Indiana communities are looking up to trees to reduce the impact felt from climate change
Cityscapes and urban environments are usually dominated by towering concrete, steel and pavement, leaving little room for trees and natural landscapes that can help alleviate the growing impact of climate change.
The rise in extreme weather and climate events has already led to some irreversible effects, according to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As the climate changes, Hoosiers may experience rising precipitation rates, leading to more regular flooding, and an increasing number of high-heat days.
The Environmental Resilience Institute’s Resilience Cohort out of Indiana University is working with governments across the state to lessen those effects, with a focus on helping historically vulnerable communities.
One piece of the solution is more trees.
Since 2019, 30 local governments have partnered with the program to catalog emissions, the first step in developing plans to mitigate carbon dioxide releases into the atmosphere. The gas contributes to the greenhouse effect, trapping heat and warming the planet.
The participating communities have collectively identified “the equivalent of 34 million metric tons of carbon dioxide for elimination," according to ERI's website. That is comparable, the institute reports, to "removing 7.4 million cars from U.S. roadways for one year.”
This year, seven of the participating communities are looking to take the next step: mapping out and expanding tree canopies.
Trees critical to muting effects of climate change
Adequate tree cover provides communities with flood resilience as well as natural shade. The latter can help lower electricity costs when using air conditioning during the warmer months, while reducing energy consumption and emissions.
The cohort’s goal is to use the tree canopy assessment to plan where best to plant trees while keeping an eye toward improving “canopy cover equity,” Managing Director Sarah Mincey said.
“We have systemic inequities in urban forests in the U.S., and those inequities are often associated with lower income communities and often also associated with race,” she said. “One of the reasons that we know this plays out is from systemic racism and the legacies of that on the landscape today.”
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Banks denying mortgage loans because of the racial and economic makeup of neighborhoods — called redlining — in the past led to systemic structural issues that created a lack of funding for green infrastructure.
“If people in these areas are already stretching themselves thin to meet their basic needs, then a tree that is shading homes and decreasing costs is going to be helpful under those circumstances and be relatively more helpful than perhaps in wealthier areas,” Mincey said.
The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says "some development and adaptation efforts have reduced vulnerability." But the report notes "the most vulnerable people and systems are observed to be disproportionately affected."
ERI’s implementation manager Matt Flaherty said equity is important to all of the group’s planning.
“Environmental justice is a central lens for all our work because of the history of environmental racism and injustice with pollution and access to trees,” Flaherty said.
Data in recent years show low income and communities of color lack access to the same level of trees and the benefits they bring. Conservation program American Forests analyzed tree canopies across the U.S. and found “with few exceptions, trees are sparse in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods of color and more prominent in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.”
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The IPCC report says investing in expanded tree canopies in urban environments can have multiple positive effects depending on the local needs.
Drought resistant trees can reduce watering costs. Fruit and nut trees can provide local food production. Native trees and permaculture can increase local biodiversity.
“When you have a history of underinvestment in redlined neighborhoods, they lack these benefits now and we are working to address these historic and systemic inequities through climate work,” Flaherty said.
Projects aimed at environmental resilience
The Resilience Cohort program, run through ERI's McKinney Midwest Climate Project, helps push the goal of creating environmental resilience and climate solutions by integrating research, education and community.
"We know across the state we are going to have hotter and drier summers and warmer and wetter winters," Mincey, the program director, said. "So some climate impacts we expect in cities will be a potential increase in flooding and having more high-heat days in the summer."
The Cohort program works toward ERI's goal mitigating some of those effects by leading communities through a three-stage process: emissions tracking, planning and implementation.
This year 10 cities and agencies have begun the first stage of the program, which involves gathering data on greenhouse gas emissions from man-made sources. That includes examining the breakdown of different energy types within utility systems and cataloging electricity and natural gas to help drive the project's next phase.
The participants in the first phase include La Porte, South Bend, Tippecanoe County, Fishers, Huntington, Lafayette, Merrillville and the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission.
Once data is collected, the partners start a year-long planning phase that guides government staff toward setting a reduction goal.
Finally, during the implementation phase, the government acts on the plan it has established, such as the tree canopy assessment this year.
Seven cities — Fort Wayne, Terre Haute, Zionsville, Fishers, Huntington, Lafayette and Merrillville — have reached that point and are now working to assess canopies and plan more resilient urban forests. That includes mapping out potential planting areas based on an understanding of the needs of each community.
“The focus is to make sure places in these cities that have low canopy cover, and those communities that might have systemically faced challenges, are prioritized and find places to plant if there are viable planting sites there,” Mincey said.
The cohort is looking for more funding opportunities to expand the tree canopy assessments beyond just this year, but Mincey said it’s an initiative cities also can pursue on their own.
Indianapolis kicks off adaptation plan
Leaders in Indianapolis began meeting to discuss their own strategies last week at Martin University as part of the first-ever Climate Adaptation Summit.
The meeting is separate from the ERI program but has a similar goal of addressing inequity and the adverse effects of climate change.
“While the list of challenges related to climate change is long, our list of partners and sustainability efforts is even longer,” Mayor Joe Hogsett said. “The challenges are considerable, but through collaboration, cooperation and partnership we can overcome, and we will overcome.”
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Hogsett outlined a series of initiatives the city is taking to address the effects of climate change, which include THRIVE Indianapolis, Knozone and the Indianapolis Cultural Trail.
Indianapolis may be landlocked and in the temperate zone, he said, but the area is not immune from the symptoms of a changing climate.
“Our region and our state are getting hotter, and they are getting wetter with each passing year,” Hogsett said. “The impacts, both direct and indirect, are and will continue to be significant.”
Chad Priest, CEO of the American Red Cross’s Indiana Region, joined Hogsett at the university and said the organization wants to co-learn with the community and engage in open dialogue.
The Red Cross has a unique interest when it comes to climate change and its contribution to weather disasters that require humanitarian response, which is how the organization is adapting to the change, he said.
Priest said the best way forward is through collaboration between non-governmental organizations, governments and trusted community stakeholders.
“Unfortunately, climate as an issue is highly politicized and our neutrality puts us in a tight lane,” he said. “But last year, there were 20 $1-billion-dollar disasters. Twenty is an extraordinary number and you can see this in your own community.”
Karl Schneider is an IndyStar environment reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @karlstartswithk
IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Indiana University is partnering with cities to combat climate change