Aug 18, 2022 5 min read

Beating the heat as climate change makes summers hotter

3 different trees on a grassy field with a hot, red sun behind them.
Trees = cooler temperatures, basically. (Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)

Equity and joy must guide our efforts to live in a more extreme climate.

By Amanda Parrish, The Lands Council

We’ve partnered with The Lands Council to bring more perspectives on the environment and climate change in the Inland Northwest.

On the last day of July, as afternoon temperatures hit triple digits for the fifth day in a row, I donned a wet one-piece bathing suit under my dress and headed to the Spokane Valley Mall in search of a place to cool off. My East Central home in Spokane is over 100 years old and many of the windows are painted shut, creating a virtual indoor oven during heat waves like the one the Inland Northwest recently experienced. To combat this, I, along with many others, spend my summer weekends at public beaches along the Spokane River and relish swimming in the cold, aquifer-fed waters. While a wet bathing suit is relatively uncomfortable in most climates, I find that it’s a perfect recipe for keeping cool after a swim, especially when coupled with the powerful air conditioning at the mall.

Like it or not, these sorts of creative measures for staying cool are going to play an increasingly large role in our lives. The latest climate reports from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are sobering: we are locked into a mean global temperature increase with increasingly dramatic weather effects for the next 30 years due to our previous greenhouse gas emissions.

The work we do today to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions will only impact the level of global temperature increase after 2050. In the Inland Northwest, this means we can expect longer, more frequent heat waves in the summer. My house, on the other hand, is not getting any cooler, better insulated, or better ventilated on its own, and neither are the homes of many of my East Central neighbors.

We humans tend to problem-solve better when the problem is right in front of us, not looming another 30 years away. To help illuminate and inform how climate change is currently raising temperatures throughout Spokane, local institutions Gonzaga University and The Lands Council worked together to lead a citizen science temperature data gathering campaign earlier this year. The Lands Council is also leading an initiative to increase tree cover in Spokane to cool neighborhoods that lack shade. Together, these efforts show the need to address environmental injustices as we prepare for a hotter, more extreme climate.

Environmental injustice means that negative environmental impacts, especially impacts from climate change, disproportionately affect marginalized communities. It means those that can’t afford to retrofit their homes, or whose landlords won’t, will continue to experience the stifling effects of indoor temperatures hovering near 90 degrees. It means that when a heat wave is eclipsed by wildfire smoke many people have to decide between opening windows to experience relief from cool night air that brings with it hazardous levels of smoke, or suffer through unbearable home temperatures. It means that unhoused people are left to figure out how to survive in the heat, like at Camp Hope.

It also means certain communities are physically hotter than others. A lack of shade and impervious surfaces from pavement and buildings amplify hot temperatures, creating something called the urban heat island effect. Together with volunteers, we mapped temperatures throughout Spokane multiple times a day on one of the hottest days to see where the urban heat island effect is at its worst. Moving just a few blocks from the lower South Hill to downtown, near the aptly-named Cup of Cool Water social services center on 2nd Avenue, we found a six degree jump in temperature. We’re still analyzing overall results, but this will help our community leaders decide where more public cooling shelters are needed as the demands of climate change increase our need to plan for the safety of vulnerable populations.

The challenges of environmental injustice in Spokane highlight community needs that are right in front of our noses, or even right over our heads. One major need is shade, and The Lands Council’s SpoCanopy project is leading the discussion about climate adaptation and environmental equity when it comes to this critical cooling resource. Together with the City’s Urban Forestry Department, The Lands Council is planting hundreds of trees each year in front of homes and in neighborhood parks where shade is needed most- predominantly in the Logan, Bemiss, Hillyard, West Central and East Central neighborhoods. All communities benefit from access to green spaces and street trees, and the overhead sun protection they provide during heat waves is becoming crucial.

Shade and places to stay cool are becoming all that more important as our climate changes. “Public cooling shelter” wasn’t a phrase that was in my lexicon until a few years ago. Now, I find myself using both the phrase and the place — in all its iterations — more and more. A public cooling shelter can be something natural like the public access point of a lake or river, or a more intentional space like a public library branch or the Looff Carousel building in Riverfront Park. Really any place with easy public access that offers clean, cool air could be considered a public cooling shelter. A park bench under the shade of tree, a matinee at a local movie theater, a neighborhood aquatic center: these weave together an important fabric of places that safeguard the quality of life for many of us who, for whatever reason, are unable or no longer able to live in a home that supports safe indoor air quality during the summer due to climate change.

The silver lining is that with the right planning and perspective, safeguarding and increasing public cooling shelters and other equitable cooling measures can also be a source of delight. I take pleasure in strolling through the shaded parts of Manito and Riverfront Parks. My inner child is downright joyful when I take a break from strolling to ride the carousel, where the temperature inside the building is a good 20 degrees cooler than outside. I look forward to my summer weekends on the Spokane River, when the year-round cold water is finally palatable for swimming.

The level of change required for humanity to survive climate change will be felt across all sectors of our lives, and it will often be painful or at least uncomfortable. But the optimist in me will never cease to look for ways change can also be equitable and delightful.

You can learn more about The Lands Council’s SpoCanopy program here and Gonzaga’s Beat the Heat research program here.

Amanda Parrish is the executive director of Spokane-based environmental non-profit, The Lands Council. After studying comparative ecology in Ecuador and at the University of San Francisco, California, she worked as a seasonal forestry technician with the Coeur d’Alene Tribe before joining The Lands Council in 2009.

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