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What Climate Change Means for Nashville, Tennessee and How You Can Help

September 15, 2021

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges we are facing today in Nashville, Tennessee, and throughout the world. It’s an incredibly complex problem and in order to solve it, we will need everyone to get involved. Over the last few years, Nashvillians have experienced some extreme weather and you might be wondering if that is related to climate change. You’ve come to the right place—in the questions below we will break down how climate change is affecting Nashville and greater Tennessee and what you can do to be a part of the solution. 

NOTE: These questions do not cover the basics of human-caused climate change. If you want to get a refresher on what climate change is and how we know it’s caused by humans, check out Dr. Jonathan Gilligan’s Climate Change 101 talk from the 2021 Nashville Youth Climate Summit.

How will climate change affect Nashville, Tennessee?

The main impacts of climate change we can expect to see here in Nashville, Tennessee are more extreme heat and more severe storms, which will lead to more frequent and devastating floods. 

So what will that mean for Nashville residents? Urban areas like Nashville experience a phenomenon known as the Urban Heat Island Effect, which means temperatures are higher in the city than in surrounding rural areas. Vulnerable residents, such as children and the elderly, are at risk for heat illness when temperatures rise. Heat is dangerous—while it’s not always talked about, there are more heat-related deaths in the United States than deaths from floods, tornadoes, lightning, hurricanes, and blizzards combined. The hottest parts of the city are areas that lack trees and green spaces, which naturally cool us down. In Nashville, many of the areas with the highest heat risk are places that were historically redlined. Because of this, low-income residents and people of color are disproportionately exposed to extreme heat. 

Flooding, too, is becoming more common in Nashville, as evidenced by the devastating floods in March of 2021—the worst since the historic 2010 flood. More people will be affected as the climate warms, and residents living in flood-prone areas may have to move or face more frequent floods. 

How will climate change affect rural Tennessee?

Rural Tennessee can expect many of the same changes in climate as Nashville, with the exception of the urban heat island effect. Temperatures in rural Tennessee are still rising, and residents can expect to see more days above 95°F as well as more extreme flooding, like what we saw in Waverly, TN in the summer of 2021. 

Some areas of rural Tennessee will also experience periods of drought and may begin to see some water scarcity issues. Periods of drought dry out the soil and make it harder for rainwater to soak into the ground. That means, when you do get an intense precipitation event, the water has nowhere to go, and therefore flooding is more likely to occur. 

Rural areas may be impacted by these climate change-fueled hazards in different ways than their urban neighbors. Urban areas often have more resources available to them in the event of a disaster. For example, heating and cooling centers are available in the urban core but not in rural areas, which still may experience extreme heat or cold. Rural residents may also rely on stable climate conditions more directly for their livelihoods, in particular, if they work in the agricultural sector, and thus may be further harmed by disasters or unpredictable weather. 

And don’t forget that climate disasters aren’t cheap—between January and mid-October 2021, Tennessee was impacted by six different billion-dollar weather disasters. People often talk about the cost of addressing climate change, but the reality is that the effects of climate change will be even more costly than doing the work to prevent it.

Is Tennessee getting hotter?

Yes, Tennessee is getting hotter. According to an Associated Press study, between 1987 and 2017 temperatures rose by an average of 1.6°F across the state. It is anticipated that if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current levels temperatures in Tennessee will rise an additional 5 to 9°F by 2100. Though that might not seem like much, it will have drastic effects on industries like agriculture, which depend on a consistent climate for success. More alarming still, the number of dangerously hot days (heat index about 105°F) per year is expected to rise from 10 to 55 by 2050, an increase that will no doubt lead to more deaths from heat-related illness. 

Is flooding related to climate change? Are tornadoes?

Flooding is absolutely related to climate change. Per the most recent National Climate Assessment, the amount of rain falling during the heaviest precipitation events in the Southeast has increased by almost 30% since 1958. Scientists attribute this change to the fact that hotter air can hold more moisture. This is further exacerbated by the fact that hotter air also dries out the soil, making it less absorbent and thus contributing to flooding. Nearly 275,000 people in Tennessee live in a floodplain and are therefore at risk of damage during heavy precipitation events. Both the frequency and intensity of precipitation events is anticipated to increase over the next century if greenhouse gas emissions continue at current levels. 

Tornadoes are less obviously linked to climate change—this is in part because tornadoes are difficult to track and databases largely rely on eyewitness reports. Scientists are still trying to work out the effects that climate change may have on tornadoes, but there is some evidence that suggests that as the climate warms atmospheric instability, which causes tornadoes, will become more frequent. 

What does “climate resilience” mean for Nashville?

There are many things that Nashville can do to become more resilient to climate change. Addressing the main risks brought about by a warmer climate is key. 

There are several strategies Nashville can implement to reduce the Urban Heat Island effect. Planting more trees and increasing the amount of green space will help to provide refuge from the heat. Likewise, reducing the amount of pavement in the city will bring temperatures down. Furthermore, ensuring streets are safe for pedestrians and bikers and that public transportation is readily available will help to reduce the number of cars on the streets, a factor that increases the heat in urban centers. 

As far as improving Nashville’s resilience to severe storms and flooding, reducing pavement and increasing green spaces can also go a long way. The 2021 Mayor’s Sustainability Advisory Committee Report cited restoring natural landscapes along waterways, planting trees, and implementing green infrastructure such as bioswales and rain gardens as key pieces in a flood resilient Nashville. 

It is vital that Nashville’s climate resilience efforts are carried out in an equitable manner. Environmental issues in Nashville, such as urban heat and reduced air quality, disproportionately affect low-income residents and people of color, and climate change will act as a “threat multiplier,” further exacerbating this disparity. As such, those communities that have been subjected to environmental injustices should be first in line for resilience measures.

What are people doing to prevent climate change?

Climate change is an incredibly complex problem. Luckily, there are many incredible people and organizations working on solutions. Because greenhouse gases are emitted in every area of our lives, it isn’t possible to solve climate change with a single, “silver bullet,” solution. Project Drawdown, whose mission is “to help the world reach “Drawdown”— the point in the future when levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere stop climbing and start to steadily decline, thereby stopping catastrophic climate change — as quickly, safely, and equitably as possible,” is a great resource to learn about solutions. Some of the most impactful solutions they describe include switching to renewable energy such as wind and solar, reducing food waste, switching to plant-rich diets, tropical forest restoration, planting trees, and managing refrigerants (which typically contain highly potent greenhouse gases), among many others. No matter what you are interested in, there is a solution that you can become involved with! 

What is the Cumberland River Compact doing about climate change? 

Reducing Flooding:
Reducing Urban Heat: 
  • Root Nashville, our tree planting campaign in partnership with Metro Nashville,  has a goal of putting 500,000 trees in the ground by 2050. In addition to helping keep our air and water clean, these trees provide shade that helps reduce temperatures in the city. 
  • Less pavement = cooler streets, so our Depave Program is key. It’s as simple as that. 
Replenishing Streams:
  • Green infrastructure in place of pavement allows more water to soak into the ground, replenishing the groundwater reserves that feed streams during times of droughts. 
Promoting Carbon Storage: 
  • Our River Friendly Farms program encourages farmers to use sustainable, regenerative practices that help keep carbon stored in the soil. 
  • Trees planted by Root Nashville act as a carbon sink, removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere.
Protecting Vital Habitat:
Building Future Leaders: 
  • The Nashville Youth Climate Program, our climate education program for 6th-12th graders, brings students together to learn about and take action on climate change in Nashville, Tennessee, and beyond. 
  • We also offer environmental education programs that engage students with the natural world around them, helping grow the environmental stewards we will need as we continue to address climate change in the future. 

How can I be a part of climate solutions? What are some climate change volunteer opportunities in Nashville?

Many of our programs that address climate change and climate resilience rely on help from volunteers. You can find out about upcoming Cumberland River Compact events on our volunteer website. You can also get involved with Root Nashville by becoming a Neighborhood Planting Captain or attending a tree planting.  

For more climate change volunteering, search Hands On Nashville’s database for volunteer events that are labeled “Environment” in the “Issue Area(s) to Address” category. 

If you are more interested in political advocacy, check out the Nashville chapters of Climate Reality Project, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, or Sunrise

Finally, remember that you aren’t limited to volunteering with environmental organizations! Climate change also intersects with issues like food access, housing, healthcare, and more. 

Learn More:

2021 Nashville Youth Climate Summit Videos (includes Climate Change 101 session)

Nashville Youth Climate Twitter and Instagram 

River Talks Podcasts:

Climate Resilience in Nashville

Tips for reducing climate anxiety