People stuck at home. Emergency rooms and morgues full. Government leaders in denial about the number of people affected. The majority of those falling ill and dying are people of color and low-income. You may think we’re describing the present day COVID-19 pandemic in some cities, but we’re actually referencing the 1995 Chicago heat wave during which over 700 residents died, most of whom were Black.

The PBS documentary Cooked: Survival by Zipcode tells the story of the heat wave’s disproportionate effects, and it was the subject of a panel discussion Climate Smart Missoula hosted last week.

Panelists Brenda Solorzano of Headwaters Foundation, D’Shane Barnett of All Nations Health Center, Eric Legvold of United Way of Missoula County, and Caroline Lauer from Climate Smart joined community members via Zoom to discuss the film and how it acts as a mirror to what we are experiencing today, and what lessons we can apply.

“One of the most interesting things to me is how relevant the film is to the particular moment we’re experiencing in today’s world. The intersection of COVID-19 and the racial unrest that has occurred as the result of George Floyd’s murder is elevating the very same issues that were elevated in the film,” said Brenda Solorzano.

The film argues that the patterns of destruction of disasters like the Chicago heat wave, Hurricane Katrina, and countless others reflect underlying social fault lines - especially racism and poverty.

D’Shane Barnett underscored this: “Climate change and disasters such as the ones shown in the film disproportionately impact disenfranchised communities, and we know we’ll be seeing more of these disasters in the future. While some may say that we all share the same climate, the truth is that we don’t share it equally.”

This is as true in Missoula as it is in Chicago. Climate change will bring more extreme heat and wildfire smoke pollution; while these risks affect all of us, it’s also true they don’t impact everyone equally. Some folks are much more vulnerable because of preexisting health issues, housing conditions, work settings and more - and so many of these factors are closely tied to race and income level.

“The heat wave didn’t create the inequalities, but highlighted them. The heat didn’t kill people. Injustice did. People died in the heat, but the real causes of death were poverty and systemic racism,” said Eric Legvold.


The film and discussion underscore a crucial point. When we talk about building our community’s resiliency to climate impacts and other crises, we can’t only talk about steps individuals can take. We also have to examine the underlying issues and historical conditions that make people more vulnerable in the first place, so we can equitably reinvest in the wellbeing of our entire community.

“The film requires us to know and reckon with our history and its legacy, particularly the racist history of urban planning through redlining and community disinvestment. Studies show that non-BIPOC people often think we’ve repaired the damage that has been done over generations, believing in a ‘myth of racial progress.’ We need to confront the history of our country in order to create meaningful change,” said Caroline Lauer.

Fortunately, understanding our history helps us to seize future opportunities. In Chicago, for example, not all hyper-segregated neighborhoods fared the same way. The presence of community institutions and social cohesion dramatically changed health outcomes.

If you lived in a neighborhood where it was easy to get around and access services, you were more likely to weather the weather. As sociologist Eric Klinenberg, who studied the heat wave extensively said, “Turns out neighborhood conditions that isolate people from each other on a good day can, on a really bad day, become lethal.”

What does this mean for Missoula? A couple of things. We can continue to advocate for smart development that creates active commercial corridors, locates affordable housing in walkable and transit-accessible neighborhoods, and builds streets that are safe for pedestrians and cyclists.

We can also do our part to build social solidarity and check in on our neighbors. If you have special tricks for cooling down your home or keeping indoor air clean, share them! If you’re not sure where to start, check out our Summer Smart resources, MontanaWildfireSmoke.org, and the new Climate Ready Missoula site.

Maybe your neighborhood is already set up with air conditioners and HEPA portable air cleaners - in that case, share the love with the rest of our community! Contributions to Climate Smart Missoula’s Clean Air program will support our goal of ensuring all Missoulians have access to safe indoor air when wildfire smoke rolls in.

Interested in further exploring the intersection of social equity, climate justice, and health? You can listen to a recording of last week’s panel and watch Cooked for free on the PBS website. And on August 19 at noon, take part in another panel discussion on the film Unbreathable: The Fight for Healthy Air, led by the American Lung Association of Montana and featuring panelists from across the state, including Helena mayor Wilmot Collins.

As we grapple with the current COVID crisis, the desire to return to “normal” is understandable. But it’s clear that “normal” was not working for far too many people, and our planet. The spotlight is on the glaring inequalities of our current system; let’s not turn away. Instead, let’s seize this opportunity to build back better and create communities that are more sustainable and just.

Caroline Lauer is the Program Director and Abby Huseth is the Outreach Director at 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 altered 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.

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

August 19, 12 p.m.: Film and Panel Discussion: Unbreathable: The fight for healthy air. With the potential of wildfire smoke on the horizon, and given how air pollution is linked to worse COVID-19 outcomes, this timely film highlights how air pollution 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. Details for how to tune in will be posted HERE.

All 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.