A heatwave unlike any other has begun here on the Palouse. This is the long-term heatwave accompanying the accelerating climate crisis, which is caused primarily by burning fossil fuels. Global heating is happening, despite presidential claims of a Chinese hoax, despite some who deny its existence as incompatible with a “freedom agenda” and despite many people’s disinterest. Regardless and urgently, in the face of reality, we need to create “Shade Cities” to ensure the region’s livability over the coming decades.
It is getting hotter, faster. Globally, NASA reports that 18 of the last 19 years have been the hottest on record, and the heating over the past four years has been “exceptional.” July was the hottest month ever recorded by humans. Here on eastern Washington, the average annual temperature has already increased by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit above 20th century averages.
This is right now. Unless we stop burning fossil fuels very soon, the future will be even hotter.
If we don’t, reasonable estimates suggest eastern Washington’s average daytime summer temperature could increase from 83 to potentially 90 degrees over the next 60 years, well within the lifetimes of people alive today. More alarmingly, models created by the Climate Impact Lab and shared with the Seattle Times, suggest that extremely hot days — 95 degrees and above — will increase dramatically. Currently, the Palouse averages about seven extremely hot days per year. If trends continue, there could be as many as 50 every summer by 2080, a 566-percent increase.
Exacerbating this, the urban heat island effect in Pullman and Moscow could increase temperatures as much as 20 degrees above surrounding rural lands, especially after sunset. This means that many buildings and neighborhoods might never really cool off. The bottom line is that even “normal” summers will become incredibly hot.
Unfortunately, the communities in the region do not appear to be anticipating either ending the use of fossil fuels or the emerging heatwave. At the least, our communities should begin creating plans to deal with the heat with new building codes, land-use regulations and tree-planting requirements. It will also be vital to connect vulnerable populations with improved social and health services and ensure the electric grid’s reliability to meet great increases in demand.
Fortunately, there is one immediate action that can help us adapt to the hotter reality: planting trees. Palouse communities should begin developing “shade city” plans to plant hundred of thousands of appropriate trees in diverse urban forests. Planting trees today means they will be mature when the heat wave reaches new extremes. Trees should be planted not only in existing urban forests, but also absolutely everywhere else possible: parks, trails, downtowns, commercial and industrial areas, along streets and near schools, churches and on campuses. We should even (gasp!) rip up vast acreages of unnecessary pavement to make way for trees and reduce heat.
Planting trees creates multiple victories. Trees improve air quality, filter stormwater, add beauty, sequester carbon and provide shade. Vitally, access to shade in this increasingly hot time is a social justice issue. Lack of shade must not become another indicator of inequality in our communities: access to it will be as important as access to water and health care.
To accomplish this shade city vision, funding for planting and maintenance as well as a sense of institutional and personal stewardship must become part of our way of life. Positively, this is economic development — think tree nurseries — and a job creation opportunity for youth: imagine a Shade City Corps, modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps, to plant and maintain trees. The brain and human power to accomplish this is available here in measures like perhaps no other place.
Shade cities can be our gift to the future. And even if denial of the climate crisis is central to your worldview, please help us plant trees, just in case. The crisis isn’t stopping simply because you don’t accept it. That’s not throwing shade, that’s pleading for some.
Steve Austin teaches landscape architecture, urban planning, and construction law at Washington State University.