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Sustainable Missoula: Planting natural shade the greenest way to beat the heat

A Climate Smart Missoula volunteer collects Arrowleaf Balsamroot seeds to restore local prairie grasslands around the city. (Sustainable Missoula)

Some like it hot. Just yesterday a colleague cheerfully shared “I’m so happy it finally feels like summer!”

Joyful for temperatures in the 90s she is. As someone who’s disgruntled with anything above 78 degrees, I just sighed. One reason I work on climate change is that I dislike all the warming. But as summers heat up, I look for joy in the work we do together to stay cool and build resiliency.

At Climate Smart Missoula, we’ve built our Summer Smart program to help our community be more resilient in the face of climate change. As mentioned in last week’s column, much of the efforts have been focused on wildfire smoke and health. Yet addressing increased summer heat is also part of the program.

Summer Smart helps our community weather the hotter weather, and over the years we’ve worked to help our community stay healthy, even providing ideas for growing and building your own shade.

These creative cooling solutions are especially important because so many Missoula area homes do not have air conditioning, and shade solutions can be effective, economical and climate-friendly. Trees and shrubs in our community can help us stay cool and avoid the worst of the urban heat island effect, which disproportionately impacts some neighborhoods.

Climate Ready Missoula, the resiliency planning effort led by Missoula County, the City of Missoula and Climate Smart, is now moving into the implementation phase, and addressing the risks of increased heat is a key priority. Over the long haul we need to ensure all homes and buildings are weatherized to keep cool air in and the heat out. Planting and caring for trees and green space are priorities as our community grows.

Summers are getting hotter. This past May was the earth’s hottest on record. No doubt you’ve seen the heat wave reports from Siberia and the southwest. And with the heat comes health risks. In this time of COVID-19, that’s scary.

The same people disproportionately hit by the coronavirus or with lack of access to health care are at risk from extreme heat. Recommendations to go to public cooling shelters are difficult, given the pandemic. Imagine being a healthcare worker standing outside in full protective gear to conduct COVID swab testing in 115 degrees? Yikes!

We need to expand our discussions of health, heat and climate. This week we’re doing just that.

We invite you to watch COOKED: Survival by Zipcode, a film about heat and disaster preparedness and recovery. View the film in the next few days, and then at noon on July 29, we’ll host a panel discussion to consider how Missoula can build community resiliency. Join panelists Brenda Solorzano (Headwaters Foundation), D’Shane Barnett (All Nations Health Center), Eric Legvold (United Way of Missoula County) and Caroline Lauer (Climate Smart Missoula) for this timely event. Everything you need to know is here.

As much as we wish climate change would just pause or go away in the midst of the pandemic, it’s not. According to a recent report in the New York Times: The [current] heat wave is consistent with what scientists say to expect from climate change, said J. Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist at the University of Georgia and a former president of the American Meteorological Society. He took part in a 2016 report by the National Academy of Sciences that found that, of the weather phenomena affected by climate change, heat waves show the strongest signal of the warming planet.

He compared the process to fertilizing a lawn. Grass will grow naturally, but “when we put fertilizer in the soil, it grows differently,” he said, and so “the natural cycle of heat waves is fertilized by anthropogenic climate change.”

The heat combined with the pandemic is a double whammy. Can we double our efforts to help each other and our environment stay healthy?

Although COVID has dampened our abilities to gather to help our community, we are inspired by those who are stepping up individually and without fanfare. We see people out weeding along the trails, hauling back the invasive seeds so they don’t spread. We know people that are starting to water their favorite boulevard trees.

We see people picking up the trash along our rivers and taking care not to erode river banks as they recreate (thank you!). Some are looking out for neighbors and helping with tasks; “Hey, can I help you install this window shade to keep out the afternoon sun? Need any help getting window fans in place?”

And let’s not forget the over 15 pounds of Arrowleaf Balsamroot seeds collected from the richly flowered hill of Mount Jumbo by volunteers a few weeks back, to be scattered on our weedier hillsides. A bit of wealth redistribution, helping to regenerate our local prairies.

The seeds of change will sprout a better way forward and this gives us hope in these challenging times. The natural world continues to provide bird song, pollinators, colorful sunsets, and even comets if we can spare the time to look and listen.

In fact, although I’m not joyful for the coming heat and am saddened by the ongoing pandemic, this piece from the online news site Grist resonates: It’s tempting to interpret this time in nature as a silver lining, but the truth is there’s no silver lining to be found in this pandemic. We are surrounded by preventable suffering that is hitting the most vulnerable among us the hardest, widening the injustices of an already unjust country. ….

What are we to make of this? I have no clue, but often I find myself returning to the words of Ross Gay, a poet who wrote a book of essays about a thing that delighted him every day for a year. To Gay, joy is not a privilege, but a muscle.

“Joy has nothing to do with ease.” he said in a 2019 interview. “It is not at all puzzling to me that joy is possible in the midst of difficulty.”

In other words, it is precisely because times are hard that joy is necessary. Joy sustains us, allows us to continue to care for one another and work for a better world, even when the unrelenting cruelty of the news resists reason and language. Let’s all find joy in the work we do together. 

Amy Cilimburg is the executive director of Climate Smart Missoula. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

As COVID-19 has postponed or cancelled many community events, some have moved on-line or found creative outlets. Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

July 29. Noon – 1 pm. Discussion of the film Cooked: survival by zipcode. Visit this page for details and how to watch the film ahead of the panel discussion. Cooked, explores the politics of disaster preparedness and recovery through the lens of the infamous 1995 Chicago heat wave. The film argues disasters allow us to “recognize conditions that are always present but hard to perceive,” and shows how, too often, the damage from so-called “natural” disasters intersects with poverty and racism.

By July 29. Registration is open for the Creative Reuse Division at the Western Montana Fair! Home ReSource is once again heading up the Creative Reuse Division at the Western Montana Fair. Register online. Submissions will be in person by appointment from 8am-1pm on July 30 in the Commercial Building at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. More information here.

July 30 – September 3. Montana Renewable Energy Association’s Summer Series. Thursdays at 12:30pm, join in on virtual lunchtime presentations about renewable energy topics. More details and RSVP here.

Early August (date TBD): Given how air pollution exacerbates COVID-19, the film Unbreathable is especially timely. The film highlights how air pollution, including from the fossil fuel industry, continues to disproportionately harm low-wealth and communities of color. Sponsored by the American Lung Association of Montana, Montana Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate, and Climate Smart Missoula, the panel will explore how to strengthen local and statewide efforts to protect all Montanans as our climate changes.

August. Take part in Northern Plains Resource Council’s annual Local Food Challenge – a great reminder to support local producers who are struggling during the COVID pandemic and build community climate resiliency too.

All Summer. It’s farmer’s market season! The markets look different this year to protect public health, but both the Missoula Farmer’s Market (at the XXXXs) and the Clark Fork Market are happening. Check their websites for more details. CFAC also has a great list of local food resources for consumers.