Biotechnology

Empowering vulnerable communities in facing increasing natural threats

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Dense wildfire smoke drifting from Canada to US cities hundreds of miles away is a stark reminder that no community is immune from the dangers fueled by climate change. A Stanford-led study was published recently in Environmental Research Letter provides a blueprint for empowering people in frontline communities – those experiencing the “first and worst” consequences of climate change – to better understand and deal with wildfire smoke, extreme heat and other hazards.

Dense wildfire smoke drifting from Canada to US cities hundreds of miles away is a stark reminder that no community is immune from the dangers fueled by climate change. A Stanford-led study was published recently in Environmental Research Letter provides a blueprint for empowering people in frontline communities – those experiencing the “first and worst” consequences of climate change – to better understand and deal with wildfire smoke, extreme heat and other hazards.

The research – conducted in four mostly low-income, non-English speaking San Francisco Bay Area communities – details ways for frontline communities to collect relevant data through surveys and instruments that monitor participants’ air quality, temperature, and sleep health, and how improve outcomes through various interventions.

Below, lead author Natalie Herbert, senior author Gabrielle Wong-Parodi, and co-author Cade Cannedy discuss the implications of pilot studies for policy-making, community-based science, and more. Herbert is a research scientist in the Earth system science department at Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, Wong-Parodi is an assistant professor of Earth system science and a central fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Cannedy is a program manager at the Climate Resilient Community and Stanford graduate.

How are frontline communities suffering disproportionately from wildfire smoke, extreme heat and other climate hazards?

Canned: In the communities we studied, housing was often very old or in poor condition. This allows smoke, heat and other hazards to penetrate the home. In addition, the impact of these events is often cumulative. For example, wildfire smoke can have even greater consequences for your health if you already have asthma from growing up in a chronically polluted community like the one in our study area.

What are the main interventions that frontline communities can take to deal with bushfire haze, extreme heat and other climate hazards?

Herbert: We found that people are already acting to protect their health from climate hazards. For example, they wear masks and stay inside during the smoke and heat. But there are opportunities for more interventions that provide added protection, whether from public health agencies, weather assistance programs or funders supporting the work of our community partners. For wildfire smoke, we want to increase the number of households with better weather to reduce infiltration, who own and use air purifiers with HEPA filters, and who wear better masks such as N95 when outside.

Why should policy makers care about your pilot study?

Herbert: We learned through our trials that programs policy makers might want to implement – ​​such as improved weather and increased access to air purifiers – can have unintended consequences for low-income people. Weatherization in rental units can cause landlords to increase rents, and air purifiers will not be used if people cannot afford the associated utility bills. Tenant protection and outreach from low-income home energy assistance programs can help.

People-Parodies: Our pilot highlights a key insight for policy makers: the reason why so many frontline communities are exposed to climate hazards stems from structural and institutional systems that create situations where some people are marginalized and have few resources. It is important to recognize that we have little or no information about how people in these communities are exposed, or what they are thinking, doing, and feeling in response to these threats. This information is key to developing programs and policies that can best and appropriately meet the needs of frontline communities.

What are the key lessons learned from this pilot study, and how can these lessons be incorporated into similar studies?

People-Parodies: Our pilot would not have been successful without our community partners and community ambassadors. They reached out to their network of friends, family and neighbors to register participants. They are key in helping us explain studies and their benefits, and allay worries.

Canned: Many people want to make action accessible, but often don’t consider the equity implications. For example, getting people to download smartphone apps might be a good, low-cost intervention for users with lots of resources and technical expertise. But for people who are already experiencing the worst consequences of climate change, it may not be the best solution.

This study was funded by Stanford Impact LabThat Stanford Center for Population Health SciencesThat United States Packaged Services Endowment Fund at Stanford, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Science Foundation.

Additional Stanford-affiliated co-authors included Jinpu Caoa PhD student in civil and environmental engineering; Stephanie Fishera PhD student in Earth system science; Sergio Sánchez Lópeza PhD student at Emmett’s Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-HYPER);Ouyang cranea research manager at Lab. Regulation, Evaluation, and Governance from Stanford Law School; Jenny Suckale, assistant professor of geophysics and center fellow, with honors, at Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; And Zhihao Zhang, a graduate student researcher in the department of energy science and engineering. The co-authors also include researchers from the Climate Resilience Community, RTI International, Sonoma Technology, and El Concilio from San Mateo County.


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