Charles County education, government and resilience authority officials celebrate Arbor Day with the Elite Black Men student group at Westlake High School in Waldorf. Photo courtesy of Stacy Schaefer.

MD - Commentary: The importance of building climate resilience grounded in environmental justice

The writer is executive director of the Resilience Authority of Charles County.

On October 26th, I had the honor of celebrating the 2023 Charles County Resilience Authority Fall Arbor Day at Westlake High School in Waldorf.  The event marked the 75th tree planted on school campuses this fall, and the beginning of a yearly program aimed at restoring native tree canopies at Charles County public schools in “Urban Heat Islands.” Heat islands are the result of the uneven, inequitable spread of land covers in the landscape; they are defined by more heat-absorbing buildings and pavements and fewer cool spaces with trees and greenery. One of the central challenges of climate change is increasing temperatures. And while heat affects everyone, those in urban heat islands suffer disproportionately, with increased heat-related health risks, lower air quality, and a higher economic burden of air conditioning costs.

The Charles County Resilience Authority is the first of its kind in the nation — it is a unique nonprofit created by state and local legislation to serve the public purpose of responding to the effects of climate change across communities in Charles County. Our vision is to set a national example of climate resilience grounded in environmental justice.

Over half a century ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.” The 75 trees we planted this fall are a mixture of species native to Maryland’s coastal plain. As they grow, they will enhance our resilience in the face of climate change by removing carbon dioxide from the air, storing carbon in the trees and soil, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere, and supporting native biodiversity. Trees offer cooling shade, prevent soil erosion, clean our water, and add grace and beauty to our communities. When Professor Brian Stone, director of the Georgia Institute of Technology Urban Climate Lab, was recently interviewed by the New York Times, he noted “if you wanted to invent the most effective kind of climate management technology from the ground up, you could spend a lot of time trying to do that. You would just engineer a tree.”

While the Charles County Resilience Authority is also hard at work on other resilience projects related to shoreline protection and stormwater management, planting the right native trees in the right locations allows us to make an immediate and long-term impact in pursuit of our vision; trees, with the numerous benefits they provide, are environmental justice multipliers that bring us together. For many years into the future, hundreds of Charles County students will have increased exposure to nature by documenting tree survivability and wildlife recruitment. And at our Arbor Day celebration, I was privileged to meet the Elite Black Men group of Westlake High School — students who lead an innovative program aimed at changing the narrative around young Black men — who planted their school’s trees.

Thanks to our Board of Directors, Charles County Public Schools, Maryland Forest Service, Charles County Government, grants from the Maryland Urban Community Forest Committee and MDOT’s Urban Tree Program, and a philanthropic donation from the Student Conservation Association, we have been able to both plant trees and form the Resilience Authority Youth Corps to care for the trees. Our partner, the Student Conservation Association (SCA), has created equitable access to nature by providing green job opportunities for young people for over 60 years. Through our Charles County Resilience Authority Youth Corps, the SCA hires and mentors local high school students who receive paid skilled job training and environmental educational programming on Saturdays tied to tree care to ensure the newly planted trees’ survival rate. Our first crew starts this November, and I can’t wait to share their successes. Future plans include expanding our Youth Corps with SCA, and participating in Gov. Wes Moore’s Maryland Serves Program.

While establishing native tree canopies is an important near-term step, true climate resilience requires more. It requires that we think in bigger environmental terms than merely “bouncing back.” It requires that we dedicate ourselves toward a focus on equity, environmental justice, and long-term sustainability, and it requires that we recognize a fundamental truth: the strength to fuel and maintain these efforts over time resides not only in the wondrous, resilient biodiversity of the natural world around us but also in the wonderous richness of human diversity and potential.

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