In recent years, Nashville has sought to tackle the challenges of climate change as extreme weather events, including “rain bombs” and tornadoes, have increased in frequency and intensity across Tennessee.
In 2019, Nashville joined the Global Covenant of Mayors (GCoM), a coalition of more than 175 US cities – and more than 11,000 worldwide – committed to sustainability. Mayor John Cooper (D), in making the announcement, committed to reducing the city government’s annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 40% by 2030 and 80% by 2050. The mayor also established the Sustainability Advisory Committee to develop a climate action plan that would enable the city to meet these commitments. In its 2021 report, the committee recommended that the community at large adopt the same 40% and 80% goals of the city government. The 2021 report prioritized as key strategies the implementation of renewable energy in buildings and converting government and commercial vehicle fleets to run on electricity.
Yet, it is unclear whether the city will be able to achieve its goals without the full support of the business community, which to date has been lukewarm to the mayor’s plans. At the same time, the city is unable to find much tangible support from the state, which offers little in the way of guidance or funding for climate-related programs.
Promoting New Climate Initiatives
Nashville has been able to advance several climate initiatives by marketing them for the economic and moral support they offer low-income residents.
The mayor’s Food Saver Challenge is one such initiative, aimed at lowering methane emissions by reducing food waste entering landfills from restaurants and large commercial kitchens. Landfills are a significant source of methane, which contributes to near-term warming far more than CO2 in the first years after it is emitted into the atmosphere (CO2 lingers longer and so has a more adverse long-term impact). The Food Saver Challenge implements a key mitigation strategy – “reduced disposal of food waste in landfills” – identified in the Sustainability Advisory Committee’s 2021 report. Food not used is donated to composting organizations and local nonprofits dedicated to feeding low-income residents. By leaning into the “feed the hungry” messaging of this environmentally-oriented campaign, Nashville has found a successful way to make progress towards its emissions goals without provoking those who think that sustainability should not be a priority.
Nashville Electric Service’s Home Uplift Program has a similar economic and moral appeal. With the help of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the regional power utility now gives low-income homeowners up to $14,000 for an energy audit and weatherization. The utility markets this initiative, a response to climate change-related increases in extreme weather events, as a way to both increase jobs and make seniors more comfortable. In highlighting the program’s economic benefits, the utility points out that the updated homes are no longer leaking heat in the winter and cold air in the summer, which uses less electricity and makes it much easier to maintain and stabilize the electric grid. It also saves the homeowners’ money.
Community organizations are making their own efforts to target the impacts of climate change that matter to them. The Cumberland River Compact advocates for a safer river that provides drinking water for much of the region. As temperatures rise, the river flows considerably slower, allowing sediment and chemicals to build up. Thus, the cost to maintain an adequate watershed rises with climate change. The organization and its partners work on a variety of green infrastructure projects and also emphasize public education, such as hosting an annual Youth Climate Summit. At the summit in February 2021, 63 students collaborated with community leaders to identify five “climate action pathways” – Energy, Natural Resources, Mobility and Transportation, Waste, and Community Action – for which they developed specific actions to take at the individual, school, and community levels. The Cumberland River Compact also offers free lesson plans to teach students about Tennessee’s environment, with some lessons specific to climate change.
Similarly, Roots Nashville has become one of the largest environmental organizations in the city, seeking to increase the city’s tree canopy. It is an offshoot of the Cumberland River Compact that has now partnered with the city government to plant 500,000 trees by 2050. The aim is to lower the city’s air temperature by reducing the heat island effect, which occurs when a city experiences higher temperatures due to the tendency of roads, buildings, and other human-made infrastructure to absorb heat from the sun. The anticipated decrease in temperature has the potential to cut use of air conditioning, reduce demand on the electric grid, and help shrink the city’s carbon footprint.
An Ambivalent Embrace
However, the Nashville business community has not fully embraced the emissions goals.
According to the Tennessean, Ralph Schulz, president of Nashville’s Chamber of Commerce, told a public forum in 2020 that environmental sustainability is generally not a high priority for businesses looking to relocate to Nashville.
In the same article, the TVA, the federally-owned utility supplying power to much of the South, including Nashville Electric Service, acknowledged that it was not moving more quickly to renewable energy because, it said, that was not in the best interest of “the people they serve”. (That was last year, 2020. In May of this year, with a new president in the White House who has made climate change a priority, TVA announced that it “has a path to an 80% reduction [in emissions] by 2035” and aspires to be net-zero by 2050.)
Last year’s “Nashville Carbon Competitiveness” report, by a consulting firm that specializes in climate strategy, offered a contrasting perspective to Schulz and the TVA in the pre-Biden period. The report determined that Fortune 500 companies were, in fact, “increasingly prioritizing climate and clean energy factors” in their decision-making. It also concluded that Nashville’s currently limited initiatives for emissions reduction and renewable energy made it less competitive than other comparable cities for new business.
In order for the city to make meaningful progress on its goals, Mary Beth Ikard, the former director of resilience and sustainability for the mayor’s office, spoke of “the two ways to cut into our carbon footprint: regulations on the business community and infrastructure investment”. Given Nashville’s business and political landscape, the city has pursued only the latter option – a choice that may limit its ability to achieve those goals.
Lack of Urgency Defies Costs
Nashville experienced its second-worst rainfall in history in March 2021. Six people were killed as buildings and homes flooded and cars were submerged. Davidson County, where Nashville is located, requested nearly $11 million from state and federal emergency management agencies to cover the damages. One year earlier, a series of 10 tornadoes struck Middle Tennessee, including the first to hit downtown Nashville in 20 years. The tornadoes killed 25 and were followed by another set of twisters in April. Total estimated damage from the two events approached $1.5 billion. In May 2020, a derecho left 130,000 without power. All of these events were reminders of the area’s lack of adequate preparedness for the increasingly frequent weather-related disruptions.
A May 2010 flood had been the original wake-up call. Still known as the storm that “brought Nashville to its knees”, that flood submerged the stage at the historic Grand Ole Opry, left 26 people dead, and ruined almost 11,000 homes. In total, it brought over $2 billion in damage to private property and $120 million to public property.
Since that devastation, Nashville’s city council has four times rejected a proposal to construct a flood wall to protect the downtown, which is bordered by the often-surging Cumberland. The most recent rejection was in 2018.
The city’s lack of urgency seems confounding. Ikard compared Tennessee to its southern neighbors that are also experiencing extreme weather events. “If you think about Louisiana and Florida, where climate change is already encroaching on extremely valuable real estate, they come out with state-wide adaptation strategies to minimize loss of life and property. Tennessee, even though facing extreme weather, hasn’t seen that same sort of imperative”, she said.
In fact, Governor Bill Lee (R) did not mention climate change in any of his three state-of-the-state addresses, though he has referenced the flooding in the state each year, going so far in his 2020 speech as to tell “the farmer standing in a flooded field, looking over a ruined crop in West Tennessee — I see you”. But he offered little in the way of preparing the state against extreme weather events or reducing emissions of the greenhouse gases that are at the root of the problem.
The lack of state-level support means that cities like Nashville are mostly on their own when attempting to address a problem that affects the entire state.
Without an imperative from the state or greater cooperation from the area’s business community, there is only so much Nashville can do to combat climate change. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation would be a logical state office to impose a climate adaptation plan. However, a search of its website for the term “climate change” yields only a report on sustainable building materials in the United States – from three years ago. The report itself does not even use the term climate change.
The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency has made recommendations for climate mitigation, however most put the burden of implementation on individuals or cities. The agency’s recommended actions include investing in flood insurance, advocating for stricter building codes, and buying generators for “community critical facilities”.
Nashville has demonstrated its ability and willingness to act, from the goal-setting collaboration with the Global Covenant of Mayors to the mayor’s Food Saver Challenge and targeted programs from community organizations like the Cumberland River Compact and Roots Nashville. To make further progress, however, Nashville will need the state and the business community to make emissions reduction and adaptation efforts a priority, one that encourages more productive collaboration and, if necessary, regulation than what currently exists.
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