As one of four Cleveland Climate Ambassadors in Glenville, Veronica Walton has seen and heard what city residents think about climate change. Or, as the case may be, don’t think.
She recounted to me recently how reports such as the new Cleveland Climate Hazard and Vulnerability Assessment and the headline-making U.N. Climate Report, both of which contain unsettling news of climate change catastrophe, are not the top concern for most residents.
Take Gloria, for instance. She moved from New York City to open a small business here and met Walton in Glenville. “You’re lucky you live up the hill,” Gloria told Walton, a South Euclid resident.
“She feels trapped when big floods like the one last spring come racing down the hill,” Walton told me. Gloria was more concerned with the effects close to home, literally close to her house, than the bigger picture.
Advocates for a more climate resilient city are planning to bolster infrastructure to include cooling stations, insulate big, old homes to reduce energy bills and replant trees that have been lost over the years. But gentrification, for example, is more of a concern than dealing with the local effects of climate change for Gloria and other people with whom Walton spoke.
“Longtime residents like Gloria aren’t talking about staying cool or trees as a remedy to climate change,” Walton says. “They want to know, will [the city] get around to fixing its aging infrastructure?”
Indeed, past structural decisions, like an abundance of highways and aging housing, could weigh heavy on Cleveland. The assessment of Cleveland’s climate, produced by the Cleveland Office of Sustainability and the nonprofit Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, offers a look at what that could mean.
Average air temperatures in Cleveland are expected to rise by 3 to 7 degrees by 2050. Half of Cleveland is hard surface, the report found. The industrial valley, downtown and areas near highways are covered by as much as 75 percent pavement.
Compounding matters, Cleveland has lost all but 19 percent of its tree canopy. Sunlight is absorbed, then radiated back from pavement not shaded by trees, which can elevate ground temperatures above levels safe for humans and animals. Those same big patches of hard surface can then produce islands of heat that migrate outward.
With conditions like that, heat should matter a lot to Clevelanders. The assessment makes the case that concentrated poverty, too much pavement and a rise in temperatures will combine to worsen the impact of climate change in Cleveland’s frontline communities, like Glenville.
Fifty-eight percent of Cleveland’s households are renting spaces, meaning they may have fewer environmental controls. More than half are living in unaffordable housing. The majority of the housing in Cleveland was built before 1950, when central air conditioning was less common.
No one should have to choose between running an air conditioning unit and providing food for their family during an extended heat wave. Yet that is the situation for many people living in Cleveland, one of the poorest big cities in the nation.
But most people in Cleveland are like Gloria. They see only tenuous connections between the terrifying statistics that portray climate change and their own lives and homes. Cleveland is at the forefront of climate change response. But for the city’s efforts to have a greater impact, advocates must connect the dots with residents.
“Residents are the true first responders,” says Walton, who was hired as part of the Resilient CLE project. “What they see at the ground level is usually completely different than what the professionals who are called in see. We should be gearing up our efforts where people, as first responders, are able to access them.”
One possible avenue is to ramp up the city’s program for repurposing vacant land into community gardens, renewable energy farms and stormwater parks, such as the one recently completed at Union Avenue in Slavic Village, or the illegal dump site that was cleared to make way for a wetland in the Woodland neighborhood.
The city needs a comprehensive strategy, though, for its thousands of vacant and abandoned properties. Planting trees and reclaiming larger areas of land for nature in the city could be a step toward environmental justice, clean air, a clean lake, food security and biodiversity.
To its credit, the city updated its Climate Action Plan this year and has placed a down payment on the 2015 Cleveland Tree Plan. The city recently announced that it plans to plant 50,000 trees on public land and tree lawns by 2020. The hope is that private property owners will be inspired to plant many more trees to restore Cleveland to its former glory as the Forest City.
To address rampant carbon emissions — which are trapped in the atmosphere like an extra blanket when the heat is already on — the city set a goal in September to shift its power supply to 100 percent renewable sources by the year 2050. Addressing 350 sustainability professionals and students, Mayor Frank Jackson said that his focus is on generating “green jobs.”
The mayor has the opportunity to act on his convictions by completing community scale projects, like the wind farm on Lake Erie, and fixing the region’s ailing transit system by directing resources and political capital to the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. Jackson also joined more than 380 mayors to pledge support for the goals set in the Paris Climate Accord.
Already, Cleveland is taking the right steps. But we should be approaching climate change with a renewed sense of local urgency, because the U.N. Climate Report, out in October, offers no equivocation. The natural ability of the planet to support its inhabitants has reached a breaking point. We have a 20-year window to reduce carbon emissions to pre-1990 levels.
That is a blink of an eye for the planet, but an eternity to respond. What we need, essentially, is to start de-carbonizing our economy. But political realities mean there is little hope of doing that soon on the national level. So it must start in places like Cleveland.
The release of the U.N. report reminded me that a decade ago, a previous iteration of the same report was treated with the seriousness it deserves. Politicians and economists agreed on a path forward. For the first time, a price was placed on carbon emissions. Back in 2009, the U.N. report led to a cap-and-trade bill that was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Since then, consensus on the science of climate change has been ignored. In retrospect, Harvard economist Theda Skocpol has written, a broader base of support was needed.
That’s the message we need to take from the latest U.N. report and the city’s study. Climate change is affecting vulnerable populations, whether they live in a small town on a river that was swept away or in substandard housing in Cleveland.
From the Coasts to the Rust Belt, climate change is a great equalizer, and addressing it needs to start with finding common ground with those who live in communities that will be most affected.
“I look at climate change from the perspective of [the] health of the community,” says Walton, “which means being diligent for the unforeseen things that are starting to disturb people.”