Combating Climate Change: Essential, Not Optional

As residents of the nation’s most political town, Washingtonians know that climate change is back on top of the White House agenda. Are they aware, however, of the mounting threats climate change poses to life in the District?

Fortunately, local and regional governments in the D.C. metropolitan area have sharpened their focus on the public health aspects of climate science and are again working with the U.S Environmental Protection Agency to craft policies to address the many challenges of the crisis.

“Americans in every corner of our country are seeing and feeling the effects of climate change: wildfires out west, back-to-back hurricanes in the Gulf Coast, extreme heat and rain in the heartland and historic flooding in the east,” said new EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in a March 18 press release. “Combating climate change — it’s not optional. It’s essential at EPA. We will move with a sense of urgency because we know what’s at stake.”

The EPA is relaunching its climate change website as part of the Biden-Harris administration’s “commitment to action on climate change and restoring science.” As it had under the Obama administration, the site will once again provide the public with a “range of information, including greenhouse gas emissions, data, climate change impacts, scientific reports and existing climate programs within EPA and across the federal government.” 

More than ever before, however, the EPA will now focus on how the climate crisis disproportionately affects the health of vulnerable communities, stating that “Children, the elderly and the poor are among the most vulnerable to climate-related health effects.”

According to a Climate Change Impacts and Risk Analysis report issued just before Obama left office, “climate change is projected to harm human health in a variety of ways through increases in extreme temperature [and] extreme weather events, decreases in air quality and other factors. Extreme heat events can cause illnesses and death due to heat stroke, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and other conditions. Increased ground-level ozone [stemming from the greenhouse effect] is associated with a variety of health problems, including reduced lung function, increased frequency of asthma attacks and even premature mortality.”

The report also predicted a rise in injuries, illnesses and deaths from tropical storms, wildfires and vector-borne diseases such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus. With the global COVID-19 pandemic, respiratory issues are even more critical as a public health concern today.

Along with scrubbing the EPA’s website of all references to “climate change” — or any science-based studies supporting the idea of a climate crisis — the Trump administration moved swiftly to extract the U.S. from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, in which nations pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. On his first day in office this past Jan. 20, however, President Biden moved swiftly to rejoin the agreement.

While many Washingtonians have seen the dramatic effects of climate change in faraway places — melting polar ice caps, scorching temperatures in the southwest, California wildfires, devastating tropical storms and Gulf hurricanes — local residents might be unclear about how the crisis is impacting the immediate area. For that reason, The Georgetowner asked officials overseeing environmental concerns for Washington, D.C., to describe such impacts. Excerpts from their responses follow.

Warming, Flooding and Health Effects

“The District of Columbia is warming, and flood risks are increasing,” said Terri White, communications branch chief for the EPA’s regional office. “The average temperature at Reagan National Airport has increased from 57.4 [degrees Fahrenheit] during the last half of the 20th century to 59.5 [degrees Fahrenheit] during the first two decades of the 21st century. Rainfall is increasingly concentrated in heavy rainstorms: in the region, the portion of rain that falls during the heaviest rain storms has increased 20 to 50 percent. At the official tide gauge along the Southwest Waterfront, sea level has risen six or seven inches during the last 50 years.

“The warmer temperatures are increasing the number of unpleasantly hot days in Washington, not only because the air is hotter, but also because the warmer air is more humid. The hot and humid weather is a health risk to those who do not have air conditioning, and it increases electric bills for those who do.

“Washington’s cherry trees are blooming earlier: since 1921, peak bloom dates have shifted approximately five days. Many of the cherry trees are also flooding more frequently. Most of the sidewalks along the Tidal Basin and part of the road to Hains Point in East Potomac Park, for example, are about one foot above the average daily high tide. This water level was only breached about six times per year during the 1950s, but is now exceeded more than 30 times per year. Most of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, the northern portion of Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling and about half of East Potomac Park are less than two feet above high tide.

“As severe rainstorms become more frequent, the risk of flood damage is increasing in other areas. The Georgetown waterfront, most homes along the north side of Watts Branch — as well as Mayfair on the south side — are in the 100-year floodplain, and several homes and businesses along Oxon Run are also vulnerable to flash flooding. Almost all the land around Federal Triangle is low-lying and vulnerable to flooding from severe rainstorms or high-water levels in the Potomac River. Aside from property damage, the flooding can also contribute to overflows of the District’s wastewater system.”

Tommy Wells, director of the District’s Department of Energy and the Environment, is also deeply concerned about the negative health effects of climate change on D.C. residents. “The first thing to note is that the climate has already changed,” Wells said. “We’ve already seen the five warmest years on record. We’ve seen the two wettest years on record in D.C. And, if you’re 32 years old, you have never actually experienced a normal-year climate here and you probably never will.”

As a city on two tidal riverways, D.C. is particularly susceptible to rising sea levels and has already experienced extreme flooding as a result. “Georgetown will be more susceptible to flooding from the Potomac River,” said Wells, especially as higher heat levels and storm intensities create storm surges that overwhelm the city’s built environment on the shorelines designed for lower sea levels. “At Hains Point, they did not intentionally build those sidewalks five inches below the water line at high tide.”

Two years ago, Wells recalled, extreme flooding on Canal Street in Georgetown resulted in the District’s first-ever National Weather Alert because of potential “loss of life and limb.” Images of visitors standing atop their flooded automobiles near the Potomac River are likely to be seen more frequently in the future. The District has also recently experienced microbursts flooding Northwest D.C. neighborhoods while leaving Southwest areas untouched. “The flooding is getting more and more intense inside the city, and it’s not just the threat of the coastal floods from our rivers, but the threat of interior floods in the city,” Wells said.

Until just a few years ago, most D.C. residents didn’t know the meaning of the word “derecho,” an extensive line of intense damaging windstorms, but now it’s an ever-present possibility in the nation’s capital.

“That’s what we expect in Georgetown and the other areas,” Wells continued. “It will be hotter, for much longer periods of time. We’ll have more floods coming through and the storms will continue to be more intense.”

Weather extremes in the city will also damage and put more wear-and-tear on infrastructure. The C&O Canal in Georgetown, damaged by storms in the past, will be particularly vulnerable.

For Wells, the signs of climate change in the District can also be more subtle. Few realize, for example, that the sandbags seen along the city’s vents and grates had to be placed there to avoid flooding and storm runoff. The meteorological lines determining growing seasons for plants, shrubs and trees in the area have also shifted far to the south. “Our new growing band in the next 30 years or so will be Nashville, Tennessee. So, our climate will be similar.”

Wells is most concerned about the rising number of consecutive extreme heat days bedeviling the District, and its impact on more vulnerable communities. “We were used to seeing extreme heat maybe one or two days at a time,” he said, “but now, heat emergencies are lasting longer and longer and we’ll have periods where maybe up to three weeks of heat emergencies take place.” Such heat waves “affect our outdoor workers and anybody who has to be outside,” he said. “[They] will have their respiratory, circulatory and cardio systems challenged.”

The elderly and the economically disadvantaged will also suffer the most without air conditioning, according to Wells. “We know, especially in lower income areas where air quality’s been bad that high heat is really part of the soup of ingredients that makes ozone and the noxious fumes that turn into ozone … trigger[ing] asthma and other health issues.”

Making the District Climate-Ready

Fortunately, the District is helping to lead the nation in innovative and sustainable approaches to the climate crisis. With the District Council’s support, the department has already implemented a raft of new climate plans, including Climate Ready D.C., Resilient D.C., Sustainable D.C. 2.0 and Clean Energy for D.C.

The city has begun shifting to sustainably sourced energy, putting in place the “first building energy performance laws in the nation,” Wells noted. Buildings in the District are assessed on how sustainable their energy use is and assigned Energy Star Ratings.

Under the Solar for All plan, the city created a Green Bank to help fund solar power installations and energy conversions for commercial and residential units. The current goal is that, by 2035, 10 percent of “all the energy used in the District … comes from solar power generated from the District … And, that’s a pretty ambitious goal, but we’ll see what happens,” Wells said.

To shift the District’s transportation sector toward sustainable energy use, Wells would like to see the city continue to develop pedestrian and bicycle-friendly infrastructure such as Capital Bikeshare, while continuing to electrify the transportation grid. Adding a streetcar route from Union Station to Georgetown would help meet such goals, he pointed out.

Wells also endorsed Mayor Bowser’s plans to prevent warming in the city by boosting its shady spaces. “Georgetown is blessed with a good tree canopy,” Wells said. “It helps cool things down … We’re planting trees at a pretty fast clip. For a couple of years before the pandemic, Mayor Bowser was planting almost 12,000 trees a year with a goal of getting a 40-percent tree canopy for the city that was once known as the City of Trees.”

Wells is clearly proud of the District’s leadership on climate change issues. “Overall, we’re the first LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] Platinum Certified City in the world. Our climate plans were important for that. Transparency of our data, having a lot of it online and the energy performance of our buildings helped D.C. be awarded this designation. New York City followed right after us. And now cities across America are looking to see how we’re doing this,” he said.

On an individual level, Wells believes in supporting sustainable energy use by following the naturalist David Attenborough’s adage to “waste nothing.” As a former D.C. Council member from Ward 6, he helped preserve the Anacostia River and provide children’s environmental education in the District with funding from the five-cent plastic bag tax, passed by the Council in 2010.

“We’re so lucky to have the residents we have in the District that expect their city to address climate change,” Wells said. “Our city, overall, believes in science.”


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