A faster road to a healthy, climate-safe future

Two weekends ago thousands of people in 181 countries called for action to reduce the risks of climate change. The International Day of Climate Action was organized by the 350.org group, which calls for a dramatic rollback of greenhouse gas emissions. (The picture was taken at one of the 5200 demonstrations around the world, this one in Istanbul.)

Rather seeing this as an impossibly expensive task, I believe there are abundant cost-effective opportunities to fix the causes of climate change while adapting to protect people from the threats and deadly impacts that are already occurring. The focus needs to be on re-engineering our nation's outmoded infrastructure so it protects human health, the economy and the ecosystem.

To accelerate solutions, this summer we hosted a workshop at TreePeople Center for Community Forestry with a diverse group of infrastructure and public health leaders - including Dr. Richard Jackson, a public health expert from UCLA - so they could see the whole picture and think outside the silos of their individual disciplines. Despite their differences, they agreed that single-purpose infrastructure (such as freeways and dams) often create more problems than they solve, while blocking integrated solutions that can solve many problems at once. 

Multi-purpose solutions might include green streets that direct rainwater to flow into re-engineered parkways. The parkways are beautiful and functional, with mulch-lined swales that capture and clean stormwater. This water irrigates adjacent shade trees that cool urban temperatures while filtering air and additional water pollutants. This is the kind of street that encourages mass transit and attracts bicyclists and pedestrians, further reducing pollution and improving health.

In his call for urgent action, Jackson underscored the health consequences of infrastructure decisions we made decades ago:

“These health challenges are tied to our environmental and infrastructure challenges. If you walk into the National Academy of Sciences, you will see on a wall the Keeling Curve, showing the increased concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. What’s alarming about the Keeling Curve is the trajectory. Given the temperature increases in the last 100 years, any doctor ignoring a patient running a temperature like this one would be guilty of malpractice."

The need is growing quickly. As early onset climate change takes its toll with severe weather -- droughts, fires, hotter hots, drier drys, and wetter wets -- our cities become more vulnerable. As traditional engineered solutions  become less viable, those that engage nature and community become more so, because they can be implemented more quickly, make our cities more resilient, and because ultimately they are more cost effective and sustainable.

For years TreePeople has successfully demonstrated that green infrastructure ideas make a difference. Now we must find ways to bring on-line the new ideas we have demonstrated can make a difference.  

Our nation already spends hundreds of billions of dollars every year fixing and expanding outmoded infrastructure while exacerbating known problems.  The question is, are we going to act now to use those funds to adapt to a changing climate and economy, or are we going to wait until its too late?