Carla Walker builds strategies to address climate change equitably.
You work on very big, very complex issues that no one person can solve. 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? Does it ever 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. Those alarms may still sound to some as if it is all happening in some distant faraway place. The reality is that the impact is local. We are seeing it in real-time in our communities right outside our front doors, from flooding due to more frequent heavy rain events to increased adverse health risks associated with increased air pollutants like ozone, which worsens with higher temperatures. 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. The idea that we need environmental and climate justice solutions where we should be centering equity in our policy and programmatic approaches is not new. There is a large body of research that documents the disproportionate environmental burdens and benefits associated with social inequalities. Inasmuch as you hear about national and global initiatives to address climate change, I believe that solutions can also be found and implemented at the local level by our local, regional, and state policymakers in concert and partnership with communities.
What was it that brought you back to Cincinnati? What keeps you here?
I moved back to Cincinnati in 2005 to help with my father’s health issues. At the time, I was living in Washington, D.C., and working for ONE.org, the global advocacy and campaign organization founded by Bono, that fights extreme poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa. I had been working with them to set up and lead their U.S. field operation. 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 of programs my team created while I was the Climate Advisor for Cincinnati as a participant 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. One of the projects I supported as a climate advisor was the Climate Safe Neighborhood initiative with a dynamic team of representatives from Lower Price Hill, Groundwork Ohio River Valley, and Green Umbrella. It was a Groundwork community engagement initiative to explore the relationship between historical race-based housing segregation and the current and predicted impacts of climate change. 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 advisor to the local group, the Environmental Community Organization, I worked with their leadership to address fair and equitable sewer rates in 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.
During the pandemic, one event I was proud to create and produce, called Black Flowers, focused on sharing the stories, expertise, contributions and accomplishments of Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) environmental and climate change experts across the Southern Ohio/Northern Kentucky region. 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.
I also serve on a number of organizational boards that explore, research, and advocate for strategies that address environmental and climate injustices including Green Umbrella, Ohio Citizen Action, and Clean Fuels Ohio.
Do you think the City of Cincinnati is doing enough in terms of protecting its climate future?
I have been involved with Cincinnati’s climate change efforts since Mayor Mark 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 think we are doing great work and we are recognized as a municipal leader in the climate space. But we can be doing so much more to protect our climate future and we have an opportunity to do so with the next iteration of our climate strategy [in 2023] and new city leadership.
We have a new Mayor who has identified climate change as a priority for his administration and he has already taken early steps to demonstrate his commitment by creating the new Climate, Environment, and Infrastructure Council committee and appointing Councilwoman Meeka Owens 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 examples of municipalities addressing the inequities of climate impacts and even broadening their climate strategy to accomplish a just transition.
You’re an extraordinarily busy and successful woman. How do you recharge your batteries at the end of the 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. But all of that came to a halt with the pandemic. I think this is even more of a challenge since virtual meetings and calls are now so much more the norm for everyone. 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 your work with Sister Cities International. You’ve been doing that since you worked in Roxanne Qualls’s office. How did you get involved with Nancy, France?
Nancy is one of nine Sister City relationships Cincinnati has with other municipalities. I was introduced to the Sister City programs when I served as the Communications Director for Mayor Roxanne Qualls. 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 me to work on issues related to my interest in international affairs. I became so involved with the work that I made a successful run for the Board of Directors of Sister Cities International and served for two terms before being appointed to their Honorary Board, where I still serve.
I became deeply invested in the Nancy relationship when a very good friend moved to Paris and agreed to visit Nancy to help revive the relationship. When she moved back to Cincinnati, she was gracious enough to serve as the President of the Cincinnati Nancy Sister City Association with me as Vice President. When she stepped down, I transitioned to the role of President. 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 just celebrated its 30th anniversary with delegations to Nancy in the areas of climate change and pollinators, jazz education, and culture, and creating support networks for families with autistic loved ones. We partnered with Jazz Alive, Queen City Pollinators, Autism is We, The Lloyd Library, and the City of Nancy to create two weeks of programming in Nancy. We are looking forward to finally re-activating programming in Cincinnati this year.