At a climate conference in Egypt, a Phoenix councilwoman learns from other leaders

As leaders from around the world convened in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, to discuss climate change and its effects on the environment, economy, and global populations, a Phoenix councilwoman was there representing Arizona’s quest for climate resiliency.

Yassamin Ansari, who represents Phoenix District 7, traveled to the conference to discuss climate impacts already being felt across the state, mitigation efforts and ways to adapt to the effects of climate change.

“We have a big role to play,” she said in a phone call from the Sinai Peninsula city, host of the 27th U.N. Climate Conference, known as COP27. “It’s been exciting to share that story and see we are also a leader in this space.”

The conference opened as the consequences of climate change grew more visible, from the Space Coast of Florida, where a late-season hurricane caused a record storm surge, to the Gulf of Aden in Somali, where nearly 5 million children under 5 years of age are reported to be malnourished from a drought-caused famine.

As the wreckage from natural disasters fueled by climate change unfolds and people learn to live with its effects, world leaders have sought to find ways to adapt.

Just a few hundred miles north of the ongoing Somalian crisis, delegates from more than 190 nations convened in the Egyptian resort town on the Red Sea known for its sandy beaches and coral reefs. Heads of state, ministers, climate activists, CEOs and others  are seeking to renew solidarity between countries to deliver on the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement.

The two-week conference was meant to build on the foundation laid at last year’s event held in Glasgow. The U.N. seeks to deliver on an array of issues from cutting greenhouse gas emissions, global resiliency and adapting to extreme events fueled by climate change.

Climate exposure growing in Phoenix

This is Ansari’s fourth time attending the U.N. climate conference, twice as a climate adviser on the U.N. Secretary General’s team, and two more times representing Phoenix. She was present at COP21 for the initial signing of the Paris Agreement.

Ansari has been speaking on panels highlighting climate change adaptation efforts in Phoenix, where people are dying at record rates from heat-related illness and the threat of a drying Colorado River looms.

“I’ve been on panels on issues ranging from climate migration and how it’s affecting our local economy in Phoenix and how we’re planning to grow in a sustainable way, to the work we’ve done on heat mitigation resiliency as well as water scarcity,” she said.

Migration patterns and population growth are critical in addressing mitigation efforts and calculating risks of the climate crisis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC uses exposure (the contact between people and climate change-related hazards) as one of the primary factors in measuring climate vulnerability to quantify the potential risks posed by climate change.

Phoenix, the fastest-growing and fifth largest U.S. city, has exploded in exposure in recent years. The city’s metro area has gained more than 200,000 residents since the start of the pandemic, increasing the climate vulnerability.

With more people than ever in the city, officials have established resources to monitor climate change-related events.

City addresses heat, plants trees

Phoenix was the first city in the country to establish an Office of Heat Response and Mitigation to address the growing hazard of urban heat.

The Maricopa County Department of Public Health confirmed 378 heat-associated deaths so far this year. More people have died from heat in Maricopa County this year alone than have died in the past five years combined from hurricanes in the U.S.  

The office has set a 2030 goal of achieving 25 percent tree canopy cover throughout the city, which officials say will reduce temperatures by nearly 8 degrees compared with unplanted areas.

Adding additional green spaces throughout the city can not only minimize the sun’s scorch on city sidewalks, but also has the potential to temper the urban heat island that surrounds Phoenix.

Heat is exasperated in urban areas as buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and release the sun’s heat. Canopy cover can work to absorb some of the heat and excess carbon that is being emitted at its highest rates since the industrial revolution.

The urban heat island in Phoenix can cause an array of health-related issues and push nighttime temperatures 10 to 15 degrees higher compared to nearby rural areas, according to an ASU study.

In addition to expanding canopy cover, Ansari would like to see Phoenix invest in green buildings following discussions at COP27.

“It’s been extremely useful to learn from cities that have had practices, especially when it comes to decarbonizing building,” she said. “I’ve been proud to share the work that Phoenix has done and is doing now in leading the way when it comes to heat mitigation and transportation electrification, but I think we have a lot of work still left to do when it comes to our buildings and moving away from car-centric transportation.”

How green buildings, electric vehicles can help

New trends in urban planning are looking to adopt more sustainable building practices to reduce the effects from environmental shifts. The U.N. advises countries to make urban areas more habitable, resilient and sustainable under the New Urban Agenda.  

Green buildings, which employ targeted construction methods, minimize energy and water consumption by using sustainably sourced materials and utilizing the latest energy efficient technology.  

Some new projects will incorporate vegetation into the physical structure of the building to absorb the high concentrations of CO2 found in urban areas, thus reducing the urban heat island effect and improving air quality.

The city has already spent nearly $800,000 in financial incentives while simultaneously developing its first voluntary green building code, based on the 2012 International Green Construction Code. The city no longer offers these incentives to builders but still has the voluntary code .

The city also believes that reducing carbon output can also be achieved through expanding electric vehicles and Ansari wants to see Phoenix move toward a more electrified fleet.

The transportation sector is the largest emitter of carbon globally.  The city has set expectations to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 and wants half of all vehicles sold in the city to be electric by 2030.

The 2021 EV Climate Action Plan aims to expand electric vehicle adoption in the city through incentives, policies, and community outreach, among other efforts. Phoenix also has an E-scooter pilot program to provide a car-alternative mode of transportation in a city where about 87 percent of workers say they rely on cars to get to and from work, according to Census data.

Ansari says COP27 has provided new insights in the fight against climate change as stories are shared from world leaders about how they are preparing to be more climate resilient. She hopes to bring some of the acquired practices back to Arizona to deal with the extensive drought and rising temperatures.

“One of the most useful insights has been speaking with some cities that have worked with experts on developing specific climate adaptation plans, Ansari said. “I think Phoenix could really benefit from that.”

Climate adaptation plans examine areas of vulnerability within a region and integrate programs, policies, and rule-making processes to reduce the effects of climate change.

Ansari says COP27 is a critical moment as nations convene to address climate change and resiliency.

“There is resounding and unequivocal science that tells us that global temperature rise is occurring at an alarming rate and that it’s critical for the world to come together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with science,” said Ansari. “And I think without this, we wouldn’t be seeing progress the way that we are now about that.”

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