Every day I hear about climate change. It scares me, particularly when I think about what it means for the lives of my children and their generation.

And that’s a problem if we as a society want to fully embrace climate change mitigation and adaptation now. We should be thinking about what it means now for individuals most vulnerable to extreme heat and flooding events that are already beginning to occur and will only increase with a warming planet. What it means for neighbors who are at the highest risk because they already face health challenges or lack financial resources to use air conditioning more, conduct repairs, or otherwise adapt when disaster strikes.

I participated in two events within the last few weeks drove these messages home. First, on February 3, the Anacostia Park and Community Collaborative (APACC) held a meeting for nonprofits based in Wards 7 and 8 to talk with Washington, DC’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and other DC government agencies about what climate change means for people. The meeting was supported by the Anacostia Waterfront Trust and Urban Waters Federal Partnership. Approximately 40 people representing about 25 organizations attended, and many were not typically involved in environmental issues.

At the meeting, Kate Johnson of DOEE gave an overview of Climate Ready DC, the District’s climate adaptation plan. She explained the rigorous scientific and risk analysis conducted as part of the plan identified residents in Ward 7 and 8 as most vulnerable to the risks associated with climate change, in particular extreme heat events and flooding. She noted one of the sections of DC facing the greatest flood risks are the over 500 structures including many important community resources such as schools, child care centers, emergency and medical services, nursing homes, houses of worship and affordable housing that are located along the Watts Branch tributary to the Anacostia River in the heart of Ward 7. DOEE's approach to adaptation planning is to direct resources to residents in the greatest need. DOEE wants to engage communities in developing and implementing solutions.

The most important lesson from the February 3 event was participants’ response. Representatives from congregations and community organizations serving clients in Wards 7 and 8 explained many residents do not have the luxury of thinking about what is going to happen in 2080 or 2050 or 2025. They are thinking about how they are going to meet their basic needs now. Yet everyone agreed these same organizations and residents need to be involved, particularly when several participants recalled what it was like after the 2012 derecho that left areas without power during a heat wave. There needs to be better preparation for similar events as they become more frequent.

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  Participants in Washington DC’s 100 Resilient Cities Agenda-Setting Workshop identify inequality, climate and housing as top shocks and stresses that the District should address in its resilience strategy.

Participants in Washington DC’s 100 Resilient Cities Agenda-Setting Workshop identify inequality, climate and housing as top shocks and stresses that the District should address in its resilience strategy.

Participants explained the key to meeting the needs of vulnerable residents is to transform how we talk about climate change and enlist the support of trusted service providers and local leaders. We need to talk about impacts in terms of what it means today, not decades from now. We need to provide simple, actionable steps citizens can take to become more resilient. We need to think about the emotional burden associated with the news that heat waves and storms will become more dangerous.

Participants encouraged the District to work with social workers, health care providers, pastors, schools, and neighborhood leaders. They offered to facilitate these connections and serve on focus groups to get create messages that resonate. DOEE has already reached out to move forward with participants on these next steps, and APACC will provide updates to help organizations become involved and stay up to date.

The second event that drove this home was the February 9 Agenda-Setting Workshop for Washington, DC’s 100 Resilient Cities effort. Convened by City Administrator Rashad Young and organized by 100 Resilient Cities, an effort pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation, the workshop brought together many of the government, private, academic and community leaders in the District to discuss the key stresses and shocks that threaten the region. Mayor Bowser and members of her newly formed Resilience Cabinet voiced their commitment for making DC the most resilient city in the world. But again, the key takeaway came from the audience: a city cannot be resilient until it confronts economic and racial inequality head on. The District has the capacity to develop comprehensive, technical plans and analyses to inform programs, but these efforts must be inclusive. They must target residents in greatest need and engage them in the development of solutions.

Climate change impacts are real, and they will turn infrequent flooding and heat emergencies into more regular, chronic stresses. If we as a city want to be more climate ready, we must figure out how to better tap into the expertise and resourcefulness of community organizations, service providers and local leaders. We must work together to get messages out and take information in. Because together, we are more resilient.


Photos courtesy of Katherine Antos