In Cities, Climate Change Solutions Must Also Advance Equity

By Camilo McConnell, RAY Conservation Fellow

From forests to deserts, mountains to coastlines, Washington has a dynamic natural environment. This dynamism makes our state unique. But it also means climate change will have a broad range of effects.

Forest fires in Eastern Washington and water scarcity in the Yakima Basin capture headlines as dramatic examples of climate change already affecting the lives of Washingtonians. Frequent, intense forest fires may be the new normal due to temperature increases, drier summers and a history of fire suppression. Nearby towns and cities will suffer poor air quality that exacerbates respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. In the headwaters of the Yakima Basin, higher temperatures have lowered snowpack, making water sources precarious for the cities, towns and farms that rely on them. Rising food costs and job loss may be follow-on effects.

What about climate-change impacts on our urban centers? Cities are the bastion of human ingenuity and innovation. Climate change is challenging that assumption and pressuring cities to evolve how they grow and adapt.

According to the National Climate Assessment, an increase in average annual temperature of 3.3° F to 9.7° F is projected by 2070 in the Pacific Northwest. In cities, the "heat-island effect" increases vulnerability to heat-related illnesses: Tall buildings and pavement trap heat, so that temperatures feel hotter on a pedestrian level. In fact, pavement surface temperatures can be 50 to 90 degrees higher than the air during hot days! A lack of trees and shaded areas in urban centers builds on the problem.

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With rising temperatures, cars and buildings use more energy to cool. Not surprisingly, increased summer temperatures have resulted in an increase in air conditioning use. Seattle is known for having very few houses with air conditioning units, but new construction has seen a four-fold increase in central A/C. Human-caused global warming has forced us to use more energy to cool ourselves, which can mean more greenhouse gases emitted.

Within cities, the burden of climate change will be felt hardest by low-income communities and communities of color. Although climate change does not discriminate how it distributes its effects, we as societies have segregated our residents by race and income, which has ultimately made these communities less resilient in the face of climate volatility. Like other major metropolises, Seattle has historically marginalized its communities of color in areas that are considered undesirable, near industry and have greater susceptibility to flooding and pollution. 

Surrounded by industry, residents along the Duwamish River in Seattle are at greater risk for impacts of air pollution and flooding as climate changes in the Pacific Northwest. Photo by Hannah Letinich / TNC.

Surrounded by industry, residents along the Duwamish River in Seattle are at greater risk for impacts of air pollution and flooding as climate changes in the Pacific Northwest. Photo by Hannah Letinich / TNC.

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A combination of low incomes, lack of affordable housing, displacement, food access and other factors will make it harder for these communities to deal with and adapt to effects of climate change. According to “Our People, Our Planet, Our Power,” a report by Puget Sound Sage and GOT Green, the lack of affordable housing in Seattle is one of the most concerning issues to residents of color. As major cities become desirable for wealthier professionals, those who work in lower-paying industries are being priced out. This results in longer commutes, meaning more vehicle emissions. In fact, according to the report, the largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions in Seattle is from transportation. Mechanisms and policies that keep people of color in cities are essential, in tandem with infrastructure and networks that will help vulnerable communities adapt to climate change, instead of pushing them to suburbs that are isolated and under-resourced.

Cities in Washington and throughout the country are diverse areas where human interaction and ideas are exchanged. We must prudently protect our cities and their residents' heath no matter their income, race or gender. Urbanization is growing alongside the threat of climate change. We must push our cities to be resilient and equitable in the face of climate injustice.

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