OPINION: During Earth’s hottest month, cities rise to the occasion

by Jim Kenney and Steve Adler | Mayors of Philadelphia and Austin
Wednesday, 4 September 2019 17:53 GMT

Apr 27, 2019; Philadelphia, PA, USA; General overall view of the downtown Philadelphia skyline. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When we respond to scientific evidence and work together, there’s nothing our cities cannot achieve to ensure a healthy, safe and secure future

Jim Kenney is the Mayor of Philadelphia and Steve Adler is the Mayor of Austin.

This summer, our cities, like many around the world, experienced dangerous levels of heat and humidity. For both Philadelphia and Austin, oppressive heat posed a real risk to the health of our residents. In response to a particular mid-July heat wave, we both activated our heat emergency plans, opening cooling centers and offering other services to help people beat the heat.

July is usually the warmest month of the year globally, but little did we know we were amidst the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. What we now refer to as “emergency measures” could soon become the norm for our urban summers. 

A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts more frequent and intense days of extreme heat across the United States, conditions that will worsen if we don’t respond to the climate crisis now. Cities are especially sensitive to these changes, with children, the elderly, day laborers, the homeless, and people with underlying health conditions being particularly vulnerable to excessive heat.

That is why, as mayors, we are taking urgent action today to protect our communities. Through a collaborative process, our cities are implementing bold initiatives that are helping save lives.

In Philadelphia, we are approaching climate resilience at the neighborhood level through an equity lens. We know that climate change is not only a public health issue, but also an issue of racial and social equity. 

 Philadelphia is already experiencing hotter and wetter weather due to climate change. We have mapped average surface temperature and found that some neighborhoods can be as much as 22 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than others. In hotter neighborhoods, the lack of cooling green spaces and increased presence of dark surfaces exacerbates the issue.

In response to these findings, we worked with community partners in Hunting Park, a neighborhood in North Philadelphia that is particularly vulnerable to heat due to factors such as age, income, or health conditions. In a survey administered through community meetings and community ambassadors, over 530 residents reported how they cope with heat and what would help them stay cool. 

The results are summarized in Beat the Heat Hunting Park: A Community Heat Relief Plan, the city’s first-ever neighborhood-driven climate resiliency plan. We are now exploring how to implement these cooling solutions and continue community outreach within Hunting Park, and beyond.

Austin faces similar heat challenges, with the city ranking ninth in the nation for our increase in dangerously hot days that feel like it’s 105° or hotter. 

To prepare for future heat waves, Austin has one of the most aggressive climate goals in the nation: net-zero community-wide emissions by 2050. While achieving this goal will help avoid the worst impacts from climate change, we’re also taking action based on specific threats, like extreme heat, with the populations most vulnerable to these threats in mind.

We will work with a nonprofit partner to break down barriers to healthy living for residents who have been most impacted by historic inequities. Through this partnership, a group of Climate Resilience Navigators will assist their neighbors with emergency preparedness and response plans. These Navigators will also help identify where people are experiencing higher rates of heat-related emergencies.

Austin’s new City Forest Carbon + Credits program leverages creative financing to grow our local urban forest and its potential to mitigate heat and its associated illnesses. By partnering with nonprofits, we finance county-wide tree planting using carbon offset fees generated via the voluntary carbon market.

In Austin, extreme heat is a given, but we are taking proactive steps to help people be prepared, stay safe, and protect their health.

Extreme heat already impacts millions of urban residents around the world. For the U.S., this summer is proof that we have entered a new era of extreme heat. 

We need to act now, rapidly scaling up the initiatives we are implementing in our cities, and sharing what we’ve learned with other cities around the world through networks such as C40 Cities. When we respond to scientific evidence and work together, there’s nothing our cities cannot achieve to ensure a healthy, safe and secure future for all our residents.