‎Climate Change Driven Home by Oregon Environmental Council

The Cleveland Clinic is dealing with climate change by building resilient communities, and has also cut electricity use by 5 percent.

Cars and coal each account for a quarter of Oregon’s pollution with Oregon’s future headed for hotter summers and wetter winters due to the impact of climate change. That message was driven home at a climate change forum sponsored by the Oregon Environmental Council last week.

“Poverty, education and housing are the main determinants of health,” said Lillian Shirley, director of the Oregon Public Health Division. “We know climate change makes health disparities even worse than they already are.”

Statewide, drought, deteriorating air quality, wildfires, heat waves, water-borne disease, increased allergens and diseases spread by ticks and mosquitoes and water contaminated from drought or flooding are the primary climate-change related impacts.

In Multnomah County, heat especially puts vulnerable populations at risk, aggravates respiratory diseases like asthma and even can lessen the effectiveness of medications for heart disease, birth control and anxiety, said Kari Lyons-Eubanks, ‎environmental health policy analyst at Multnomah County Health Department.

“One of the things we have to realize about climate change is it’s here,” she said. While we can identify hot spots based on urban heat island data, no one definition of “extreme heat” exists among jurisdictions nor is there a registry for vulnerable populations who first responders might want to check, such as those who need electricity to run oxygen machines.

More worrisome, what does the county say to those with no access to resources to deal with heat. “So what’s the message?” Lyons-Eubanks asked rhetorically. “You’re in a heat island. We don’t have air conditioning for you but you need to cross ventilate.”

She was particularly intrigued that the Cleveland Clinic was looking at economic development and trying to hire locally as a resilience measure.

Building resilient communities is part of the esteemed Cleveland Clinic’s efforts to deal with climate change, Jon Utech, senior director of the Office for a Healthy Environment at the Cleveland Clinic, told the forum.

With 43,000 caregivers providing five million patient visits a year across more than 24

million square feet of buildings in Ohio, Florida, Las Vegas -- and coming soon to Abu Dhabi, the second biggest city in the United Arab Emirates – the Cleveland Clinic is a major player in the healthcare field.

Ohio, a coal state in a manufacturing region, suffers from smog and an algae bloom in Lake Erie that can impact drinking water supplies in Toledo. Northeast Ohio, where the Cleveland Clinic operates 10 hospitals and 18 other facilities, is where the Cuyahoga River caught fire, helping to spur the environmental movement of the late 1960s .

“Cleveland is in our name,” said Utech, who wants to turn it into a “green city on a blue lake.”

But while the Cleveland Clinic, the largest energy user in the third-largest energy using state, has cut electricity use by 5 percent in four years, mitigation alone is not enough to fight climate change.

“The uncommon is going to become common,” Utech said. To cope with what he called “climate weird” such as the polar vortex that froze pipes or city water supplies in Ohio, Cleveland Clinic is designing facilities with extra water sources, generators on roofs instead of potentially flooding basements, reinforcing windows in hurricane-prone zones and preparing for hospitals to be potential cooling centers during more frequent and deadly heat waves.

As part of its climate change focus, Cleveland Clinic also is engaged in a community support 10-year plan with University Hospital, a direct competitor, to encourage local hiring and economic resilience.

“Poverty is at the top of the list of city issues,” Utech said. Hospitals that hire workers who live nearby get the added benefit of employees close enough to come in safely for their shifts during a blizzard and not commuting long, polluting distances.

Cully neighborhood makes strides

The Cully neighborhood in northeast Portland, like Cleveland, is using sustainability as an anti-poverty strategy by working with Habitat for Humanity and others to weatherize and improve homes – even turning a 25-acre brownfield into a park. More than half of its population is of color, and 26 percent live in poverty, according to Tony DeFalco, the Living Cully Ecodistrict Coordinator for Verde.

The Cully “ecodistrict” provides jobs and is creating a healthier community through economic development and environmental improvement, and by including people of color in the decision making.

“Can the poor stay as the neighborhood improves? We have an anti-displacement effort,” said DeFalco, who admits that “it’s never been done in Portland before. But we have to. If we can’t, we’re creating cities for the wealthy.”

Jan can be reached at [email protected].

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