Building a Community Response to Climate Change

The following account was written by Dee Aherne, a WE ACT member and climate activist with 350NYC and within the People’s Climate Movement NY

On Saturday April 4th, I participated in an amazing and eye-opening climate change planning workshop for Northern Manhattan. The room was packed from wall-to-wall with over 65 diverse community members from West Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood, many of whom were my fellow WE ACT members, and all of whom were gathered with one goal: to help Northern Manhattan’s low-income and working class residents prepare for the climate crisis.

We know that due to global warming we are already seeing more frequent ‘extreme weather emergencies’ and we can expect that those conditions will get worse over the coming years. We know that in the NYC area we will see summer heat waves intensify and winter storms become more severe, with greater risk of flooding due to rising sea-levels. The big question posed at this workshop was: what are we going to do about it?

The first part of the day was taken up with “serious games” – a kind of role play activity where we met together in small groups and were asked to respond to information about the conditions in the city as an extreme heat wave had an impact. In a community that already knows the problems of serious asthma, some of the scenarios of “respiratory distress” and “over-crowded hospitals” were all too real. And then we heard there was a “blackout” and the problems really escalated. I was sitting with two ladies who had lived through the 2005 blackout so they really had a lot to tell us about the fear, confusion and real problems that community residents had to deal with. How do you find out what’s going on with no TV or internet? How do you get down from the 28th floor with no elevator? How do you get your prescription filled when there are no computers at the drug store?

This was just the beginning: the “serious games” scenario led us through dealing with thousands of heat-related deaths, fires, civil unrest, transportation breakdown, waste-disposal problems, hurricane and flooding. And in the aftermath of the emergencies, we talked about mental health services and how we support people who have suffered trauma.

After lunch we got down to the task of thinking about solutions – what can we do now that will help us prepared for what the future brings? One exciting thing we learned was that the things we all do now to grow stronger communities and develop the skills and networks to make our lives better now are the same things that will help us manage emergencies in the future. To support the elderly and most vulnerable in time of crisis we must improve our connections and systems across the board. Professional service givers in all walks of life need “emergency management” training. We talked about building an environment that will be more sustainable and were reminded that we can do that now by getting involved with the participatory budgeting system that our councilmembers already have in place. We recognized the importance of engaging young people in creating the solutions for the future that they will inherit and this will develop their leadership to rise to all sorts of challenges. We generated a long list of things that we can do to get ready for an emergency, from the immediate personal actions (buy a wind-up radio) to the long term planning and investment decisions that are needed to reform our government and transform our economy.

This was the first of two workshops and I can’t wait to see what we’ll do in the next one, where we will imagine what the future response will be to a disaster after we have implemented some of our recommendations. Some of my friends wonder why anyone would choose to spend their days planning for an imaginary future disaster. I see it more as a way for each of us to take back some control over how we live our lives now and build the world that we want to live in for the future. We can’t change the past mistakes that have damaged our environment and brought us to this point of climate crisis but we all can still build a better future by strengthening our communities and pushing our elected officials to make the right choices now.

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