Trees are life-saving infrastructure
By Jad Daley, President and CEO of American Forests
With 2020 on track to be the hottest year in recorded history, we get daily reminders of America’s greatest climate change threat: extreme heat. Extreme heat generally kills more people in our country each year than any other type of extreme weather, and sickens many times more. We must build heat resilient communities that equitably protect every neighborhood, including natural cooling from trees.
We are far from this goal today. Lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color are, on average, much hotter due to systemic inequities that include lack of trees. These risks are magnified in lower income neighborhoods where many families are among the 13 percent of U.S. households that do not have air conditioning, or struggle with energy costs. To make this situation worse, many in these communities have pre-existing health conditions that make them more vulnerable to heat.
While our commitment to equitable protection from heat must include better infrastructure, like heat resilient housing and cooling centers, we need equal focus on Tree Equity across our cities so every neighborhood has this natural climate protection.
To understand how trees can cool these overheated neighborhoods, you need to understand a dangerous phenomenon called the “urban heat island effect.” Heat islands form when reflected heat and light are absorbed by surfaces like sidewalks, roads, parking lots and then radiated back into the air in an oven-like effect.
Heat islands take dangerously hot weather and make it much hotter. On average, an urban heat island increases temperatures by 5–7 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and as much as 22 degrees at night. This analysis from Climate Central shows the severity of heat islands in different cities.
Trees protect us from the urban heat island effect. Shading from properly selected and planted trees can reduce outside surface temperatures as much as 20 to 45 degrees, and trees provide natural air conditioning through evapotranspiration. Larger patches of trees can create a pool of cooler air, as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit, and spread it by enhancing local wind patterns.
The City of Dallas demonstrates how trees can save lives. An authoritative study led by Georgia Tech found that protecting and expanding the city’s tree canopy, combined with use of cool surfaces, could reduce heat-related deaths by 22 percent. No wonder the City of Dallas is undertaking new efforts to conserve and expand its urban forest as part of new efforts to combat extreme heat.
This life-saving potential is why my organization, American Forests, is advancing Tree Equity for lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color as a moral imperative for the nation. This includes development of a new Tree Equity Score to show cities where more effort is needed.
Using trees to protect our cities should be an easy sell, because this natural cooling also saves money and helps slow climate change. U.S. Forest Service research has found urban trees reduce residential energy use for heating and cooling by an average of 7.2 percent, saving homeowners $7.8 billion dollars annually. Those energy savings reduce carbon emissions, and urban trees naturally absorb more than 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the air every year. That equals serious climate action.
Here’s how we can make this investment, and how you can help:
- The federal government should ramp up the U.S. Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry Program to provide cities with technical assistance, and enact legislation such as the Climate Stewardship Act and Trees Act to help cities fund planting millions more trees each year.
- States should emulate the State of Rhode Island’s unprecedented push for Tree Equity across all of its communities, mobilizing agency leadership and funding alike to help cities plant and care for trees.
- Every city should set a goal for Tree Equity, and make this real with a campaign like Million Trees Miami that combines public investment and private sector partnership with corporations such as Salesforce, Bank of America, and Microsoft that contribute funding and volunteers. Powerful new coalitions such as 1t.org and the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance can help cities find needed partners.
- You can play a role by asking elected officials to take these actions, planting trees at your home, volunteering for a local planting event, and financially supporting organizations that are working for Tree Equity — especially frontline community groups that often struggle for funding.
So as we sweat our way through under the latest heat dome spreading across America, let’s make this the moment that we commit to Tree Equity for natural, equitable, and climate-smart cooling. Protecting people’s health, saving money on energy, and slowing climate change with one action? Now that is a triple-bottom line investment we all can support.