How the Climate Crisis Affects You, Me, and UNLV

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Students working around campus on the second day of the semester. August 29, 2023 (Josh Hawkins/UNLV)

“I just wish we had more trees,” UNLV student Jann Valeza told me. We were making that dreadful walk from the Lied Library to the Student Union. It was just about 12:45 p.m., it felt like high noon. The sun was beaming down on us, and my skin was red, rejecting daylight’s scorching-hot embrace. I thought to myself that this heat had to be unnatural, and I wasn’t exaggerating. This heat is unnatural.  

UNLV’s Dr. Steffen Lehmann is an internationally recognized designer, researcher and leader in green initiatives across the globe. With an illustrious career in architecture and academia, he continues these roles on our campus while also acting as a climate consultant for plenty of private and public entities, such as townships, cities and countries.

Over his time and research, Lehmann’s specialization in green urban planning has honed in on an interest in desert cities. Desert cities face unique challenges due to urban development exacerbating the already harsh geographical conditions.

“Every year it’s getting hotter and hotter…” Lehmann stated. “People have been saying for a long time that Las Vegas is the fastest warming city in the whole U.S.” 

A Climate Central study analyzing 50 years worth of data seems to support this testament, reporting that Reno was the only city warming faster than Las Vegas over that time period.

This warming is caused by the heat island effect. Many cities like Las Vegas are significantly warmer than the surrounding areas. This is thought to be caused by urban development. When cities develop, oftentimes natural features such as trees and other foliage are destroyed to make way for roads and buildings. This is a double whammy because not only does the greenery cool the area, but the asphalt and concrete that replace it heat the area instead.

The waste generated by urban development is a big concern for Lehmann. “Construction and Demolition — called the C&D sector — is the largest generator of waste in the U.S., and all the same in Europe,” he said. The waste is then compounded by the resulting waste that’s generated by car and air conditioning dependency.

“There’s a new study that looked at 35 different cities in the U.S., and we are the least walkable.” Lehmann was referring to a study conducted by Smart Growth America on the 35 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. and ranked them based on how many offices and homes are within walking distance of important points of interest. 

“It’s creating a vicious cycle because we’re building the city in the wrong way. People need to get places, but instead of making our city walkable, we build more roads. Concrete and black asphalt absorb the heat, contributing to the urban heat island. Then you need to increase the air-con, and if you increase the air conditioning, there’s more hot air blowing out into the environment and it further increases the urban heat.”

Yet regardless of the downsides, Lehmann believes there is still a positive message to communicate, an optimistic call to action as opposed to alarmism. “I want the UNLV campus to become the green model campus in a desert city; that we can teach Dubai and Riyadh how to do it.”

Lehmann proposed plenty of ideas to improve the campus’ environmental footprint. Some of his ideas included more effort into waste management, specifically citing the bins that designate specific openings for trash and recycling, just to all lead into the same receptacle. 

He believes we need to renovate our campus’ older, energy-inefficient buildings. Because they lack the proper roofing and insulation, they need to be cooled and heated with air conditioning much more often, leading to unnecessary waste.

The third idea Lehmann expressed was to increase the amount of trees and shade on campus.

“I say no more cutting down mature trees, enough is enough! I also wish we would have a continuous shade for the students to walk. Let’s say, from the Lied Library to the Student Union, down to the Dining Commons and the gym. At night, it will also provide illumination.” 

Though the impending climate crisis seems to spell doom, it is great to know experts see hope in the situation. And with people such as Lehmann working with officials to change public policy, things can actually change for the better.

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