Photo by Felton Davis, Flickr Creative Commons

As we marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the civil rights leader’s eloquent and powerful words were on my mind as I wrote this column. Nearly sixty years ago, he talked about “the fierce urgency of now” in his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. As he called for equality and racial justice, he warned against “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” 

King could just as easily have been talking about global climate change. In fact, the two crises – racial injustice and global heating – are intimately connected. As Hop Hopkins with the national Sierra Club has written: “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism… if we valued everyone’s lives equally, if we placed the public health and well-being of the many above the profits of a few, there wouldn’t be a climate crisis.”

Socially and economically disadvantaged people face the greatest risks from climate change, which threatens their physical and mental health, air, water, food, and shelter. In the United States, these vulnerable groups are largely communities of color, immigrants, low-income communities, and people for whom English is not their native language. 

The fate of the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better Act – and its transformational investments in climate action to reduce carbon emissions and meet targets in the Paris Climate Agreement – is uncertain. It appears that passage of the bill, in its current form, will not occur, missing what could be our last chance to mitigate future catastrophic impacts of global heating with significant federal initiatives and funds. Observers have noted that Congress “disproportionately represents” climate skeptics and fossil fuel interests – even though two-thirds of average Americans think that government should do more on climate, including 77% of registered voters in Georgia.

Atlanta’s New Mayor

While progress with some climate initiatives at the federal level has been frustratingly slow, there is hope that Atlanta’s new mayor, Andre Dickens, will quickly and fully embrace climate and equity programs; his strong statements on this subject as a candidate and his years on city council are encouraging. Because cities consume 78% of the world’s energy and produce 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions, they must transition swiftly to renewable sources. 

A decade ago, Atlanta took advantage of the federal Better Buildings Challenge and developed one of the strongest resilience offices in the country. In 2017, the city council voted unanimously to transition to 100% clean energy by 2035 – prioritizing energy efficiency, renewable energy, and eliminating reliance on burning fossil fuels to meet all energy needs in the city. (Clean energy comes from efficiency, wind, solar, existing and low-impact hydroelectric, and geothermal sources.) An impressive Clean Energy Atlanta plan was adopted by the council in early 2019.  

Today, Atlanta’s Office of Resilience is a shadow of its former self with a smaller budget and a staff one-third its previous size; the office is no longer a member of the mayor’s cabinet. While some good progress has been made in recent years – solar panel installations on city buildings, heat-mapping surveys, and more equitable access to clean energy – the overall slowdown in momentum (read: gradualism) is troubling. Ranked by Bloomberg in 2017 as the “most [economically] unequal large city in the United States,” Atlanta must make a serious commitment now to invest in climate action – and help reduce the high energy burden on disadvantaged communities in the city, meaning the percentage of income spent on home energy bills.

Achieving Resilience

Climate resilient cities are those that develop the capacity to absorb future shocks and stresses, while maintaining their functions and systems. In Atlanta, we may not have to worry about sea level rise – as millions do around the world – but we must address the adverse impacts of more intense storms, flooding, extreme droughts, and worsening heat waves. These scenarios present very real threats to public health, property, and municipal budgets.

Extreme heat kills and sickens more people in the U.S. than hurricanes, tornadoes, and other weather-related events, but these risks are not distributed evenly in cities; poorer neighborhoods have more unshaded asphalt, less tree canopy, and fewer parks – in addition to less access to air-conditioning. According to Georgia Tech’s Dr. Brian Stone, trees are the most effective strategy that we must guard against heat in cities.

Mayor Dickens and the city council can set Atlanta back on the road to becoming one of the most sustainable and climate resilient cities in the country by prioritizing these actions:  

  • Build back the Office of Resilience: Restore the office to cabinet-level; hire a strong, experienced leader for the open chief sustainability officer position; fund re-staffing. 
  • Update Atlanta’s 2015 Climate Action Plan and 2019 Clean Energy Plan: Update these plans this year; fully fund and move more aggressively on their specific actions.
  • Engage with the Georgia Public Service Commission: Intervene in this year’s required planning process to negotiate more renewable energy options from Georgia Power, especially for low-income communities, to reach the city’s 2035 goal; today, Atlanta customers are offered few renewable options, such as affordable retrofits and additional roof-top solar.  
  • Protect Atlanta’s Tree Canopy: Stop the years of developer delay and arguing by convening stakeholders and securing an agreement on the much-needed overhaul of the city’s tree protection ordinance, prioritizing vulnerable neighborhoods.

We can do these things and more if we embrace the fierce urgency of global heating and racial injustice now. 

Sally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and an environmental and sustainability advocate. Her award-winning Above the Waterline column appears monthly in Atlanta Intown.