Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Human Face of Climate Change

Written for Healthy Indoors Magazine - June 2014

Do you ever wonder what it would be like to live inside an oven? Welcome to Phoenix, Arizona summertime. Yes, it’s summer here now in my mind, as we roll into our first full week of triple digit temperatures. There are two seasons here. I refer to them as Perfect Season and I’m In a Giant Frickin’ Oven Season.

But while I can escape to the comfortable confines of my balmy 79 to 80 degree house, my air-conditioned car and my air-conditioned stores, many people can’t.

And heat kills.

Last July, I organized an Act on Climate event. Because the majority of the media here doesn’t do such a great job at covering environmental issues, I’ve learned to use big, visual props to make it hard for them to ignore. Even better if these props have a function.

I ordered 150 red umbrellas and had #ActOnClimate printed on them. 150 people holding these umbrellas served as the backdrop for our press conference. I included people to speak on behalf of small business, faith-based groups, the poor and working class, science and the homeless population. I also included several elected officials and our state climatologist. We also held a water drive for Lodestar Day Resource Center.

Though the event was well-attended and people stopped whining about being hot once they were gently reminded why they were there, I was forever changed by what happened after the event.

As the amazing Paolo Soleri so eloquently said in 2010, just a few years before his death: "The umbrella and parasol are self-generating comfort zones; light, moveable, energy independent, technologically optimal, inexpensive, a great service to the poor and to the very poor. They constitute mini-housing for tens of millions, for pharaohs and kings alike."

I went to pass out the 150 umbrellas on that hot July day to our homeless population. I visited two parks, then went down to the streets surrounding our main urban homeless shelter, CASS.

According to Arizona’s 2012 statistics on homelessness, there were 28,000 people in Arizona who experienced homelessness. Of those people, 5,805 of them are children. 28,000 people experiencing triple digit temperatures for prolonged periods of time, including nearly 6000 kids. This is tragic. These people are among the most vulnerable population when it comes to heat related illness and death.

As I passed out the umbrellas, I had people smile, hug me and even cry. People acted shocked at being given something, and I would assure them the umbrella was a gift and I wanted nothing in return.

“Please use this for shade.” I would say. “Please try to keep yourself cool.”

When I ran out of umbrellas, I was still surrounded by a large group of people.


I often think about how different our world would be if our people were treated with as much love, care and understanding as our animals. Why is it that we’ll rescue a stray animal off the street but not think about buying a fellow human a meal, or at least a nice cold jug of water? Check out my friend Jon Linton’s The I Have A Name Project for a good reminder on the importance of practicing compassion.

I left the streets feeling both grateful and heartbroken.

When I got back to my car, I broke into tears, overwhelmed with emotion.

I needed more umbrellas.

A quick crowdfunding campaign generated the means for me to purchase 150 more umbrellas that several volunteers helped me pass out on a Sunday afternoon. This is my idea of church…

Now, nearly one year later, I still see the red umbrellas around town on occasion and it almost makes me cry every time. If any of you have ties to an umbrella manufacturer or want to buy me several thousand umbrellas that would be ridiculously awesome. And I’m serious.

Heat related illness and death is bound to increase in the years to come from what studies such as this one tell us.

Heat waves, commonly defined as a few consecutive days with high temperature above a certain threshold, are the leading cause of weather-related mortality in the United States (Davis et al. 2003). 

Even more alarming, the nighttime temperatures are going to increase in Phoenix according to a new Arizona State University study published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

Cities (including Phoenix) would be wise to get their Climate Change Adaptation Plans in place quickly if they haven’t been done, start busting butt on minimizing urban heatisland effect and work much harder to decrease greenhouse gas emissions

Speaking of which, a Washington Post-ABC newspoll  released yesterday in light of the new EPA CleanPower Plant Proposed Rule to reduce carbon pollution from power plants gave me hope that Americans are starting to see the light when it comes to climate change. It’s good to have hope in humanity.

Now we need to just start seeing the people. The people with faces and names. The human faces of climate change.

I truly believe if we can learn to look out for each other- our fellow humans- caring for our planet comes naturally. We shouldn’t live in a world where dying from heat is even an option.

Please think about this as you travel throughout your days and lives. Have kindness and empathy for those around you. Give someone the gift of an umbrella or a drink of water, or even a smile.
Let your small gestures of kindness become dominoes to help create a more sustainable and hospitable world. Be kind.

“You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

Love and laughter,
Ms. Champion

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