This Earth Day, look local for climate change solutions
Every April, activists around the world come together to protest environmental crises. The Fight For Our Future rally, taking place this Saturday in Washington, D.C., is one of many global Earth Day events expected to draw countless thousands.
I’ve protested in our nation’s capital for climate change, racial justice, gay rights. With the White House or Capitol building as the backdrop, calls for action emanating from the crowd always feel powerful. If enough marching feet come together, it seems, the federal government mustlisten — it must hear the people’s calls behind their white pillars.
But a new global climate report has me rethinking some of the focus of this year’s Earth Day.
No longer is a rally about general awareness, international action or even federal government action going to cut it. We know the problem well; we’ve signed the international agreements, we have the government’s attention. But with this new report, we now know the scope of vulnerability to the streets of the cities we’ll be marching through.
Nowhere is safe. Climate change has become local.
Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that assessed human vulnerability to the risks of climate change. Some of their key findings were condensed into a fact sheet on human settlements, which states: “Many cities and settlements have developed adaptation plans, but few have been implemented, so that urban adaptation gaps exist in all world regions and for all hazard types. Current adaptation is unable to resolve risks to current climate change associated hazards.”
For the first time, this global climate report, released by the United Nations roughly twice per decade, has quantified how unprepared we are in the places we live. No town, Democrat or Republican, urban or rural, rich or poor, is ready for the climate changes we are already seeing. This awareness may seem obvious to the climate activist who’s been marching for years, but only 57 percent of Americans say climate change is affecting their local community. How can we expect the government to save us from disaster when nearly half the country can’t see how climate change personally affects them in their communities?
The city of D.C., with its Democratic majority and highly engaged citizenry, is not immune to this climate disconnect. Flooding caused by rising seas threatens the city as tidal rivers swell their banks during heavy rainfall. Soon, a new river of storm surge could pour through the National Mall from the Potomac to the Anacostia in times of extreme weather. This risk is imminent enough that a flood barrier has already been installed capable of holding back up to 19 feet of water from destroying some of DC’s most iconic buildings.
D.C. is also getting hotter. A recent study shows that urban extreme heat exposure has increased nearly 200 percent over the past four decades, with a disproportionate impact on low-income communities. Given our geography and socio-economic disparities, D.C. is a perfect storm for these impacts. Some lower-income D.C. neighborhoods are already reaching a life-threatening heat index of 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the summers, with little ability for many residents to cool off even at night given the high humidity.
D.C.’s increased flooding and extreme heat are just two versions of a story now shared by every city and state across the country. Nearly 1 in 3 Americans were impacted by a weather disaster last summer, with many of these extreme events exacerbated by climate change. This is a trend we can anticipate continuing this summer.
Cities account for more than 70 percent of global carbon pollution and consume most of the world’s energy supply. Yet, according to a 2020 Brookings report, less than half of all large U.S. cities have greenhouse gas targets. Cities are on the front lines of climate impacts and must be on the front lines of their solutions.
As we march this Earth Day, perhaps a refocus of what we’re fighting for is needed. Yes, we need federal climate legislation. We need to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement. But we must also fight to safeguard the places we live. We need bottom-up climate solutions for every town. We need more Americans to see the vulnerabilities to their communities and push for stronger adaptation plans.
Just like politics, climate change is local. With climate extremes being felt within our communities and no community fully prepared, this Earth Day can serve as a wake-up call for urgent local action.
Will Hackman is a conservation and climate policy expert with more than a decade of experience in U.S. political campaigning and global environmental issue advocacy.
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