‘Climate, Environment and Health’: New Tool Ranks Lehigh Valley’s Climate Vulnerabilities

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Small communities and agencies want robust scientific data, Grace Tee Lewis said, but often don’t have the time, money or manpower to get it done, let alone include dozens of variables to create an accurate picture.

So, researchers did it for them.

“We wanted to have a tool that addressed the intersection between climate, environment and health because so often, those tools don’t address more than two at a time,” said Grace Tee Lewis, a senior health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund. “So this is one of the few available that is able to really get [from] that perspective.

“Because we recognize in doing the work that we’ve been doing that it’s not any one thing alone. Communities’ resilience and strength, adaptability, relies on a whole host of different factors.”

As Lehigh Valley officials work to build resilience and mitigate the impacts of climate change, researchers more than 1,500 miles away through a partnership between the Environmental Defense Fund and Texas A&M University have created the U.S. Climate Vulnerability Index. Launched on Oct. 2, the tool uses 184 sets of public data to rank more than 70,000 U.S. census tracts. Researchers aim to help local and state leaders learn more about their communities’ vulnerabilities in order to bolster resilience.

“By offering a comprehensive framework to evaluate the multi-dimensional susceptibilities of communities to climate-related risks, this new tool provides a template for addressing local-scale climate and environmental justice globally.”

Weihsueh Chiu, a professor at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

“The launch of the CVI represents a significant leap forward in our understanding of the cumulative impacts of climate change,” said Weihsueh Chiu, a professor at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “By offering a comprehensive framework to evaluate the multi-dimensional susceptibilities of communities to climate-related risks, this new tool provides a template for addressing local-scale climate and environmental justice globally.”

LehighValleyNews.com reached out to the Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, as well as leaders in Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton for a reaction to the new tool, but did not receive a response.

‘Highest vulnerability’ in the Lehigh Valley

Lehigh Valley residents have seen firsthand the negative effects of climate change, from damaging floods to wildfire smoke — and that’s just in the last four months.

The CVI calculates the overall climate vulnerability of a community through a community baseline, which looks at health, social and economic factors, the environment and infrastructure, as well as climate impacts — deaths associated with temperatures, disasters and air pollution, and the costs of disasters and extreme events, like droughts, wildfires and flooding.

The most vulnerable counties in the U.S., according to the tool, include St. John the Baptist and Iberville, Louisiana; Dillon, South Carolina; and Knox, Kentucky, among others.

“The baseline vulnerabilities are really about a community’s ability to be resilient,” Chiu said during a recent phone interview. “If they’re already having these other burdens, whether it’s socioeconomic or public health problems or poor infrastructure, then it will make them less able to respond to additional challenges.

“Climate risks are about what types of climate challenges are coming down the road,” he continued. “ … It’s important both to understand what’s coming in terms of what types of climate effects are predicted to happen in the future, as well as the community’s sort of baseline ability to respond to whatever challenges are coming.”

The CVI ranks Lehigh and Northampton counties relatively low for overall climate vulnerability, 36th and 34th, respectively. However, drilling down to the census tract level shows a more dire picture.

Allentown’s Dutch Hill neighborhood, for example, ranks in the 91st national vulnerability percentile, or the “highest vulnerability,” according to the CVI. The top drivers of climate impacts are social stressors, as well as storms and precipitation.

A tract in Freemansburg also ranks in the 91st percentile, with Southside Easton in the 80th national vulnerability percentile.

“There’s a lot of variation, from census tract to census tract, even within a county,” Chiu said.

There have been efforts over the last several months to mitigate the effects of climate change statewide and in the Valley.

The state Department of Environment Protection is working on a new environmental justice policy, while LVPC members are working on a regional climate action plan focused on reducing carbon dioxide emissions from transportation.

In August, officials from Lehigh and Northampton counties teamed up to launch a $100,000 project, Lehigh Valley Breathes, a Valley-wide effort to monitor air quality amid emissions from trucking and warehousing, a major part of the region’s economy.

So far, 10 have been installed.

‘A proliferation of community science’

The push to collect more data to map the impacts of climate change isn’t unique to the Valley — it’s happening across the country.

“I definitely am seeing a proliferation of community science,” Tee Lewis said. “ … They have always wanted that data. From my perspective, they’ve always wanted to be able to have science to fight the other science that makes the point for their advocacy.”

And there’s money on the table to fund that advocacy — federal legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law “present an unprecedented opportunity to build resilience,” officials said.

As researchers were creating the CIV, accessibility and ease of use were important factors, said Tee Lewis.

“We wanted it to be available to our community partners and community advocates,” she said. “But we also wanted the same data to be available to people who are decision-makers, people who are policy-makers, people who are making considerations about funding determinations, people who are making grants available and distributing that grant money.”

So far, the response has been positive, she said.

“I think a lot of people see the abundance of the 184 indicators,” she said. “I think we have more than any other tool out there.”

The CVI, Chiu said, works to highlight those areas that are in need of more attention.

“Part of it is economic, like financial resources, whether it’s better access to health care, or better road conditions and things like that,” he said. “There’s just like these pockets of neglect in a way.

“But also just these people maybe don’t have as much political power or other types of ways to draw attention to themselves to their needs.”

While the index does show great need in areas that are most vulnerable, it’s about changing around the conversation, Chiu said.

“What we’re trying to do is turn this from just, ‘Well, let’s just see how bad everything is’ to be able to use this data to really drive action,” he said. “Our feeling in developing this was that the data is kind of scattered all over the internet.

“Bringing it all into one place, we make it easier for communities to actually put together proposals to access grant opportunities.”

Source : Lehigh Valley News


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