Democrats’ plan to increase ‘tree equity’ is actually a good idea

Trees have become a controversial part of the Democrats’ Build Back Better Act, the budget reconciliation bill that encompasses broad social and environmental programs. Republicans in Congress grabbed the $ 3 billion proposed nearly $ 2,000 billion tree planting bill, with a focus on improving “tree fairness” – despite the fact that this is a strategy that experts believe could reduce health disparities in cities.

While opponents have called the fairness provisions of the trees an indicator of “reckless spending by Democrats Party” and one “waste [of] even more taxpayer money ”, in fact, disparities in tree cover between US cities are a huge problem that affects heat exposure, air quality and more, with serious consequences for human health. This inequity actually builds on a legacy of segregation, pollution and disinvestment in communities of color. Planting trees in the right places could be a step towards healing some of these injustices.

“We are depriving the communities that need and depend on these trees to help them live a good quality of life,” says Charity Nyelele, postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Earth System Sciences at the University of California at Irvine.

Neighborhoods where the majority of residents are people of color have, on average, 33 percent less forest cover than predominantly white neighborhoods, according to data from the Tree Equity Score, an initiative supported by the nonprofit American Forests. Americans of color are more likely to live in “urban heat islands”, places that retain heat because there is a lot more concrete and asphalt than trees and greenery.

It is not a coincidence. Urban heat islands also overlap with the maps of underline neighborhoods, places where black Americans have been pressured to settle since the 1930s due to discriminatory housing policies that denied them home loans and insurance. Now, these neighborhoods are reaching temperatures up to 7 degrees Celsius warmer than neighboring neighborhoods not marked in red, according to research published last year.

One solution to cooling urban heat islands is to plant more trees. Trees not only provide shade, but they also lower temperatures as water evaporates from their leaves (a cooling to treat called evapotranspiration which is similar to human perspiration). A to study in Phoenix found that trees were even more effective at helping neighborhoods relax during the day than other heat-mitigation strategies, such as painting roofs and streets white to reflect sunlight.

It is a service that saves lives. Extreme heat has killed more people than any other weather disaster in the United States in the past 30 years. Deaths are often concentrated in the most vulnerable communities. At New York, for example, the extreme heat killed a disproportionate number black residents. Heat waves are only getting more dangerous because of the climate crisis.

“Most people think of it as beautification or aesthetics, just plant trees because they are pretty and beautiful to look at,” says Nyelele. ” But this is not the case. These are the benefits we can derive from it.

There are other benefits to have more trees in the neighborhoods. Trees can actually help clean up air pollution, which is another common problem in neighborhoods without a lot of green space. And they can reduce street flooding because their roots and the soil they grow in absorb water, as opposed to impervious surfaces like asphalt.

Funny enough, Republicans attacked the Build Back Better Act and its tree provisions even though they were actually a fan of tree planting as a strategy to fight climate change. Last year, former President Trump even engaged the United States to join an initiative to plant a trillion trees around the world. Although this initiative has attracted much criticism from scientists, healthy forests are important carbon sinks because trees trap and store the carbon dioxide that heats the planet.

“There are also benefits that you can’t really measure,” says Ariane Middel, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who focuses on urban climate science. “Just being in nature has overall health benefits for people. And these are really difficult to quantify. “

As it stands, the Rebuild Better Act includes $ 3 billion in grants to tribes, state agencies, local governments and NGOs for tree planting. He prioritizes “projects that increase tree equity,” but details on how the money would be spent are otherwise scarce. There is still $ 100 million in the Forest Service bill to create new urban forests.

As he would become the greatest wrap climate policies in US history if ultimately passed, the bill still faces a tough vote in the divided Senate after months of political wrangling

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Margarita B. Bittner