What A Deadly Chicago Heatwave Taught Us About Community-Building Climate Resilience

By path2positive

Chicago is a vibrant city, electrified by its beautifully diverse population of almost three million residents. Its rich history is palpable with institutions and families spanning generations in this lakeside metropolis - one you've probably visited on vacation, for work, or to catch a Cubs game at historic Wrigley Field. But for those that call Chicago home, there is more to this Second City than its monumental Willis Tower or iconic Cloud Gate. I should know, I live here.

For decades, much of the city has been plagued by gun violence, poverty and a lack of educational resources, forcing many Chicagoans to put climate change on the backburner. For those that struggle to pay the bills, find work, and keep their family safe, abstract and seemingly distant threats such as climate change aren’t exactly a dinner table topic. But in reality, climate change has been anything but abstract or distant for Chicago.

WBEZ Chicago wanted to know how the home to one of America’s most deadly heatwaves remains silent on the issue of climate change considering its ability to exacerbate the frequency of similar impacts. Teamed with climate scientists and Climate Central creator Heidi Cullen, WBEZ’s Greta Johnsen and Tricia Bobeda visited thirteen Chicago families to ask what they thought about climate change and how they were talking to their children about this critical issue.

In speaking with families that span the cityscape and vary in economic and educational level, the project uncovered two takeaways to illuminate America’s overall climate silence.

  • Climate change is scary, and we don’t like being scared

For most Americans, climate change is frightening – and the onslaught of doomsday scenarios aren’t helping. Many of the narratives we’ve been given are fear-laden in an attempt to scare people into action. Unfortunately, they’ve had the opposite effect, petrifying more people than they animate.

One participant explained that the reason for not talking to her children about climate change was to avoid ingraining a “sense of hopelessness.” Cullen refers to this condition as “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” a state in which people become distressed not by past pains; rather, future traumas.

It’s a diagnosis eerily reminiscent of the one given to prisoners in Nazi Germany who failed to imagine a future for themselves, leading to Austrian neurologist Victor Frankl’s development of logotherapy.

  • Climate change is important, but it’s not urgent

In a city known for its host of social ills, it's difficult for people to maintain consistent climate priorities. For many Chicago families, their daily concerns center around keeping their families safe, fed, and educated, and despite climate change already having immediate impacts on poor communities, it feels distant for many Chicagoans – and not, as one might think, for a lack of understanding. Most people interviewed appeared well educated and concerned on the issue of climate change, and yet lacked the motivation to fix it for various reason, citing more pressing worries.

Chicago’s Deadly Heatwave

In 1995, Chicago lost 739 lives during “one of the most unexpectedly lethal disasters in modern American history.” A blistering heat wave swept across Cook County, crashing power grids, bringing roadways and public transportation to a halt. Temperatures reaching 105 degrees Fahrenheit tormented senior citizens, young children, and a staggering homeless population that fell victim to relatively high heat. Largely, these deaths happened in Chicago's lower income southside, where many residents lacked air conditioning. But a closer look by sociologist, Eric Klinenberg uncovered that death tolls had more to do with a lack of community connections  than proper cooling.


This is important, because climate change virtually guarantees that, in the next century, major cities all over the world will endure longer, more frequent, and more intense heat waves. - Eric Klinenberg


When Klinenberg compared economically similar neighborhoods like Chicago’s Englewood and Auburn Gresham, he found something unexpected. Both areas look identical on paper with devastatingly poor populations, and yet one fared far better than the other for reasons that became apparent only after Klinenberg visited them:

“Residents described [Englewood] as “bombed out” and “abandoned.” Empty lots, boarded-­up houses, and broken, uneven sidewalks discouraged people from going outside, especially older people. During the heat wave, the residents of Englewood tended to hunker down in the safety of their homes—which became brick ovens. Englewood’s death rate was among the highest in the city.”

Neighboring Auburn Gresham, however, though known as one the “worst neighborhoods in Chicago” and identical to Englewood in many ways, fared much better than most other Chicago neighborhoods, including affluent white areas. The difference, according to Klinenberg, being community.

“Auburn Gresham...never lost its core institutions or its people. Stores, restaurants, community organizations, and churches animated its streets, and people hung out on the sidewalks. Older people there belonged to block clubs; residents assured me they knew who they had to keep tabs on during the heat wave.”

Researchers realized that community and social cohesion, above all, kept people safe during the heatwave, with similar occurrences found during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Not only did more tightly knit communities on the east coast have higher survival rates, but their ability to rebuild was much greater than those without strong community ties.

In places like Chicago's Auburn Gresham neighborhood multiple generations often live in the same house. Community members grow up with one another and remain connected into adulthood, often attending the same faith facility. Faith communities like Auburn Gresham staple Trinity United Church, pastored by Rev. Otis Moss III, have been connecting communities for decades – making them more resilient to climate impacts in the process.

Rev. Moss is a long-time Blessed Tomorrow leader who has worked closely with local and national climate partners to ensure that his strong and vibrant community remains a bedrock in times of difficulty. And according to ecoAmerica's recent American Climate Leadership Summit findings, his actions are on target.

Not only do institutions such as Trinity United help their communities endure impacts better than others, they help community members take a role in preventing them. By “connecting climate to core faith values,” faith leaders “make climate a moral responsibility” while inspiring hope and productive actions.

Organizations like Chicago’s Faith In Place, an Interfaith Power and Light affiliate, regularly host events for Chicago residents to connect their faith and climate values while preparing for impacts. Through workshops and community building, Faith in Place is producing a brigade of climate voters, stronger communities, and an educated base of young climate leaders.

Learn more about leaders like Rev. Moss at Blessed Tomorrow and find out how your community can become stronger and more resilient to climate change.  


Ryan Smith is a writer at Blessed Tomorrow. He received his master's degree in Religious Studies with an emphasis on faith and climate change from the University of California, Riverside.

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