It’s been well-documented that July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. Conditions were no different here in Arizona. July’s blistering heat drove temperatures past 110 degrees in Phoenix for 31 consecutive days.
This record-breaking heat should be a wake-up call for all of us. Heat is the leading weather-related cause of death, with the highest rates nationally found in Arizona. Last year alone, there were 425 heat-related deaths in Maricopa County. The county’s chief medical examiner is again forecasting a record-breaking year for heat-related deaths in 2023.
If there is any silver lining, it’s that we are living in a time of unprecedented federal funding opportunities to support climate action and heat mitigation. The bipartisan Inflation Reduction Act, signed by President Biden a year ago, appropriates $1.5 billion for urban and community forestry—representing a historic investment in climate adaptation.
While it is a historic investment, it is not unlimited. How we choose to deploy that funding will decide our future. To be effective, we need an equitable approach that centers on those most impacted by the problem.
It’s important to acknowledge that historic disinvestment in low-income communities of color has resulted in huge disparities in exposure to heat, with some neighborhoods as little as 2 miles apart having up to a 13-degree difference in air temperature.
The hottest neighborhoods also tend to have the lowest tree-canopy cover and the fewest resources to cope with rising temperatures. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) believes the people who live in these neighborhoods have the best ideas for what will really work to improve conditions there. At the local level the following needs to take place:
1) Deepen partnerships with communities and center the voices and solutions of the people most impacted by the problem.
2) Pave the way for fast implementation of heat-mitigation projects including at-scale tree planting by eliminating red tape that makes it difficult to move projects forward in the places that need them most, such as pedestrian corridors.
3) Remember that this is a long-term investment and that to achieve the impacts we hope to by increasing tree canopy cover, we will need big investments in protecting trees, not just planting new ones.
Our Urban Heat Leadership Academy is one model for uplifting community voices and solutions. The Academy has forged trusted relationships with frontline communities and organizations, providing residents with the knowledge, resources and skills to advocate for solutions to heat in their neighborhoods. This has included more trees, cool walkable corridors, rainwater harvesting to irrigate vegetation and trees, and even the opening of a cooling center.
Second, in order to maximize the value of the federal funding, now is the time for communities to examine whether their policies and practices may prohibit the opportunity for nature-based solutions to heat mitigation. This could include encouraging residents and businesses to capture water off the street when it rains to grow vegetation and to support the tree canopy along public rights of way.
Lastly, cities should also prioritize not just planting trees but funding for their care and maintenance, given that the benefits of trees accrue as they mature and grow over time.
Conditions are ripe for us to transform our communities to be resilient to the impacts of extreme heat. We must deploy funding solutions in partnership with communities that need it the most and remove bureaucratic barriers to nature-based solutions.
If we can do this, we can address this challenge at a pace and scale that matters.
Dan Stellar, state director, The Nature Conservancy Arizona
Anna Bettis, Arizona Healthy Cities program director
The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world’s toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in more than 70 countries and territories, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.