about the direction Atlanta is headed. Of course, her ability to help the city achieve its climate resilience goals depends on whether city officials also share her priorities. 

Farley calls the Dickens administration a “new day” for climate action, saying he’s a mayor “who is supportive and understands.” She is excited that she will serve on his cabinet and that the Office of Sustainability and Resilience has been re-established as an executive office. Farley suggests that positive pressure from outside government – in other words, from you and me—will help hold the city accountable for measurable, not simply incremental, progress in the coming years. 

Given the loss of momentum during the Bottoms administration, Farley has purposefully embarked on a “listening tour” to determine the current status of sustainability programs and to identify gaps, opportunities, and ideas to ensure that affordable energy initiatives mesh with affordable housing. She’s also met with the city’s new head of planning to share climate strategies, including the importance of a stronger tree protection program to mitigate the impacts of extreme heat.  

Utility Accountability

Last year, Atlanta and other cities with clean energy goals intervened in Georgia Power’s mandated triennial energy planning update at the Georgia Public Service Commission. Farley calls this intervention an “historic first” that represents a beginning in collaborative efforts by municipalities to hold the utility accountable to its customers. 

If cities are going to reach their goals, the large electricity monopoly must offer more renewable options, including an expansion of the popular 5,000-customer rooftop solar program and greater incentives to invest in solar. Georgia Power has resisted any expansion, supported by a seemingly complicit PSC; perhaps the state legislature will step up and order the commission to act.   In February, Farley will re-launch the city’s Clean Energy Advisory Board, a group she co-chaired when it was created several years ago; the board’s job will be to make sure the words and goals of the climate and energy plans translate into outcomes that benefit all Atlantans. The federal Inflation Reduction Act passed last year will accelerate a clean energy transition across the country and Farley is strategizing on ways that the city can best take advantage of this transformative opportunity. With her eyes firmly set on a prosperous, resilient Atlanta for all, Chandra Farley is hard at work.

Sally Bethea

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.