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Romero: Tackling climate change starts at the local level

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Romero: Tackling climate change starts at the local level

Guest opinion from Tucson mayoral candidate Regina Romero of the Democratic Party

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My career in public service and the central pillar of my mayoral campaign has been opportunity; Tucson has given me educational and economic opportunities that I would never have dreamed of as a child. But there won't be any additional opportunity in Tucson for future generations if we don't do something about climate change immediately.

"Think globally, act locally." We have all heard that phrase but does it make a difference? When it comes to the greatest challenge of our time, climate change, the answer is "you bet!" The unfortunate reality is that we do not have much of a choice but to act - and to act boldly - if we want to have a livable city for future generations of Tucsonans. With inaction at the state and federal levels, we must realize that it is up to us to act at the local level.

Hundreds of cities and municipalities have come to terms with this reality and are doing their part to limit their contribution to climate change. In doing so, we not only can improve the quality of life in our communities, but we can send a clear message to our state and federal lawmakers that their constituents demand decisive action on this issue.

To put the matter at hand into perspective, a recent report warns that we could face an existential threat by 2050 due to worsening drought conditions, increasing sea levels, wildfires, and other events that could cause more than 1 billion people to be permanently displaced, likely resulting in conflict as resources grow increasingly scarce. Other reports reveal similar consequences, but range in timeline. The bottom line is that whether the tipping point is 30 or 100 years away, the threat is real, it is existential, and the need to act is urgent. The longer we wait, the deeper the hole we will have to dig ourselves out of.

Here in the Old Pueblo, Tucsonans are already beginning to feel climate change's effects. When I am walking neighborhoods and knocking on the doors of voters, I like to ask them about the issues that they care about most. Concerns about rising temperatures, maintaining our water supply, and ensuring clean air are all issues that I hear frequently. Local residents are justifiably concerned: an analysis conducted earlier this year found that Tucson was the third-fastest warming city in the U.S. The Southwest has been particularly hard-hit due to our already arid climate.

So that's the bad news. The good news is that by setting ourselves on a path of coordinated and constant climate action, we can make sure that future generations are able to live in the beautiful city that we are fortunate enough to call home. By setting bold goals, and taking the necessary steps to meet those goals, not only can we keep maintain the livability of our city, but we can become a model desert city for climate action and set an example for other cities to follow.

How do we get there? Like with any challenge we have faced as a city, we must first sit down with stakeholders and experts to identify solutions that work. Everyone should have a seat at the table: academics, neighbors, elected officials, the business community, non-profits, advocacy organizations and the like. Here are some of the ways we can immediately act to both reduce our city's contribution to climate change as well mitigate the adverse effects we are already experiencing.

One of the simplest ways we can manage rising temperatures within the city is planting trees. 1.2 million native and desert-adapted trees would be a good start and would double our current shade canopy and keep our neighborhoods from becoming uninhabitable. Due to lack of tree canopy, our sidewalks and streets absorb sunlight during the daytime, and radiate it back upwards at night, a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect. Adding tree coverage is one basic way we can help cool our city while simultaneously beautifying neighborhoods. By strategically planting trees fed by rain and stormwater we can also limit the impacts of nuisance flooding and continue to reduce our outdoor water use while reducing extreme heat events and protecting at-risk residents that live in low canopy neighborhoods.

This relates to the often untold story of how climate change disproportionately affects vulnerable communities including seniors, children, low-income individuals, communities of color, and women. On average, affluent areas of town are about 5 degrees cooler than more economically vulnerable neighborhoods largely due to this lack of tree coverage. In addition, we've seen a rise in heat-related illness and deaths in Tucson and throughout Arizona, particularly among seniors.

In a similar vein, we are also seeing how rising temperatures has put a strain on our economy, disproportionately affecting the poor and seniors with fixed-incomes, as energy bills continue to rise every summer. Cities can implement policies to help alleviate this, such as retrofitting older buildings and homes to be more energy efficient - something that the city of Tucson has done and that we can hopefully expand.

Our transit system should also play a major role in our emissions reduction strategy. In addition to electrifying transit, we should also be taking steps to increase ridership to get people out of their cars and into our buses and streetcar. One way we can accomplish this is by expanding our Frequent Transit Network beyond the current 11 routes to make transit a convenient and comfortable option in every corner of the city. In addition, we should be working to make transit as close to free as possible.

We should also be empowering residents to take innovative actions within their neighborhoods. For example, in 2015 I introduced Tucson Water's popular neighborhood stormwater program that allows neighbors to get together to combat flooding while planting trees fed by rain and stormwater. Locals know their neighborhoods best and have been using this program to bring together multiple benefits into their projects such as traffic calming, shade tree planting and beautification.

The overarching goal that we should strive towards is to become 100 percent carbon neutral as a city. This will require a multi-faceted approach that includes electrifying our bus and vehicle fleet, building a network of charging stations for electric vehicles, ramping up solar panel installations on city buildings, and promoting infill and density as a part of our development strategy, just to name a few of the actions we can take.

Here are some more ways we can act at the local level:

  • Launching a path for carbon neutrality by 2050; 50% by 2030
  • Planting 1 million trees across Tucson by 2030 to mitigate the effects of climate change by reducing utility bills, improving mobility, combating the urban heat island and cooling our city.
  • Transitioning our city's vehicle and bus fleet to 90% electric by 2032.
  • Installing more solar panels on city facilities, with a focus on Tucson Water facilities.
  • Developing local alternatives to overseas recycling and expanding our pilot compost programs to strive towards zero waste in our city.
  • Continuing our internationally recognized water conservation programs and reducing our water use of 50 gallons per person per day by 2035.
  • Expanding our innovative water recharge programs like the Santa Cruz River Heritage project.
  • Accelerating the cleanup of TCE, 1.4 dioxane and PFOS at the Airport Superfund site and other brownfield sites.
  • Developing a robust and equitable green infrastructure program to manage flooding while harvesting stormwater to plant trees and reduce the urban heat island effect.
  • Partnering with organizations like JobPath and the UA's SmartScape program to create a climate mitigation career path for students.
  • Investing in residential energy efficiency programs and using federal Community Development Block Grant dollars to retrofit older homes in low income communities.

Many of these proposals will require a simple change in city policy. For example, in addition to requiring efficient windows and air conditioning, new developments should also contribute to public green space, tree canopy, and other sustainability efforts.

Other strategies, however, will require us to identify a funding source. The Mayor and Council are currently considering a Green Infrastructure Fund that if applied correctly and equitably, can be the vehicle that can get us to 1.2 million trees by 2030. When it comes to transit, electric buses do have a larger upfront cost but last longer and cost less to operate. We should continue partnering with the University of Arizona, TUSD, and other community partners to reduce duplication of services. There are also federal grant opportunities that we are and will continue to aggressively pursue.

The bottom line is that taking bold action on climate is a question of will, not of financial capacity - despite what some climate deniers would have you believe. We need to take action that is proportionate to the threat that climate change poses, plain and simple. When our very existence is at stake, incremental steps are no longer sufficient. Together, we can continue to create a healthier, more sustainable, and resilient city for us and for future generations of Tucsonans.

Regina Romero is a Tucson City councilmember, representing Ward 1 for 12 years, and the Democratic nominee for Tucson mayor. is proud to be a partner in Covering Climate Now, an international project by more than 300 of the world's finest news organizations — The Guardian and Bloomberg, BBC, CBS News, Christian Science Monitor, Daily Mirror, Daily Beast, New Republic, Scientific American, Vanity Fair, PBS NewsHour, and more, including reporting from Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Argentina, Bangladesh, Chile, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Belgium, Brazil, Czech Republic, Egypt, Morocco, Germany, Turkey and elsewhere. Read's reporting on this topic, and selected stories from other outlets.

Candidate commentaries on climate change invited each of the candidates running for mayor of Tucson to contribute their thoughts as part of our #CoveringClimateNow series. Green Party candidate Mike Cease and Democratic Party candidate Regina Romero provided guest opinions. Ed Ackerley, an independent candidate, did not respond to multiple requests to take part.

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