Saturday, April 30, 2016

A new climate reality threatens the Atlanta area and its most vulnerable populations

By Paul DeMerritt
April 21, 2016

On Sept. 21, 2002, an unprecedented level of rain surged through Vine City. The gush of water overwhelmed Atlanta's dated sewer systems and caused severe flooding, with the water reaching 6 feet deep in areas. Some residents swam through sewage to reach safety. Then-Mayor Shirley Franklin declared a state of emergency after the flooding destroyed nearly 70 homes.

Families were displaced. Bulldozers demolished many of the affected properties. A 16-acre patch of overgrown grass remains where the houses once stood. The emptiness serves as a reminder of the devastation extreme weather can inflict on a city unprepared for its consequences.

Local environmental activist and English Avenue resident Tony Torrence sees a pattern in the heavy rains that continue to overwhelm the neighborhoods in his community.


Torrence recognizes the way climate change plays out in people's daily lives, particularly in metro Atlanta where increased precipitation, severe heat waves, and droughts are becoming the norm.


"Climate vulnerability is not just driven by the weather event itself, it's driven by a combination of that plus the socioeconomic status, plus whether communities live in an urban environment that is likely to flood, so it's a multi-pronged look at vulnerability," Shepherd says.


Coastal towns, communities reliant on agriculture, and metro Atlanta were found to be particularly vulnerable, but often for different reasons. While Savannah faces the threat of rising sea levels, Atlanta must adapt to an array of impacts threatening major urban areas across the globe, including heavy rains and high temperatures.

In metro Atlanta, as in many cities, climate change aggravates longtime racial and class inequalities. Lack of greenspace, increased incidences of asthma, unequal access to resources, and lower incomes disproportionately impact African-American, Latino, and elderly populations.


"[Vulnerability] really comes down to income gap," Shepherd says. "With some of these populations, it's not just race, it's that people are disadvantaged in many ways, such as those who need air conditioning, or those who are more likely not to have health insurance. It continues to amplify this notion that the most disadvantaged are the most likely to bear the brunt of climate change."


WARMER TEMPERATURES also present a significant danger. Georgia follows a trend consistent with the rest of the world as annual global temperatures continue to shatter previous records. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 15 hottest years worldwide since recording started in 1880 have occurred in the 21st century. Average annual temperatures in the Southeast have increased by roughly two degrees Fahrenheit since 1970 with an expected increase of four to eight degrees by the end of the century.

Metro Atlanta, with its many parking lots, roadways, and sprawling blacktops, is especially susceptible to the urban heat island effect in which buildings and asphalt capture heat and drive up temperatures.

Isolated centers of severe heat pop up throughout metro Atlanta, especially around areas deprived of greenspace. Low-income populations face increased risk because these communities tend to have fewer trees, which provide protection from the sun, help filter out air pollutants, and cool the air by releasing moisture. A more upscale area like Midtown benefits from the cool shade of Piedmont Park, while greenery is scarce and empty parking lots soak up heat in lower-income areas such as Lakewood Heights.

Heat waves — abnormally hot weather lasting at least two days — have proliferated throughout metro Atlanta. According to the UGA study, these heat events occurred roughly every other year from 1984 through 2007 with an average length of two weeks.

"The heat impacts put people without air conditioning at risk, and elderly citizens in the urban centers in Atlanta are particularly vulnerable to increases in heat due to climate change," says state Sen. Vincent Fort, whose district includes parts of Atlanta, East Point, College Park, and Union City.


"Increased asthma from heat and pollution is one of the most obvious impacts in places like Atlanta," Fort says. "Climate change increases asthma especially in African-American children, which is one of the greatest reasons for children missing school in Atlanta."

Shepherd stresses that while everyone is equally exposed to the dangers of heat waves and flooding, vulnerability hinges on whether people can access the economic necessities required to withstand the health and financial consequences.


GEORGIA'S ATTITUDE TOWARD climate change is dangerously outdated. Gov. Nathan Deal, during his re-election run against Democratic challenger Jason Carter, said, "[Global warming] is an argument and a debate that will continue in this country and I have no reason to become engaged in it other than to say I'm the governor of this state."

This attitude of casual deniability stalls the potential of fragile communities from rural South Georgia to St. Simons Island to adapt to severe weather. In contrast, the city of Atlanta is being proactive in its attempts to improve climate resiliency. Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta's Director of Sustainability Stephanie Benfield attended December's UN COP 21 talks in Paris, where leaders from around the world agreed on the most comprehensive climate change plan in history.


Last year, the city of Atlanta released a climate action plan designed to slash greenhouse gas emissions, spur job growth, and improve air quality. The plan zeroed in on a number of focus areas from increased greenspace to adding a fleet of electric city vehicles to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions produced by transportation 20 percent by 2020 and 40 percent by 2030. The city also plans to cut consumption in commercial and residential buildings 20 percent by 2020 and 40 percent by 2030.


No comments:

Post a Comment