Text alerts this month have drawn my attention to one weather advisory after another from the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management — including recently a second “Heat Health Emergency of 2021,” an inauspicious addition to earlier warnings of severe thunderstorms, flash floods, and even a tornado plaguing our area this summer. During heat waves, Philadelphia sees dramatic differences in street temperatures — up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit — between its neighborhoods. Poorer areas with more Black and Latinx residents typically feel the worst heat because of fewer trees and more asphalt, as a front-page article in this paper reported. And now Philly’s on track for its most humid summer since 1995.
OEM notifications about severe weather already come so often, they make less of an impression than before. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report earlier this month, they will be coming more frequently for the next 30 years, at least.
For me as a pediatrician specializing in adolescent health, this is a terrifying concept: The teens I see in my clinics today will be middle-aged before emerging from this tunnel. While I despair over the impacts that climate change will have on those of my own and earlier generations, I am especially troubled thinking of our young people who may never know a world not beset by such chaos. The physical and mental health risks coming to our area from scorching heat, flooded sewers, and air tainted by smoke from far-off wildfires are manifold and daunting to consider.
As the generations that set the stage for these events, we are obligated to do what we can to mitigate them. The U.S. Congress is considering both a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a budget proposal that contain critical funding for climate change-related projects; they would strengthen at-risk communities’ resilience to weather events and facilitate the transition to carbon-free energy. These actions are important steps, but they are not enough for a public health crisis of this magnitude.
Fortunately, research from both health professionals and environmental scientists indicates that these and other threats to public health may have another accessible remedy: trees. Like the measures laid out in the Senate’s bill and budget proposal, trees can help Philadelphia and our nation address both symptoms of climate change — heat, flooding, declining air quality — and its primary cause, rising carbon dioxide in our atmosphere.
The Greenworks program from Philadelphia’s Office of Sustainability has already set a goal of 30% tree canopy coverage in all neighborhoods by 2025; many neighborhoods, including Kensington, Fishtown, and Tacony, currently have less than 10% tree cover. Research by Dr. Michelle Kondo of the United States Forest Service has described the enormous health benefits that such an effort could yield: hundreds of lives saved due to improved air quality, lower stress, and other positive impacts. Encouragingly, benefits will be seen predominantly in less affluent areas — with more racial and ethnic minority residents — that are already feeling the “heat island” effects more than their wealthier neighbors.
» READ MORE: Why Philly trees cast more shade on the wealthier
Additional work by Dr. Kondo, Dr. Eugenia South of Penn Emergency Medicine, and others further showed significant reductions in risk of gun-related trauma in areas with higher tree cover. Considering the prominence of gun violence in local and national debates, as well as the burden of this public health issue on the same populations bearing the brunt of many climate-related risks, it is clear that the urban tree-planting goals of the Greenworks program are a win-win proposition.
Scaling local efforts like these will be vital in facing the enormity of climate change. Opportunely, in May our neighboring U.S. Sens. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R., W.Va.) reintroduced their bill to capitalize on urban trees and their many benefits: the Trees for Residential Energy and Economic Savings (TREES) Act. Per Sen. Booker’s press release, this legislation would benefit vulnerable people of all ages, providing “funding to plant a minimum of 300,000 trees annually in residential neighborhoods … [prioritizing] low wealth communities as well as areas with low tree canopy and heat islands.” The bill touts support from members of both parties in Congress, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, and others. Telling your elected representatives to add their names to this list is a good step toward a healthier future for generations to come.
Paul Devine Bottone, a pediatrician, is a fellow in Adolescent Medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.