By Ned Parker
Tucson hired a forester. Miami named a heat officer. And Los Angeles appointed a climate emergency mobilization director.
Across the United States, cities have launched new programs focused on dealing with extreme weather, reflecting the growing impacts of climate change on local communities, according to experts.
Since 2019 at least 30 U.S. cities have taken fresh action such as hiring specialists to combat the impact of extreme weather, including Phoenix, Houston, Louisville, Nashville, and Oakland, according to the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, based at Washington D.C.’s Atlantic Council think tank.
Many of those cities have created posts and initiatives to deal with worsening heat waves, seasonal wildfires or the effects of flooding, often with a focus on poor and minority communities, the group said.
“Local government officials have to respond to it,” said Kathy Baughman McLeod, the head of the Resilience Center, which promotes solutions to climate impacts, in part, by partnering with governments and bringing public and private funding to projects.
New EPA data released in May, after years of delays during the Trump administration, showed heat waves across the country occur more frequently, last longer and are often hotter, that wildfires are torching more land, and that the East and Gulf Coasts are flooding more often.
Many times poor and minority communities take the brunt, said Alice Hill, an energy and climate policy expert at the independent Council on Foreign Relations think tank based in New York. “There has been a growing recognition that because they are at greater risk of harm, more needs to be done to protect them,” she said.
Some of these cities, including Los Angeles, said they are hoping their efforts will get a funding boost under President Joe Biden’s administration, which in January ordered that 40% of the benefits of federal clean energy investment go to neighborhoods that have historically been neglected.
Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump downplayed climate risks and withdrew the United States from an international pact to slow global warming.
The Biden administration rejoined that deal, has introduced a raft of new policies to fight climate change, and is now building a database to help it identify the parts of the country most in need of federal assistance in dealing with the impacts of warming and industrial pollution.
CHIEF HEAT OFFICER
Miami Dade County created a new position for a chief heat officer earlier this year, as it prepares for ever-hotter days ahead.
The officer will focus on strategies for the Miami region to adapt to its ever-hotter climate, with special attention on “communities of color and low-income residents, who have fewer resources to overcome these challenges,” Mayor Levine Cava said in late April at a news conference announcing the program.
Miami last year sweltered through 41 days with temperatures over 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.5 degrees Celsius) and that figure is expected to climb to 88 days by 2050, Cava said.
Already, the newly appointed interim heat officer, Jane Gilbert, is getting to work with an agenda that includes creating more shaded bus stops and helping with existing plans for planting more trees in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods.
“Heat is the No. 1 killer of all the climate change impacts,” Gilbert said.
Those especially at risk include children, pregnant women, the elderly, people with pre-existing health conditions, and those with no air conditioner access, she said.
Her office will also be looking into outdoor labor standards and creating permanent year-round air-conditioned community hubs that can serve as gathering places in case of emergencies including storms and heat waves.
‘ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE IMPACT’
In February, Los Angeles launched a Climate Emergency Mobilization office to coordinate the city’s policies on climate change across its dozens of neighborhoods and districts.
Among its goals is to advise on “initiatives aimed at environmental justice and equity” such as ensuring all neighborhoods are getting trees planted to promote cooling, that bus stops have shade and that polluted properties are redeveloped, according to the Public Works Department.
The new office has a budget of $1.1 million for the next fiscal year which begins in August.
Marta Segura, the office’s director, told Reuters her first steps will include consulting with a newly formed commission, consisting of representatives from the city’s seven most-polluted neighborhoods, for recommendations on crafting an “equitable climate action plan”.
Segura also wants to gather data showing the city’s progress. “We really need to push for metrics that measure environmental justice impact,” Segura said.
The city has ambitious goals to fight climate change too, including increasing the percentage of zero emission vehicles in the city to 100% by 2050 and ensuring city electric utilities source their power from 100% renewables by 2035.
Los Angeles Board of Public Works President Greg Good told Reuters that while the state has provided some resources, the city has been “scraping and clawing” for funding to pursue its climate goals.
But he said he was hopeful that Biden’s infrastructure proposal – which includes promises of climate and environmental justice-related funding – will ultimately direct more federal money to his and other cities so they can “take it to another level”.
A MILLION TREES
Tucson, one of the hottest cities in the country, has hired a climate change advisor and a city forestry advisor to supervise the planting of 1 million trees around the Arizona desert city by 2030.
City officials say the trees will help soak up carbon and provide cooling, especially in its poorer districts which have less shade.
The planting initiative, so far, is relying on philanthropic donations and city funding.
“Climate change is a public health issue, a public health hazard, and the front-line communities that are most affected by climate change are low income communities,” Mayor Regina Romero told Reuters.
Romero aims for Tucson to be carbon neutral by 2030 and says the Biden administration’s spending plan will help her achieve that goal “because it includes funding for a lot of what local governments have to do to create this green infrastructure.”