Carla Walker designs strategies to address climate changes equitably
You work on complex, hugely important problems that no one person is capable of solving. You’re all about thinking big. So when you’re thinking about climate change, for example, how do you wrap your head around something like that and bring it to the local level? It can feel overwhelming.?
It often does feel overwhelming, but I feel that way because of the urgent need to equitably address the climate crisis—and I feel as if we are not moving fast enough in that direction. Last year’s global climate change report was one of the latest red alert warnings about the increasing risks and impacts of climate change. These alarms may still sound like they are coming from far away. The truth is that the impact is local. We are seeing it right in front of our doors. From flooding from more frequent heavy rainfall events to increased adverse health risk associated with higher levels of air pollutants such as ozone which is worsened by higher temperatures, we can see it all in our communities. For an even more direct relation, look at how climate change hits our wallets—the extreme variants in temperature mean that we are spending more money to heat our homes in the winter and cool them in the summer.
We also know that some communities, in particular communities of color and other historically marginalized communities, are being impacted the most—much higher utility bills, greater health risks from extreme heat, more risk to flooding—and they lack the resilient tools or strategies to recover. It is not a new idea that environmental and climate justice solutions are needed. We should be focusing equity in policy and programmatic approaches. Research has documented the environmental burdens and the benefits that come with social inequalities. There are many studies. While you may hear about global and national initiatives to address climate change and I agree, solutions can be found and implemented at local level by state, regional and local policymakers, in partnership with communities.
What brought you back to Cincinnati? What keeps you here?
I moved back to Cincinnati in 2005 to help with my father’s health issues. I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time and working for ONE.org, a global advocacy organization and campaign group that fights poverty and preventable diseases, primarily in Africa. I had been working alongside them to set up and manage their U.S. field operations. My father has since transitioned but I’m a native Cincinnatian so my family is here and that keeps me local as well as an incredible network of sister-friends.
You’ve done lots of work at the intersection of climate and economic justice in Cincinnati, including a program to fund energy efficiency programs for low-income residents in multi-family homes.
Yes, the WarmUp Cincy suite was created by my team while I was the Climate Advisor in Cincinnati as part of the American Cities Climate Challenge. The programs filled a much-needed energy efficiency services gap for income-eligible renters since most of Cincinnati’s existing energy efficiency programs, offered through the utility, provided services for owners of single-family homes. The programs were designed to support the city’s climate goal of reducing household energy burden by 10 percent by 2023. I’m really proud of that work because we designed the program with intentionality to address the challenges income-eligible renters were facing trying to pay their electricity bills and I’m glad to see the city continue the program with its partners Duke Energy, Community Action Agency of Hamilton County, and People Working Cooperatively.
I’ve had the pleasure of working on a number of projects in Cincinnati to address climate and environmental justice. As a climate advisor, I supported the Climate Safe Neighborhood initiative, which was led by a dynamic team from Groundwork Ohio River Valley and Green Umbrella. Groundwork initiated this community engagement initiative to examine the relationship between historical race-based housing discrimination and the predicted and actual impacts of climate. Community representatives identified their specific climate needs and created a neighborhood climate strategy that I hope will serve as a model for other neighborhoods to be incorporated into Cincinnati’s 2023 climate action plan.
I’ve also been involved with water issues in Cincinnati. As a strategic adviser to the Environmental Community Organization, I worked closely with their leadership in order to ensure fair and equitable sewer rates for Cincinnati. I’ve also worked with a coalition of water advocates across the Great Lakes basin to address equity issues in Great Lakes Restoration funding as an equity strategist working with the Healing Our Waters Coalition.
One event I was proud of creating and producing was Black Flowers. It focused on the contributions and achievements of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), climate change and environmental experts in the Southern Ohio/Northern Kentucky regions. It’s one of the activities I wish I could have continued because it created a space for and shined a local spotlight on people who may not necessarily always be seen or may not be at the table, or be heard.
Additionally, I am a member of several boards that research, advocate, and explore strategies to address climate injustices, including Green Umbrella and Ohio Citizen Action.
Do you feel the City of Cincinnati does enough to ensure its climate future is protected?
I have been involved with Cincinnati’s climate change efforts since Mayor Mallory launched the first climate action plan in 2008 and I’m known for saying that the city is punching above its weight in the climate fight for cities. So I believe we are doing great work, and we are recognized in the climate space as a leader municipally. But we can do so much more to preserve our climate future. We have the opportunity to do so in the next iteration if our climate strategy. [in 2023]New leadership in the city. The new Mayor has made climate change a priority for his Administration. He has already taken the first steps to show his commitment by creating the Climate, Environment, and Infrastructure Council Committee and appointing Meeka Owens, Councilwoman, as chair. We can build on what has been done because we have a good foundation but I’d like to see the next climate plan center equity in its strategies and outcomes as well as be paired with stronger policies from our elected leaders. There are many municipalities that have taken steps to address the inequalities of climate impact and expanded their climate strategy to make it a just transition.
You’re an extraordinarily busy and successful woman. How do you recharge your batteries after a long day?
It’s always been a challenge for me. Pre-COVID, even though I was busy, I felt like I had more of a routine for self-care—hot yoga, a little running, volunteering, attending events, or spending time with friends. The pandemic brought an end to all that. This is even more challenging now that virtual meetings are the norm for everyone. that It’s been difficult getting back to a regular rhythm of a “daily” practice of recharging now that the world is beginning to operate under this new normal of vaccines and boosters.
Tell us about the work you do with Sister Cities International. You’ve been doing that since you worked in Roxanne Qualls’s office. How did you get involved in Nancy??
Nancy is one nine Sister City relationships Cincinnati has established with other municipalities. When I was the Communications Director for Roxanne Qalls, I was introduced to Sister City programs. During my tenure as Chief of Staff to Mayor Mallory, I worked more directly to leverage and engage them as a part of his strategy to build Cincinnati’s reputation globally and develop pathways for sharing municipal best practices. It was an opportunity for my international interest to be involved in the work. I became so involved in the work, that I ran for Sister Cities International’s Board of Directors. I served two terms and was then appointed to their Honorary Board.
When a good friend moved to Paris, I became very invested in the Nancy relationship and offered to visit Nancy to revive the relationship. When she returned to Cincinnati, she was gracious enough for me to serve as Vice President and President of the Cincinnati Nancy Sister City Association. I assumed the presidency after she retired. A lot of people think it is either a client or my job and don’t realize that it is a volunteer position. The mission of Sister Cities is to create global relationships through citizen diplomacy based on cultural, educational, information, and trade exchanges that result in friendships but also help create solutions to some of the world’s most pressing issues at the local level.
The Cincinnati Nancy Sister City Association celebrated its 30th Anniversary with delegations to Nancy in areas such as climate change and pollinators and jazz education. They also created support networks for families of autistic loved one. To create two weeks of programming, we partnered with Jazz Alive and Queen City Pollinators, Autism Is We, The Lloyd Library and the City of Nancy. We are excited to see Cincinnati’s programming reactivated this year.