Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
What was once a barren patch of dirt just south of the Wilson Middle School track now teems with life: carrot, strawberry, beet plants, and the students who grow them.
And on a toasty Thursday afternoon, the young gardeners were able to show off their fruit and vegetables to a top federal official in town to learn how Albuquerque is working to mitigate the health impacts of climate change.
“Every seed you plant, that’s hope,” Wilson gardening teacher Susan Schipull said during a brief presentation school representatives and other garden supporters gave U.S. Assistant Health Secretary Rachel Levine and her team visiting from Washington, D.C. “That (is) hope that something’s going to grow, something is going to develop, we’re going to have something to show for that. Along with that hope, these kids are given hope because they’re learning skills they can use for the rest of their life.”
Speakers told Admiral Levine and her team how the surrounding International District has numerous community gardens and is in the midst of a tree-planting push to provide more cover in what is a high-density and lower-income area blanketed with pavement.
Levine called the garden stop the highlight of her day.
But her whirlwind afternoon also included a mini-tour of the bosque to hear about local efforts to maintain the river forest and a press briefing with state and local officials where she learned about New Mexico’s rising number of heat-stress emergency room visits – up 72% from 2008 to 2020, according to a state Department of Health official – but also about how the government is reacting. Mayor Tim Keller explained, for instance, that 88% of city government facilities are now powered by renewable energy. Other city representatives discussed a 2021 heat mapping project that found temperature disparities as high as 17 degrees across Albuquerque as well as the city’s push to plant or encourage others to plant 100,000 new trees by 2030 – and how it is specifically targeting areas with higher recorded temperatures and will participate in a program to examine potential temperature reductions following plantings.
Levine, who oversees the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, said the challenges need to be addressed now.
“We kept thinking of these health impacts as an existential crisis, which somehow implies that it’s something in the future. But as you are seeing this right now – we are seeing the impacts of climate change right now. And you’re seeing it right now in New Mexico, and in Albuquerque, with the heat emergencies that you’re talking about, with the fires and the smoke,” she said.
Levine said “the intentionality, the thoughtfulness” she saw from New Mexico leaders impressed her. As she visits different cities, she said her team will look for ways the federal government can help advance their existing projects and spread the word about the most successful initiatives.
“Heat is a problem in the middle of New York City, in Seattle, Washington, and in Albuquerque. … What are the commonalities? What are the differences? What did they all learn? And how can we serve to pollinate … those ideas across the country, ” Levine said in an interview.