This article is one in a series being published by the Roundtable during Climate Week (Sept. 21 – 28) to bring a spotlight to the climate crisis and its solutions.  

The climate crisis is here: historically high lake levels, the derecho (intense wind event), the hottest summer ever recorded in the region, and of course, the plumes of ash and smoke from the devastating wildfires on the West Coast. The climate crisis is supercharging storms, increasing the intensity of rain and snow events and creating back to back heat events that put our social, natural and built environments all at increased risk. These events all occur with the backdrop of a seemingly unending global health pandemic, which has claimed the lives of 73 Evanston residents, thousands statewide, and more than 200,000 nationally.

Climate hazards, the climate science lingo for things like intense storms and heat waves, do nott affect us all equally. Just as with the coronavirus, climate hazards are much worse for communities of color, lower income residents and those without access to stable housing.

The disproportionate impact on these community groups is the byproduct of policies and structures that have put them at a disadvantage when responding to shocks and crises. Systemic racism, prejudiced housing policies (redlining, racial covenants, etc.), and access to educational and career opportunities all increase the impact that a flooding event or consecutive days of extreme heat has on a community. We may all be affected by the climate crisis, but for some the effect can be devastating.

A useful example of how these hazards act to amplify the vulnerability and precarious situation many residents are in, can be seen by looking at affordable housing and overall affordability. According to the City’s most recent housing plan 40% of Evanston residents are housing cost or severely housing cost burdened. Renters are more likely to experience this burden, with 51% of renters experiencing housing cost burden, compared to 31% of homeowners (which is still quite high). The current economic and unemployment crisis has also depleted the savings of many Americans, diminishing their ability to contend with personal or societal shocks. To make matters worse, lower income residents in Illinois spend a higher percentage of their income on energy. On average, they spend 13% of their income on heating and electric bills, roughly $2,400 a year. Extreme temperature swings can result in utility bill spikes that homeowners and renters are already struggling to pay.

The path out of this climate crisis is to envision a world and our community as more interconnected and interdependent. We can’t recover from COVID without preparing for the climate crisis. We can’t achieve climate justice without racial justice.

Evanston is fortunate enough to have a blueprint for starting this work, in the City’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan (CARP). Approved unanimously in 2018, the vision the plan provides is of a community free of pollution, prepared for heat waves and high intensity storms, with accessible transit systems, affordable housing for all and a flourishing natural environment. Two years into implementation of the plan more needs to be done to actively support affordable housing, we need to enhance public assistance for those struggling and our approach needs to boost economic well-being.

Luckily, there are some good existing examples that demonstrate what the future could look like. Organizations like the Evanston Rebuilding Warehouse (ERW) have shown how environmental organizations can straddle causes and provide meaningful workforce development and career opportunities while saving valuable materials from being wasted (through deconstruction and reuse). The work that ERW does also creates a hub for community learning and skill sharing that builds social cohesion, a key ingredient to a resilient community. We need to take this approach, of collaboration between causes, and find ways to tie our policy objectives (100% renewable energy by 2030 and reducing emissions from buildings to zero by 2050) to the rest of our community’s priorities and systems.

Other initiatives like Citizens’ Greener Evanston’s Natural Habitat Evanston have shown how hundreds of individuals can change a local ecosystem with small actions that create havens for pollinators, birds and other vital critters. Environmental Justice Evanston has shown, with the recent adoption of an Environmental Justice Resolution that there can be no meaningful climate action without racial and social justice.

Evanston is poised to continue its leadership in climate and environmental issues but we must focus on building stronger relationships between our causes. We must ensure that future generations get to enjoy the same things about Evanston that we are able to do today.

I’m excited for the lineup of writers this week shedding light on all aspects of the climate crisis in Evanston, and I look forward to continuing to work with leaders and community members throughout Evanston to make sure Evanston lives up to our ambitious goals.

Mr. Jensen is Chief Sustainability and Resilience Officer for the City of Evanston