As climate change makes Indianapolis hotter, some communities will suffer more than others
The record-breaking heat this summer has produced higher air conditioning bills, greater energy usage, increased air pollution and more greenhouse gas emissions here in Indiana and across the country.
The rising heat, brought on by climate change, is also putting Hoosiers at greater risk of heat-related health complications. But not everyone has the same risk.
Not surprisingly, the very young and elderly are among the groups most vulnerable to extreme heat. However, income and race are also major contributors of one’s vulnerability to extreme heat. And people living in cities are also more vulnerable.
The New York Times reported that historically redlined communities — where non-white and poor people were often relegated to live — experience much hotter temperatures compared to non-redlined communities, in part due to years of being overlooked and a lack of investments.
“Indianapolis was redlined to the extreme,” said Gabriel Filippelli, the executive director of Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute. “And I think that’s because a lot of the build-out of Indianapolis happened around the time when redlining was a popular form of legal racism.”
Much of the difference comes down to heat-hording concrete and shade-sharing trees.
Communities of color or lower income are often located in concrete-dominated, tree-sparse neighborhoods, as a result of decades of discriminatory policies. These neighborhoods tend to be about 5 degrees hotter than surrounding rural areas during the day, with evenings that are roughly 22 degrees warmer, according to the Smithsonian Magazine.
So, not only are the neighborhoods hotter, they also don't cool off.
Climate change is already exacerbating issues of equity and environmental justice. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, July set the record for being the hottest month ever recorded in history. And a report issued this month from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued dire warnings and a “code red for humanity.” As the planet continues to warm, these disparities will only get worse.
Environmental justice can be defined as fair treatment and inclusion of all people — regardless of race, color, physical ability or income — as it pertains to developing, implementing and enforcing environmental regulations and policies.
It is important to consider how certain communities in Indianapolis are disproportionately affected by climate change, but even more important is helping these communities cope with those impacts.
The city of Indianapolis recognizes climate change, and acknowledges that the extreme heat it brings presents a major threat to its residents.
“We're putting our energy and resources into preparing for a change in climate by becoming more sustainable and empowering neighborhoods to be as resilient as possible,” said Lindsay Trameri, spokeswoman for the city’s Sustainability Office.
Extreme heat presents a dangerous equity issue
Cities tend to be warmer than the surrounding countryside, a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect. This happens because concrete, asphalt and shingled roofs absorb heat more than fields and forests, which better reflect heat back into space. The vegetation of rural areas also helps cool them down at night, while the concrete and hard spaces of cities hold on to this heat, making for warmer nighttime temperatures.
“The urban heat island effect will make cities more vulnerable to heat stress of any kind,” said Matthew Huber, professor of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University.
Historically redlined communities have fewer trees, and are also the frequent locations for interstate exchanges. All those roadways mean “hard infrastructure or gray infrastructure” is prevalent and little greenery can be found, Filippelli explained.
The grayer the infrastructure, the hotter the temperatures.
“The local environment strongly influences the local temperature,” Filippelli said .
And local temperatures strongly impact health.
Unfortunately, lower income and minority communities are already less likely to have access to fresh foods and adequate healthcare, which are among factors that have been reported to contribute to disease susceptibility. Heat stress then only further endangers the health of these populations who are already facing health threats.
Experts agree that access to affordable air conditioning can be an essential tool in helping vulnerable communities during extremely hot temperatures. However, the most vulnerable communities are also those more likely to struggle with malfunctioning air conditioning, unaffordable air conditioning bills, or no air conditioning at all.
It is also important to note that low-income communities’ and communities of color’s proximity to highways and high-traffic areas mean they are disproportionately exposed to pollutants from cars, buses and other vehicles. Emissions from these vehicles are the primary source of ozone, a dangerous pollutant that worsens on hot days.
The poor air quality cased by ozone can lead to significant breathing or pulmonary issues, increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke, among other threatening health concerns.
Occupational hazards are another factor contributing to the disproportionate impact of heat on the health of these communities. Huber stressed that members of low income and minority communities are more likely to labor outdoors, thus exposing them to heat more often and for longer periods of time, which could result in long-term health impacts.
Addressing the built infrastructure
As the climate continues to change more rapidly, many experts believe Indianapolis’ infrastructure is not equipped to face the upcoming extreme weather situations; it will continue to make things hotter, likely flood more and could experience more power outages. As a result, Indianapolis’s infrastructure is becoming prioritized in many initiatives to address climate change.
Increasing tree cover and planting more vegetation could be an easy and quick solution for lowering surface temperatures in urban heat islands. In Indianapolis, that’s where Keep Indianapolis Beautiful steps in.
Keep Indianapolis Beautiful is an environmental nonprofit organization that works to pick up litter, educate communities and create more green space throughout the city.
KIB buys and plants between 3,000 to 4,000 trees per year. In partnership with the city and other organizations, the group is working to plant 50,000 trees around Indianapolis. So far KIB has planted about 45,000 since 2006.
Trees not only provide shade that cools neighborhoods, they also help reduce air pollution.
However, trees aren’t distributed equitably throughout Indianapolis.
“There are parts of the city where two-thirds of the area within a neighborhood have tree canopy, but there are parts where there is 10% or less tree canopy,” explained KIB CEO Jeremy Kranowitz. “Not surprisingly, neighborhoods with 10% or less canopy overlap with historically redlined areas.”
Kranowitz explains that KIB, along with partner organizations such as the city’s Department of Public Works and the Office of Sustainability, is focusing on tree plantings in these vulnerable areas.
Indianapolis’s sustainability roadmap Thrive Indianapolis was developed by the Office of Sustainability and outlines 59 action items to prepare the city for climate change. It recognizes heat as one of the more pressing threats for city residents.
The plan maps the hottest neighborhoods and establishes a social vulnerability index, which evaluates how different neighborhoods will be affected by climate change based on 12 different factors, including socioeconomic status. KIB uses this index to determine which neighborhoods need trees the most.
While tree planting is relatively simple, other solutions may require a bigger lift. Replacing heat-trapping black asphalt with lighter-colored materials, for example, would be expensive and take more time.
Such long-term solutions may be far off, but there are other efforts underway to help deal with present-day heat stress.
Protecting vulnerable Hoosiers from heat stress
The Office of Sustainability prides itself on being a “tentpole” for other agencies and organizations, acting as a “convener” for partners such as the Marion County Public Health Department, KIB, the Office of Public Health and Safety, the Department of Public Works and the Emergency Management Association.
Supporting Hoosiers during extreme heat requires a variety of resources, Trameri said: “It's such a complex issue that needs a multi-faceted approach.”
The Office of Public Health and Safety is responsible for informing residents, especially the homeless or those facing housing insecurities, about safe places to stay during extreme temperatures, said Caroline Ellert, the office’s spokeswoman.
During an extreme heat event, the Indianapolis Marion County Emergency Management Department Association works with its partners to carry out the city’s emergency plans and prepare residents on how to respond.
Emergency Management takes its cues from the National Weather Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which will issue a National Weather advisory notice, to determine an extreme heat event.
“Everybody's a big team,” said Tom Sellas, the commander of the emergency management association. “Together we're able to use all of our resources a lot more efficiently and better to help everybody out.”
Cities around the country — including Indianapolis — have developed cooling centers or “resilience hubs” to help their residents find shelter from extreme heat conditions. These centers are often in existing structures, such as a library or community center, and are opened as the immediate first step to provide short-term support.
If a heat event continues, longer-term resources are often needed. That’s when organizations such as neighborhood churches, the Salvation Army, and the Red Cross will provide housing for as long as some may need it, in partnership with the emergency management association.
Experts have noted that although cooling centers across Indianapolis can help provide shelter for vulnerable communities, they are not frequented often. Dana Habeeb, an assistant professor in the department of Bioinformatics at Indiana University, noted this is also the case in other cities around the country. She said the city should assess the reasons behind the low usage of cooling centers to determine whether it is an issue of limited transportation, not trusting an unfamiliar space or people, or simply not being aware of the cooling centers. However, the city did not indicate whether it plans to do this assessment.
Mobile cooling centers that travel around vulnerable neighborhoods, such as those being evaluated by the city of Philadelphia, could be more convenient for people trying to escape extreme heat conditions. However, these centers should be energy efficient and not contribute to an often already air polluted neighborhood, Habeeb recommended.
A Call to Action
Habeeb suggested that solely identifying communities that have the highest heat exposures or who are most vulnerable to heat is not enough to address the equity issues brought on by climate change.
Some programs are already underway in Indiana to test solutions for extreme heat. Beyond that, these programs should also work to make a community aware of their vulnerability and risks, then work to help them develop plans, said Habeeb, who works with Indiana cities to test heat mitigation strategies.
An immediate response during extreme heat is crucial. Habeeb stressed the importance of including actual community members when designing what that response or other heat-related policies should look like. Each community is different, and understanding its strengths and weaknesses will result in a dynamic and resilient heat response system tailor-made to each community.
Indianapolis is undoubtedly experiencing climate change, and Filippelli said it is vital to consider which Hoosiers are most affected.
“A city is only as resilient to climate change as its most vulnerable community,” he said. “The term vulnerable actually makes it sound like they're playing a role in their vulnerability, but in fact they're victims of the system.”
Resources for vulnerable communities
If you or someone you know identify as vulnerable, there are quick tips, takeaways, and resources to keep in mind.
- The Office of Sustainability has an initiative called Knozone Action Days to notify residents of days with dangerous air quality levels. The city encourages the most vulnerable — the young, old, and those with respiratory and pulmonary diseases -- to avoid being outdoors on these days.
- The Green City mapper uses local data taken from satellites to show the differences in heat across different areas in Indianapolis and Bloomington.
- Residents and organizations interested in planting trees can call 8-1-1 for guidance of optimal tree planting locations in their areas.
- Communities can contact KIB to request trees in their neighborhood.
- The Indianapolis Public Park Centers have several facilities open throughout the summer where Hoosiers can escape the heat during normal hours. If relief is needed beyond the normal access hours, 211 has a list of centers offering extended hours.
- You can also find out more about the public park facilities, and pools online.
- To keep bills and temperatures in your home lower, AES recommends keeping curtains closed during the warmest parts of the day, setting air conditioning systems to “auto” and not running other large appliances while running air conditioners.
- Several assistance programs can help customers with utility bills. AES offers two types of payment extensions and Indiana’s Housing and Community Development Authority has a Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which provides assistance for heat and electric bills. Residents can look for support from the Indiana 211 Partnership, the Salvation Army, and Catholic Charities.
- The IHCDA also offers a Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) to help make homes clients to help make homes more energy efficient.
- Social media can be helpful to learn about resources and tips. Check out organizations such as AES Indiana on Twitter or search the Office of Sustainability’s hashtag #CoolForTheSummerIndy.
Chrystelle Vilfranc is the 2021 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at the Indianapolis Star. She earned her PhD in Cancer and Cell Biology from the University of Cincinnati earlier this year. She studied drug-induced liver disease progression. She's on Twitter as @drchrysvilfranc.
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View the original Indy Star article online at https://www.indystar.com/story/news/environment/2021/08/27/indianapolis-weather-extreme-heat-caused-climate-change-hits-hard/8208625002/