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Rules for talking about our changing climate

Did you get soaked or stranded in last week’s heavy rain? Or, just two weeks ago, were you sweltering in the last days of summer’s intense heat? Let’s name the elephant in the room. The weather is changing here in East Tennessee. Climate change is coming.

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory project more weather extremes for our region in the years ahead. Hotter summers and wetter winters are in store. For many people, climate change may seem far away or even somebody else’s problem. For others, it’s something to be dealt with by simply adjusting the air conditioner or taking a few minutes’ detour around a flooded road.

As a country, we’ve seen this before with other extreme events – the deluges of Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey and Florence, extreme heat waves in Chicago, or ice storms in Atlanta. Consider the faces of the ones left behind. Or those not able to recover and rebuild. Or worst of all, who didn’t survive.

In city after city, it’s been people in poverty, racial and ethnic minorities, and older adults who tend to have fewer social, economic or political resources to draw on when times get tough. Even if you aren’t convinced by the science of climate change, you can certainly agree that the human costs of these devastating events are real.

Here locally, my team studied how summer heat waves affect lower- and moderate-income residents in the city of Knoxville. Out of more than 400 residents surveyed, 77 percent said their physical health was affected, 57 percent reported a mental health impact, and 64 percent said their finances took a hit.

These are lives that matter. How do we take steps to protect all people in our community from the consequences of climate change before it’s too late?

First and foremost, we should ask the people who are affected most. And then, we should closely listen.

How? By embracing three principles of inclusion and engagement for climate resilience: Seek local expertise, prioritize justice and collaborate widely.

To be sure, many of our local offices and agencies have laid foundations of public engagement in their work. But there’s so much more we can do to address the threat of climate change in our own backyard. Let’s diversify the voices being heard by intentionally seeking them out. Let’s rethink where, when, and why we hold public meetings. Let’s collaborate to create new kinds of resilience programs that are accessible and meaningful to people who need them most.

By more fully embracing and applying core principles of inclusion and engagement, we can create more just and meaningful progress on climate resilience here in Knoxville — and also lead the way for other cities in our region and state to do the same.

Lisa Reyes Mason, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee College of Social Work and co-editor of the forthcoming book “People and Climate Change: Vulnerability, Adaptation and Social Justice.”

Your Turn

Lisa Reyes Mason Guest columnist

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