Industry on Harbor Island, Seattle, alongside the Duwamish River. Photo by Hannah Letinich/LightHawk.
A young family laughs on the dock at Alki Beach in West Seattle. Photo by Jeff Marsh.

Climate equity in our cities

Urban communities are on the front lines of climate change impacts

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.

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.

The National Climate Assessment estimates temperatures in the Pacific Northwest will increase by 3.3-9° F  by 2070–that’s just over 50 years away. Temperature rise in our cities will create dangerous “heat islands:” Tall buildings and pavements trap heat at a pedestrian level, increasing health vulnerabilities. Pavement temperatures, in fact, can be 50 to 90° F hotter than air. Shade from trees can reduce pavement temperatures and cool the air. But they’re often scarce in urban centers.

More heat means we’ll expend more energy to cool ourselves. And this means more greenhouse gas emissions. Western Washington is known for having very few houses with air conditioning units, but new construction in Seattle has seen a four-fold increase in central A/C.

Within cities, the burden of climate change will be felt hardest in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Climate change does not discriminate its effects but societies have segregated our residents. These communities have fewer resources for resiliency to climate volatility. Like other major metropolises, Seattle has historically marginalized communities of color in areas that are considered undesirable, near industry and have greater susceptibility to flooding and pollution.

Local equity leaders Puget Sound Sage and Got Green note that low incomes, lack of affordable housing, displacement, food access and other factors will compound climate change impacts. As major cities become desirable for wealthy professionals, people who work in lower-paying industries are priced out. This results in longer commutes, meaning more vehicle emissions. In fact, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse-gas emissions in Seattle.

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  equitable, resilient to both climate change and climate injustice.