What's needed to fight climate change? Equity project liaisons aim to find out

·4 min read

For Roxanna de la Rosa, talking to local residents about climate change is really exciting — and she does it whenever she has a chance in both English and Spanish, the latter of which is her first language.

One might see her volunteering for, or talking about the so-called MetroWest Climate Equity Project at the grocery store, laundromat or even as she gets her nails done.

She’s part of a team of community climate liaisons, tasked by the municipalities of Framingham, Ashland and Natick to encourage residents to spend 10 minutes answering a survey, either online or on paper. The feedback will influence future projects in those municipalities.

“We are working together to involve our communities in what climate changes they think are affecting them and their family and their community,” de la Rosa said. “It’s really interesting how many people are affected in different ways."

The MetroWest Climate Equity Project is a partnership between Ashland, Framingham and Natick designed to build relationships with residents, especially those in neighborhoods most likely to be affected by climate change, to learn what residents are worried about and what they care about. The municipalities are hoping to use that information to guide future projects, grants and plans in the city and towns.

The survey is available in English, Spanish and Portuguese. Residents have until May 30 to submit their responses online.

Questions include issues such as whether residents think climate change will affect them; whether they’ve experienced some of the hallmarks of climate change already, such as feeling unwell due to unseasonably hot weather or bad allergies; and whether residents are able to stay home in extreme weather events such as flooding or heat waves — and how they might be preparing for extreme weather events.

The project is being funded by the Massachusetts Executive Office for Energy and Environmental Affairs. It's part of its Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness program, which aims to help municipalities plan for resiliency in the face of climate change.

“We have struggled, historically, as a town — and I don’t think we’re alone in this — in reaching people who are renters, or lower-income or who don’t speak English as a first language,” said Jillian Wilson-Martin, Natick's director of sustainability.

That underrepresentation can be seen at the polls, too: West Natick, which is more renter-oriented, typically has low voter turnout, Wilson-Martin said. She said creating an equitable community means reaching those residents and incorporating their thoughts into climate plans, something the community liaisons have been helping with.

“A big part of that is building relationships with people who live in these areas and making the government more accessible to them,” Wilson-Martin said.

One reason Niri Kumar moved to Natick was the town’s commitment to sustainability and diversity — there’s a rain barrel program, for example, and Kumar started a Natick Desi group to connect South Asians in the community. She even put in a letter to strengthen the grant proposal for the project.

“This is something that’s a passion for me, and I think it should be a passion for everyone,” Kumar said.

For some, she said, there’s a disconnect between, say, what’s happening to the polar bears versus what might affect residents in Framingham, Ashland and Natick.

The community liaison model is a first for Natick, and probably the other communities, Wilson-Martin said, and it’s been a success so far.

“I think there’s a lot that we could do with it for the municipality beyond climate change,” Wilson-Martin said. “Because it’s not just on climate that people aren’t engaged. It’s all of the issues: health issues, even education issues, and things like that. These are the same populations that we as municipalities need to work harder to be better servants for.”

Especially important are the "environmental justice communities," where residents often face more effects of climate change. Wilson-Martin said those with less income are more likely to experience hardship related to climate change, such as having outdoor jobs or poor air quality.

One effect of climate change that people may already be noticing is the weather, according to NOAA: in just one month in 2010, intense rainstorms led to more than $2 billion in damages and the state experienced its wettest decade on record from 2005 to 2014; at the other extreme, the state also experienced droughts in 2016, 2017 and 2020; nights are, on average, getting warmer, and temperatures are projected to exceed record highs in the coming decades, which will contribute to more heat-related illnesses and deaths.

With the help of the survey responses, “we can know how to help people in ways that they think would be valuable to them, instead of just putting together a plan that doesn’t include their input,” Wilson-Martin said.

Wilson-Martin said many of the responses collected so far suggest many concerns over how climate change will impact them.

“Which is good and bad to hear,” she said. “It’s bad that climate change will affect all of our lives, but it’s good to know that they’re thinking about it and that this is an issue that we can work together on."

This article originally appeared on MetroWest Daily News: Framingham, Natick and Ashland are conducting climate equity survey