The climate crisis presents a lot of problems. Centering equity offers a number of solutions. 

OPINION: The gloom-and-doom narrative surrounding the climate crisis can be overwhelming. But if we center equity in our response and focus on solutions, we can seize the opportunity to save our planet and our lives. 

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Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

If you have been paying attention to the shifting climate for longer than five minutes, you are likely to have witnessed or felt adverse climate effects. Whether it is extreme heat and flooding in urban neighborhoods, droughts and wildfires in rural settings, sky-high utility bills or a multitude of elevated health risks, the climate crisis presents challenges on every front, particularly for those who are already marginalized. For those of us who work in the climate crisis mitigation space, these challenges are often so pronounced and our experience in vulnerable communities so profound that “climate justice fatigue” often clouds our perspective. It can also lead many in our communities to think that mitigating deadly heat waves or extreme weather events is beyond our control.  

The constant reminder of looming climate threats can leave us feeling overwhelmed and discouraged. I mean, can we really turn the tide on a catastrophe that has reached global proportions? Is it really possible to save the glaciers or clean the air, soil, and water or lower the temperature in our cities or protect endangered species or prevent flooding every time it rains or kick our collective addiction to oil and gas? Will the transition to clean energy really be just, or will this just be a newer, greener version of the same old environmental racism and inequality that has characterized America since its inception?

The answer to these tough questions depends on our collective approach. As great as the challenges are, our collective imagination, hope and determination are greater. If we focus solely on the challenges, it is far more likely that we will become paralyzed. However, if we 1. center equity in our response and 2. focus on solutions, we can seize the opportunity to save our planet and our lives in the process. 

Fortunately, there is a fresh approach that is just, equitable and financially beneficial for everyone. It is called the “smart surfaces” strategy —  a holistic, solutions-oriented model that addresses extreme heat with tangible, cost-effective solutions. Unfortunately, many of the cities and vulnerable communities that are most in need of these solutions have yet to hear about “smart surfaces.” But that reality is rapidly changing. We are beginning to see the emergence of strategic coalitions in cities across the country that recognize the critical need for a reversal in the doom-and-gloom narratives that dominate headlines and paralyze communities into inaction.  

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One promising example of this emerging trend is the Smart Surfaces Coalition, which consists of over 40 partner organizations — including Metropolitan A.M.E. Church, the National League of Cities, the American Public Health Association, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health — which offers cost-effective solutions to combat extreme heat. Transformative collaborations like this are not only laser-focused on solutions, but they are also dispelling the baseless notion that the climate crisis is “unsolvable” by combining the power of public policy with the innovative expertise of community-based organizations to transform cities and communities across the country.  

The climate crisis did not happen on its own, nor is it a product of nature. Centuries of inequitable and racist public policies dug us into the current climate hole, and it is going to take just and equitable public policies to dig us out. We begin the long journey toward equity by introducing inexpensive and fast-working solutions to city and metropolitan area policymakers and legislators, helping them reimagine the design and use of public spaces. By investing in cool, green, highly reflective surfaces (roads, roofs, parking lots, etc.) cities are lowering temperatures while simultaneously reaping benefits across the board from public health to economic growth. 

Each of these transformative measures is cost-effective, sustainable and easily deployable. For example, by simply using cool, reflective roofs alone, cities can experience a citywide temperature reduction of up to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Planting trees citywide, (with a concentration in neighborhoods where trees and green spaces have been historically under-developed) could add another 5 to 10 degrees of cooling while simultaneously lowering pollution rates. In Black and low-resource neighborhoods where deadly urban heat island effects are prominent, the full use of smart surface models could be a game-changer for health, public safety, and job creation. 

Organizations involved in these collaborations are providing direct-to-community grants that are sparking climate innovation for the populations that are hardest hit by global warming’s most destructive impacts. This holistic grass tops (policy) and grassroots (community building) approach ensures that equity is centered in the quest for solutions and that ecosystems are created that allow vulnerable communities to flourish. 

In previous human rights and civil rights struggles it was average, everyday people who played pivotal roles in overcoming the greatest threats to justice, equity, and human prosperity. 

As has been the case throughout human history, so it is today. Our ability to build healthy, cool, safe, and livable communities around the world is within our grasp. In fact, the transformation is already underway — and it is being led by residents, business owners, nonprofit directors, policymakers and high school students. These are the people who understand that we already have what we need to secure our present and our children’s and grandchildren’s futures.

Rev. Dr. Jon Robinson is senior program director at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church.