From once-a-century tropical storms flooding Palm Springs, CA, to penguins facing extinction in Antarctica, the impacts of climate change are arriving fast and furious. This summer was a turning point of sorts. According to experts, 2023 is on track to become the hottest year on record — a distinction that literally no one would want to claim.
Still, amid fire and brimstone and collective, existential angst, individuals, organizations, cities and entrepreneurs worldwide are taking steps to mitigate climate change as much as they can. We know that the biggest climate offenders are burning fossil fuels, deforestation and cultivating livestock; forces that can feel insurmountable. Yet, in the face of such forces small-scale steps not only feel empowering but make a difference, too.
As the planet hits a critical turning point, here are five places that are focusing on mitigation and resilience in powerful ways.
Phoenix, AZ, USA
Even for a desert city known for hot weather, Phoenix, AZ, has been outdoing itself. In July, the southwestern city had 31 days of temps that topped 110F, setting a new record. The Arizona Burn Center was reportedly at full capacity for weeks; at least 39 people died from heat-related causes; hundreds more are under investigation. In short, the city faced a crisis that put it on the frontlines of climate change.
Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, however, is keeping her cool, so to speak. In partnership with the city’s Heat Response Office, which was created in 2021, she’s leading mitigation efforts on a full suite of fronts. One set of initiatives are working to keep Phoenix cooler, which includes initiatives like painting roads with a reflective coating that absorbs less heat and expanding tree cover across the city. Another set of efforts focus on cooling-related services for residents, including the unhoused and medically vulnerable. Mobile cooling centers, cooling kits, transportable ice baths and other innovations are all in the mix.
Each summer, Gallego and her city learn more about how to handle increasingly untenable heat. It’s a lesson that, most likely, will bring new challenges next year, yet again.
Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands
The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is a constellation of 29 coral atolls and more than 1100 tiny islands that sits in the South Pacific, about halfway between Honolulu and the Philippines. It is a place that, by any measure, is beset with existential crises. Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. commandeered two of the country’s atolls, Bikini Atoll and Enewetak Atoll, and proceeded to conduct 67 nuclear tests. In the decades since, cancer has become an epidemic in the islands; affecting an estimated one in three Marshallese. Looking to the future brings another serious crisis: according to the World Bank, 96% of the capital, Majuro, is at risk of frequent flooding in the face of rising sea levels within the century. Amid such challenges, over the past few decades, at least 40% of the RMI’s population has migrated out.
Yet, among those who have stayed are some who still think the water-bound nation is worth fighting for. Francyne Wase-Jacklick and Monique Strauss are two of them. Together with a group of volunteers they founded Kora in Okrane (KIO), an all-women civic nonprofit that focuses on improving lives in their communities right now, future crises notwithstanding. This past summer, they achieved their biggest goal yet: they completed delivery of Sawyer portable water filters to every island in their 77,000 square-mile country. The feat took five years, dozens of grants, partnerships at the highest levels of government, plus multi-week boat trips, plane rides and about 30 volunteers.
As a result of KIO’s work, the RMI is now the second developing nation to achieve border-to-border clean water access, as defined by the stringent UNDP goal No. 6.
Oakland, CA, USA
When temperatures rise, it’s not just the elderly at risk of serious health impacts, but children too. In California, one culprit in particular is the asphalt that stretches across school yards from Fresno to Chula Vista. When the air heats up, so does the black top. On a day that reached 90F, the grounds at one school hit 140 degrees. Rubber material, meanwhile (it’s a kind of squishy padding used outdoors) gets even hotter. The same day, the school’s rubber grounds hit 165F — hot enough to scald a child instantly.
But there’s good news ahead. In response, California has earmarked $150 million to bring greenery to school yards. The goal is ambitious: Among the coalitions of organizations working on the initiative, one is working to increase schoolyard tree cover from 9% to 30% by 2035. This fall, state governor Gavin Newsom has pledged to push to codify a grant program for similar efforts.
From socialized health care to perfect croissants, six weeks of vacation and enviable gun safety, Europe does a lot of things better than the United States. But one issue they’re not immune to is climate change. This summer alone, Greece has faced catastrophic wildfires that have forced the evacuation of more than 20,000 people and taken at least 20 lives. Meanwhile, torrential rains in central Spain have turned roads and farmland into floodplains.
Yet, the continent is pushing back with a myriad of projects across the government and civil society. A European Union law requires that member countries must cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030, and be climate-neutral by 2050, making Europe a leader in climate change mitigation. The goal is part of a larger package called “Fit for 55,” a comprehensive set of strategies designed to meet UNDP targets and mobilize huge sectors of the European economy. At the heart of the plan is an EU emissions trading system (EU ETS) that financially incentivizes companies to reduce their emissions annually. The system has been in action since 2005, but this year the targets became more ambitious, in an effort to bring the EU even closer to climate neutrality.
Western Sydney, Australia
From July, 2019 to March, 2020, Sydney, Australia, experienced the worst fires the region had ever seen. The Black Summer Bushfires destroyed more than 3,500 homes and thousands of buildings were burned, and 34 people died. By one estimate, more than one billion animals were killed in the fires — a catastrophe for biodiversity and natural habitats. More than 80% of the area’s Blue Mountains were burned, and the fires left a wake of ash across farmland and forests.
Yet, the fires also sparked an idea. Haley Coghlan, an artist and educator, wondered how art could offer a response to the disaster—not only as an emotional and cultural rejoinder, but a practical one, too. She called on colleagues and together, with the aid of a government grant, created a series of seasonal, in-person workshops and later, workbooks, based on indigenous practices around each micro-season. They called the project Cool River City, and used it as a way to better connect with the land, understand its complexities, and put into practice small ways to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
The workbook included practices like composting, native planting, and even creating bird baths on balconies.
Said Coghlan, “Cool River City found new ways to forge connections when physical proximity was impossible. For people who have struggled during these times of extreme disruption and isolation [during COVID, after the fires], our project has been a beautiful way to connect.”
No community is untouched by the changing climate. But small acts of resilience can help them forge ahead.
RMI nuclear testing:
European climate change projects:
Phoenix/Mayor Kate Gallego:
Phoenix: summer of heat:
Sydney case study: