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St. Louis region doing little to prepare for climate change

St. Louis region doing little to prepare for climate change

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LIVING WITH CLIMATE CHANGE

Part 3 of 3

ST. LOUIS • In the Miami metro area, where Broward County is trying to keep the Atlantic Ocean out of its freshwater aquifer, preparing for climate change has been part of its planning process for years.

Chicago has developed a climate adaptation guidebook for the region’s municipalities, and the Illinois Department of Transportation is beginning to map the roads, bridges and other infrastructure that could be vulnerable to new weather patterns.

In Cleveland, the city’s climate action plan calls for weatherizing low-income residents’ homes and planting more trees to prepare for heat waves and cut the urban heat island effect.

“These are good things to do anyway,” Jenita McGowan, Cleveland’s sustainability chief, told the Post-Dispatch during a May conference on climate change adaptation in St. Louis. “But I think we feel there’s more urgency to it than ever.”

Across the country, planners are looking beyond trying to control climate change. No longer are they solely focused on cutting local energy use or building bike trails. Cities, states and the federal government are starting to get ready for the increasingly intense impact that a warming planet could generate, from heat waves to floods to stronger storms.

It’s a shift in thinking born out of a growing realization that nature is already throwing a lot of curveballs, and international efforts to combat it may fall short.

Originally, there was resistance to the idea of adaptation, or resiliency as it’s sometimes called.

“The belief was if you started to talk about adaptation, you wouldn’t do anything to slow the effects,” said Lara Hansen, the director of EcoAdapt, a Seattle-based group that helps governments and organizations plan for climate change. “There was a hesitance to do it because there were so few people concerned on this issue that having anyone not focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it was a loss of resources.”

Now, more and more governments are incorporating climate predictions into their long-term plans and policies, just as they would population and demographic projections.

More than 20 states have climate adaptation planning underway, according to the Georgetown Climate Center in Washington. Except for Colorado and the Great Lakes states, they’re all on a coast.

“In a way, it might be easier to say it’s partisan or maybe they’re liberal states, but I think the coastal connection is really part of it,” said Vicki Arroyo, director of the Georgetown Climate Center.

Missouri has no plan on Georgetown’s database. Nor do any of its cities.

St. Louis is still looking for money to fund a climate action plan. In St. Louis County, planners are just beginning to think about it.

John Hoal, who worked as director of urban design in the St. Louis Development Corporation, worries there’s not much thought being put into adaptation planning in the region. Now a Washington University professor who is looking at climate adaptation and the region’s rivers, he said city planners need to take it into account.

“To the best of my knowledge, we’re not — and I’m hoping I’m incorrect on that,” Hoal said. “There’s a lot of discussion on the topic, broadly in the community, but there’s no authorized planning agency that’s really taking the time to plan this out in detail.”

BABY STEPS

The region’s planning body, the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, isn’t doing any concerted work around climate change yet. But the subject is definitely on the radar of its research director, John Posey, who has published papers both on climate impacts to St. Louis and infrastructure around the Midwest.

“A lot of people, when they hear climate change, the first thing they think is sea-level rise,” Posey said. “But I think in recent years people have come to realize that all regions are affected and not just coastal areas.”

In St. Louis, Sustainability Director Catherine Werner is looking for funds to develop a plan that would guide both the city’s preventive goals, such as reducing carbon emissions, and resiliency efforts.

“We are this close to a climate action plan, which runs the whole gamut,” Werner said.

Suburban poverty and similar issues have taken up more of St. Louis County’s planning efforts in recent years, said Lori Fiegel, the county’s comprehensive planning manager. But she noted the county has a new administration and is reevaluating many of its initiatives. The health department, for instance, is taking a new look at environmental issues, she said.

“It just hasn’t been way at the top of the radar because of so many other things,” Fiegel said. “But I think it is something we will be interested in looking at.”

Experts point out that the poor will be the least able to deal with climate extremes like heat waves and flooding. Romona Taylor Williams, president of North St. Louis-focused community group Metro St. Louis Coalition for Inclusion and Equality, or M-Slice, wants the city to take a more active role in helping vulnerable neighborhoods prepare.

In May, M-Slice drew environmentalists and inner-city leaders for a forum in St. Louis’ North Pointe area to try and gauge community interest in developing neighborhood climate adaptation plans. Williams said she hopes to continue those discussions.

“The people who are most vulnerable are the poor,” she said. “Income inequality is directly linked to climate resiliency.”

OUTSIDE HELP

St. Louis was one of a few dozen cities last year to win a Rockefeller Foundation grant as part of the “100 Resilient Cities” program. The money will fund a chief resiliency officer in City Hall.

Although the biggest challenge St. Louis identified in its application was civil unrest and high crime, the Rockefeller program works with many cities planning for climate change resiliency.

State government, too, is looking to help poorer areas in St. Louis County prepare. The Missouri Department of Economic Development, or DED, hopes to win a piece of $1 billion in federal funds for resiliency programs. Last month, its application for an area in north St. Louis County made the final round for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s National Disaster Resilience Competition.

Citing the National Climate Assessment, Missouri’s application warns that by mid-century, annual rainfall could increase 2.4 to 4 inches and temperatures could rise by an annual average of about 4 degrees in St. Louis County.

The DED would use the money to upgrade housing and push the area’s dozens of governments to work more closely together on emergency response. HUD, which is working closely with the Rockefeller Foundation on the project, will announce winners in 2016.

In the portion of St. Louis County DED is targeting, roughly bounded by Interstate 270, St. Charles Rock Road, Jennings Station Road and Riverview Boulevard, the state painted an ominous picture of dangers the lower-income area faces in a hotter, wetter future.

“Residents face three key threats — river flooding, heat waves and severe storms that include high winds, hail, flash flooding, and tornadoes,” DED wrote in its application. “The potential for significant damage could be characterized as a perfect storm due to the following: a dense urbanized area with little permeable surface; an aging and largely low-quality housing stock primarily located in or near a floodplain; and, over 100,000 residents living below the federal poverty level in a concentration of economically-distressed neighborhoods.”

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