Commentary: Be prepared for climate emergencies

September is Emergency Preparedness Month.

While Utahns traditionally take important measures to prepare for sudden natural disasters such as earthquakes, we also need to think about taking mitigating action for climate-related events such as extreme flooding, changing water supplies, wildfire and heat waves.

This need is amplified by the awful pictures we see of Hurricane Harvey and Irma and the destruction they have wrought. In Texas alone initial estimates are putting the damage at over $180 billion – that is billion, with a “b” – and we can’t start to comprehend numbers like that.

Scientists have been warning us for years that a warming climate increases the strength of storms like these — larger, powerful and devastating to our communities.

One month before Harvey hit, Salt Lake City experienced our own 200-year storm. While not nearly on the scale of Harvey, we got a taste of what can happen when a large amount of rain falls in a short amount of time, with millions of dollars of damage to homes, schools and businesses.

It’s time to stop making excuses. We have had enough warnings. Our rapidly warming climate is creating unusual and dangerous weather patterns.

Salt Lake City is preparing for these risks. We are using future climate models to plan for everything from water supply to the impacts of big storms. We’re also taking steps to reduce our emissions.

But everyone needs to understand these future climate threats, and take action themselves.

The preparation for these events is much the same as with an earthquake, with emergency supplies and evacuation plans. In addition, we must also take individual and collective action to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we are putting into the atmosphere, to minimize future climate risk.

Salt Lake City has pledged to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions dramatically—an 80 percent community-wide reduction of 2009 levels by 2040—and we are integrating that goal into every facet of our policies and operations. The new Energy Transparency & Benchmarking Ordinance is just one example of how something as simple and cost-effective as energy efficiency can save building owners money, improve air quality and reduce carbon emissions.

Individuals must also take action on climate preparedness and mitigation. While we update our individual emergency plans this September, we should also look at how we can better insulate our homes; purchase energy efficient vehicles and appliances; eat less meat and dairy; and use transit, bike or walk more as these will all reduce our personal emissions.

It is also time to encourage statewide policies and laws that will drastically reduce the quantity of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere. Let’s press forward with full support and funding for energy efficiency programs, renewable energy, electric vehicles and charging stations, and stronger energy codes for new and existing buildings.

It’s common to say “I’m stuck in traffic.” But look around; we are the traffic. We often don’t acknowledge that we are part of the problem. It’s the same with climate change; each of us contributes to its cause, and we all need to contribute to the solution.

Let’s use Emergency Preparedness Month as an opportunity to address all future risks. Each of us must take action to minimize the risks of climate change.

Vicki Bennett is the Director of Salt Lake City’s Department of Sustainability. Cory Lyman is the Director of Salt Lake City’s Office of Emergency Management.