Opinion | Energy & Environment

We need urban green spaces to stop deadly effects of the climate crisis

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

From their carbon-sequestering abilities to regulating temperatures to purifying city air, trees are critical for keeping our cities healthy and are one of our greatest resources in the struggle against the climate crisis. More than 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, but some communities, like lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color, are more likely to have parking lots than parks, making them vulnerable to harmful climate impacts.

Right now, a generational investment in these green assets is being threatened by conservative Senators. If we are going to build back better and secure our climate future, Congress must not miss this opportunity.

The proposed and drafted Build Back Better Act assembled by House Democrats includes nearly $40 billion in funding for urban and community green space and forestry programs. Taken together, these programs are key to providing investments that will tackle climate change while mitigating the worst effects of the climate crisis, especially among our most vulnerable communities.

From fires in the Pacific Northwest to flooded streets and subway lines in New York, it's clear the effects of the climate crisis are becoming increasingly devastating. This is especially true for cities, lower-income communities, and communities of color, and it's in no small part due to one simple thing - a lack of trees. Years of disinvestment have left many of these communities with minimal tree coverage, making them particularly vulnerable to climate impacts like flooding, dirty air, and the urban heat island effect.

Without sufficient trees, impervious surfaces like roads, parking lots and buildings can channel stormwater runoff that overwhelms local stormwater drainage capacity. A lack of trees leaves communities without the green infrastructure needed to purify air from pollutants like those caused by the burning of dirty fossil fuels. And minimal tree coverage leaves communities baking under the urban heat island effect, which can make some neighborhoods 10 to 15 degrees hotter than outlying areas.

Some studies suggest that extreme heat causes more than 1,300 deaths annually in the U.S. Moreover, these extreme heat conditions can exert additional stress on people with underlying health conditions, like the elderly, making it more likely a chronic condition becomes deadly. As climate change leads to more frequent and heavier rainfall, more powerful storms and higher temperatures, urban communities could be left facing devastating consequences.

We can limit the potentially deadly effects of these climate impacts with one easy action - plant more trees. The Build Back Better Act includes major investments in several federal programs that would do just that. 

  • It invests $3 billion in the Urban and Community Forestry Assistance Program, which serves more than 200 million people in more than 7,700 communities across the United States through the development and maintenance of local urban forestry programs. 
  • The package calls for $100 million for activities to improve forest carbon monitoring technologies and for the inventory of old and mature forests. These programs are crucial in delivering on the science necessary to protect our old and mature trees, which are the largest sources of natural carbon sequestration and developing the technology we need to monitor that sequestration. 

Trees are essential for maintaining healthy communities and ecosystems. The Build Back Better Act's investments to support urban forestry are key to making our communities more resilient to the climate crisis and building up the critical green infrastructure we need to take on the climate crisis.

We cannot build back better if we leave our most vulnerable communities unprotected in the face of these climate impacts. We cannot secure our climate future if we don't invest in our green infrastructure. The House Natural Resources and Agriculture Committees laid out a bold vision for supporting these vital tree planting programs in their reconciliation package. It is essential that Congress maintain these investments as the climate crisis is interconnected with the other existential crises we face. We can't tackle climate change by leaving our most vulnerable communities behind. Everyone deserves to live in a healthy and safe community, and that has to include equitable tree cover.

Kirin Kennedy is the Sierra Club's director for people and nature policy.