Sweating without a Plan

Sweating without a Plan: How Nashville’s inaction towards climate change could be the biggest risk of all

by Summy Lau | 29 January 2013

Humidity, dehydration and a constant sheen of sweat characterized the few weeks I spent in Nashville during July 2010. As a Chicago native, I didn’t realize that the scorching summer temperatures were unusual, but that month would go on to be the tenth-hottest July ever recorded, preceded by the fifth-hottest June. Now rising temps, severe droughts, floods and freak weather events are causing scientists, reporters and professors to declare that climate change isn’t going to destroy Nashville—it’s already started.

Measurable trends show our climate is getting hotter, drier and more unpredictable. Compare the past ten years (2003-2012) to the decade before and you’ll find Nashville’s mean annual temperature rose 0.7oF, an unthinkable gain by meteorological standards. [1] Meanwhile, the summer of 2012 was the second driest on record for all of middle Tennessee: In June, The Tennessean reported that Nashville received a paltry 0.26” of rainfall. The drought forced nearby Williamson County to issue a mandatory restriction on water use and irrigation [2]. And the Southeast is getting hit by more frequent and intense tornadoes; earlier and longer-lasting tornado seasons are to blame for increasing the risk of events like the April 2011 string of twisters that destroyed Tuscaloosa. Overall, 3,527 monthly weather records were broken for heat, rain, and snow across the US in 2012 according to the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), and one hundred of these records belonged to Tennessee.


As the impacts of warmer temperatures continue to mount, are city leaders doing enough to prepare Nashville and its residents for the future costs of climate change?

Most major cities in the United States, such as Los Angeles, NYC, Chicago, Portland and Miami, have plans in place to first slow down, then survive the oncoming hazards of global warming. These cities are leading the way in creating detailed adaptation plans for their states, which the EPA defines as plans that “lay out a strategy, including specific policy recommendations, that a state will use to address climate change and reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.” For example, the main goal of the Chicago Climate Action Plan is “to reduce our emissions and prepare for change.” Its strategies focus on five different areas: energy-efficient architecture, clean energy, efficient transportation, reduced waste, and adaptation. Their plan puts innovation and education on the forefront of the city’s defenses to protect the wellbeing of all citizens.

Yet despite the red flags, Nashville has chosen to make no explicit moves in regards to climate change or even express the need to prepare. In fact, Tennessee is one of just 18 states that has yet to complete a state climate change action plan.

“The attitude of Metro Public Works has been geared towards environmental consciousness the past few years,” says Steve Haruch, Culture Editor at Nashville Scene and author of an August 2010 article[3] on the effects of climate change in Nashville. “There are efforts toward mitigation and adaptation to be as environmentally conscious as possible moving forward, but nothing directly addressing climate change.” He points to a few examples of Nashville trying to lower its carbon footprint, like the green renovations of Deaderick Street in the heart of downtown. (Nashville’s “green street” is now divided by a median of plants and boasts new LED traffic lights and pedestrian signals, rain gardens, pervious concrete, and solar-powered parking meters. [4] But Metro Public Works is designed to run on a project-by-project basis, Haruch notes. It’s not equipped to address the big picture. Instead, these sustainability development projects are slapping a Band-Aid over the crack in a dam set to burst.



Jason Adkins, Professor and Environmental Projects Coordinator at Trevecca Nazarene University, believes the consequences of not having an adaptation plan spells disaster for the city’s poorest and most vulnerable residents. He describes the toll that extreme heat has on vulnerable populations, compounded each year by intensified summers: “People experiencing homelessness are forced to endure extreme heat that’s becoming all the more frequent,” he says. “They don’t have water. They don’t have shelter. The homeless are liable to suffer from dehydration, stroke, and over-exhaustion.”

“Climate change hits the poor first and worst,” adds Adkins.

Perhaps no other event has caused as much damage and hazard to the city as the Tennessee Floods of May 2010, when torrential rains engulfed much of the city for over a week. The rain killed 10 in Davidson County, flooded major tourist attractions such as the Grand Ole Opry, Bridgestone Arena and LP Field, and cost well over $1.5 billion in damage alone (not factoring in loss of revenue.) [5]

But only the underserved neighborhoods lacking proper infrastructure lost everything.

“We called it ‘a thousand year flood’,” Adkins says. “The lowest-income housing was next to the creeks that flooded, and entire homeless camps washed away. These once-rare events – the acceleration of storms, diluting of banks and creeks, extreme heat, extreme drought, early springs and record rains – are becoming the norm.”


Despite vague promises from Mayor Karl Dean to make Nashville more sustainable and eco-conscious, both government officials and citizens have been slow to respond to the significant threats to its economy and residents posed by climate change.

The Southeast region is, as Haruch dryly notes, “a state where schools can legally question evolution as a concept.” This same attitude has shown itself in the city’s tepid resolve against climate change. There’s little hard data to conclude whether or not climate change acceptance is lower in more conservative states, but difficulty in pushing legislation for green energy may be a sign of apathy and reluctance to change.

Clearly climate change has had trouble gaining traction in Nashville. Haruch notes the difficulty in telling “the climate story” in such a way that people will care about the issue enough to act before devastation hits. “Climate change is thought of as something that affects coastal areas or ‘somewhere else’ besides our home,” he says. “People aren’t connecting the dots yet.”

But we will. Today, it’s January and 70oF. This afternoon, a flash-flood thunderstorm ripped through Nashville and spawned 21 tornadoes across Middle Tennessee. Wilson and Hickman counties reported severe damage, and one Nashville resident was killed by falling debris from the storm [6] And while climate skeptics are all too keen to declare that not every intense thunderstorm, period of drought, or unusually warm day can be linked to global warming, there are trends we cannot ignore. By staying the course and choosing not to create a plan of action, we’re taking a huge gamble—a risk that scientific research confirms will end in catastrophe. For the sake of Nashville’s economy and people, particularly our most vulnerable populations, it’s time for the city to get serious and prepare before the next disaster hits.


[1] “Monthly Average Mean Temperatures at Nashville, Tennessee (1871-Present)” http://www.srh.noaa.gov/ohx/?n=monthlymeantemps

[2] Bundgaard, Chris. “Drought forces mandatory water restrictions.” WKRN-TV Nashville. 5 July 2012. http://www.wkrn.com/story/18958667/drought-forces-mandatory-water-restrictions

[4] Johnson, Elizabeth. “Renovated Deaderick Street enhances Nashville’s city core.” The Tennessean. Jun 2010. http://www.tennessean.com/article/20100615/DAVIDSON/100615071/Renovated-Deaderick-Street-enhances-Nashville-s-city-core

[5]Edwards, Joe. “Nashville flood damage tops $1.5 billion; Grand Ole Opry stage underwater.” May 2010. http://www.csmonitor.com/From-the-news-wires/2010/0509/Nashville-flood-damage-tops-1.5-billion-Grand-Ole-Opry-stage-underwater

[6] WKRN-TV Nashville. “Storms spawn 21 tornadoes, leave 1 dead in Nashville.” 6 Feb 2013. http://www.wkrn.com/story/20761477/tennessee-weather-wednesday

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