EastBay Today

Feature
Posted November 10, 2021

Combating Climate Change

Cal State East Bay students take local action against rising hazards

The phrase “Think Globally, Act Locally,” is over a century old, but its message — a call for individuals to act according to a worldwide vision of global health — has never been more urgent.

While governments, industries, corporations and other large organizations have pivotal roles to play in addressing human-caused climate change, Cal State East Bay professors are educating and empowering students about what they can do to enact change at local and state levels. Through hands-on research, they’re also exposing undergraduates to skills that can be directly applied to careers within their own communities. 

Here, with yet another record-breaking season of heat and wildfires pushing Californians to change how we manage our land and protect our communities, we present two new research initiatives that are giving us hope for the future. 

"It’s not just happening to polar bears or somewhere else, it’s happening now and it’s happening to people in our communities."
Professor Michael Schmeltz

The time is now — and at least from the standpoint of a simple, powerful phrase, it’s more than 100 years in the making. 

Killer Heat

Did you know extreme heat is the No. 1 weather killer in the United States? Not hurricanes, floods, tornadoes or super storms — heat. Further, “extreme heat,” especially when combined with humidity, is classified at just 90 degrees by ready.gov. It’s a number that sounds mild to many Bay Area communities, which are routinely experiencing record-breaking, triple-digit temperatures earlier and earlier in the year. In the first two weeks of June 2021, for example, a half dozen cities in the region set new records, well in advance of deep summer. 

Critically, “most heat-related deaths are preventable through outreach and intervention,” according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Assistant Professor Michael Schmeltz of Cal State East Bay’s Public Health Department, who worked for the EPA after completing his doctorate in public health, explained that rising heat is a fact of a climate-changing world that public health officials are poised — if not yet prepared — to address. 

“There is very little information on climate change on state and county public health websites,” Schmeltz said. “It is really important that public health agencies begin to emphasize these connections, so people understand that climate hazards are impacting health. It’s not just happening to polar bears or somewhere else, it’s happening now and it’s happening to people in our communities.” 

He is spearheading a new two-pronged project funded by a Faculty Support Grant with Cal State East Bay undergraduates aimed at transforming how California’s public health agencies respond to the increasing ramifications of extreme heat — and exposing students to the underlying data collection and research skills needed to support change. 

Senior public health student Corrine Chandler is contributing to the first piece of the work, which is mapping temperature differences in urban settings at the microscale at which they impact citizens. 

The chance to get involved hit close to home for Chandler, who was raised in Tracy. 

“I’ve spent my whole life in California … and it used to feel like we had four seasons,” she said. “Now with the issues with air quality, drought, fire season — it’s been devastating and I’m learning in my classes that it’s not even that bad here compared to other places in the country. 

It lights a fire under you to want to convince people who don’t believe in climate change that we’re reaching a point where there’s no return to normal.”

Cal State East Bay undergraduates are getting first-hand experience collecting data and doing research related to climate change that will help inform public health agencies' plans.
GUS YOO

On a recent 95-degree day, Chandler hit the pavement in downtown Hayward and a residential neighborhood, armed with a Kestral Drop Fire Weather monitor and GPS tracker. She and a partner did a two-mile circuit in each location, recording temperatures every five seconds and syncing locations through their smartphones. Over the course of more outings, the students will be translating their data into a map that illustrates how temperature changes within small distances due to infrastructure, impervious surfaces, foliage and green spaces. With help from Schmeltz, the students are learning how critical those factors are to helping individuals make the best choices for their health.

“We were expecting to see a really big difference based on foliage and green space in the hills [compared to downtown],” Chandler said. “But the location on the hill was actually two degrees warmer, so now we need to adjust the interpretation of our hypothesis. However, there’s still the element of how people are experiencing heat. In the hill location, no one had their doors or windows open …” But downtown, Schmeltz pointed out that windows were open everywhere, “and it’s likely those people don’t have air conditioning, which could put them at a greater risk.”

In addition to data collection, it’s this intimate knowledge of city structures and demographics that dovetails into the second prong of Schmeltz’s project: assessing how many of California’s 61 public health departments (58 counties plus three cities with jurisdiction over public health services) have documented heat action plans that meet state recommendations. 

"It lights a fire under you to want to convince people who don’t believe in climate change that we’re reaching a point where there’s no return to normal."
Corrine Chandler

Erin Quintero, another senior majoring in public health from nearby Dublin, is supporting that front. 

“We’re analyzing how counties can better equip themselves during heat waves to protect the general public and reduce mortality rates, and to inform counties what pieces of their action plans may be missing,” she explained.  

Early results aren’t promising. Quintero reports that only three of the first 40 California counties she has assessed have a full plan in place. 

Quintero said that while most counties do have some plans outlined through their emergency response services departments, “We’d like to see full action plans versus hazard mitigation plans. Mitigation helps workers by providing water and shade when it’s above 90 degrees, but a heat action plan, by contrast, would anticipate health impacts, identify vulnerable populations, include a good description of when the action plan would be implemented, what partnerships with local agencies would be activated …  We also want information about populations who are sensitive, socially isolated, speak different languages, or are of lower socioeconomic status to get them the information they need.” 

“We’re analyzing how counties can better equip themselves during heat waves to protect the general public and reduce mortality rates, and to inform counties what pieces of their action plans may be missing,”
Erin Quintero

Schmeltz believes one reason so many counties lack good heat action plans is due to a disconnect between emergency services and public health departments, with the latter being the most effective structure to put protections in place.   

“Public health departments are better equipped to implement these plans because they’re more intertwined in their communities and know where resources are needed. It may be a collaboration — emergency services may have better logistics to roll out services to an entire county, but more emphasis is needed on the fact that these are events with public health consequences.” 

Once the analysis is complete, Quintero will be contacting county offices to share which pieces of their plans are missing compared to a detailed checklist. 

“It’s really important to inform these counties how to equip themselves for these events,” she said. “We’re experiencing more of these heat waves and extreme temperatures due to climate change, so it’s information with a real impact. It’s disappointing that so many [counties] don’t have plans, but it also represents a huge opportunity for me to be involved with as a student.” 

It’s Schmeltz’s intention that the skills students like Chandler and Quintero are gaining will extend beyond their time at the university, with both women currently looking into master’s programs.  

“I really like working with students, particularly in public universities, because they are the students who are taking what we teach them right into the community,” Schmeltz said. “They’re part of the community and they’re going back to it, and I like the aspect of impacting and educating the community through them.”  

“It’s a near-guaranteed line of work because of the dearth of candidates for these roles that our communities need,” Dr. Schmeltz said. “There are accreditation programs in Southern California, but [Cal State East Bay] would be the first in Northern California.” Schmeltz is now inthe submission and approval process, which was slowed during COVID-19, but with luck, the university may have the accredited program on campus by 2022. 

Assistant Professor Tony Marks-Block of Anthropology, Geography & Earth Sciences, center, is interested in leveraging the practices of native tribes to manage wildfires.
GARVIN TSO

Managing Fire with Fire

It’s an early October morning in San Jose, where Cal State East Bay senior Rachel Garcia is getting ready for the day. That usually means popping in the car and commuting about an hour to the university’s Hayward campus. Today, since it’s a Wednesday, Garcia is packing a lunch, wearing jeans and boots, and gathering outerwear options for a longer trek. 

She’ll need the layers when she arrives at Bouverie Preserve, less than 10 minutes from the town of Sonoma. There, as she has every Wednesday for the past several weeks, she’ll spend the day hiking through underbrush while collecting data on the 535-acre ranch’s oak tree woodland and acorn production. 

It’s the starting point for what Assistant Professor Tony Marks-Block of Anthropology, Geography & Earth Sciences says will be a multiyear initiative to study the benefits and impacts of prescribed fire on local ecological and environmental systems. With funding from a Faculty Support Grant, Marks-Block and co-collaborator Peter Nelson, a Coast Miwok assistant professor at UC Berkeley (and citizen of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria), have established a partnership with the conservation organization Audubon Canyon Ranch, whose properties include Bouverie Preserve.

Through Audubon Canyon Ranch’s Fire Forward program — one of several ways the nonprofit seeks to combat climate change — researchers and private and public stakeholders are investigating how a region beset with devastating wildfires can become a “model of fire-adapted communities tending fire-adapted landscapes.” Marks-Block is particularly interested in leveraging the practices of native tribes, who he says represent a rich knowledge base that is being ignored.  

“Native people already have sophisticated knowledge of how to manage the land in California, but they are marginalized from existing political systems, including hegemonic science, which privileges certain ways of knowing about the environment over others,” Marks-Block said. “For a long time, it was very difficult to study the effects of prescribed fire because of all the political obstacles to setting prescribed burns, up until the last five years or so.”

Marks-Block, who was raised in the Bay Area and has worked with indigenous peoples of California throughout his career, sees the Fire Forward program as an important opportunity for mainstream policymakers and agencies to support the research and management priorities of indigenous peoples.

“The quantitative approach is given more priority and saliency in management decision-making in California, so this partnership represents a deliberate attempt by native peoples and tribes to engage in that process,” he said. “It’s an intentional part of our collaboration to honor indigenous knowledge-holders and support their management goals, while translating those techniques into data for California’s decision-makers.”

Acorns are an entry point into that understanding. They are a key food resource for California’s native communities, both historically and today. But when not managed properly with fire, they are prone to increased insect infestation that renders them useless for harvest. Eliminating prescribed fire from the landscape has also increased the accumulation of understory woody fuel that can accelerate the spread and severity of wildfire.

As one small step to getting closer to native land management techniques, students have been collecting data on Bouverie Preserve’s oak trees to prepare for a prescribed fire event.

“For a long time, it was very difficult to study the effects of prescribed fire because of all the political obstacles to setting prescribed burns, up until the last five years or so.”
Tony Marks-Block

“We’re taking data from a control group of trees to assess pre- and post-data from prescribed fire,” Garcia said. “We’ve built acorn traps out of plastic bins with netting over the top to capture the acorns that fall from the trees and created transect lines from the trees to understand where acorns fall. We’re gathering data on tree canopy spread, tree diameter at breast height, and mapping nearby trees so we can come back after the prescribed fire to compare our data.”

Marks-Block adds that gathering enough data will require applying prescribed fire frequently over several years, as indigenous peoples have done for millennia. However, oak trees are victims of climate change along with the rest of the environment, so the specific timing that indigenous peoples would have applied prescribed fire to decrease pests and increase acorn production, is also in question. 

“Most oak trees will drop infested acorns before non-infested acorns first, so if we time the burn to disrupt the life cycle of the pests, our hypothesis is that we’ll see less infestation in future years and more efficient harvesting,” Marks-Block said. “Studying the phenology of these trees is also helping us understand how the life cycle of native food resources are being impacted by climate change and events like drought. If we apply fire at a time of year when it will not spread rapidly and result in loss of life and destruction of property, then wildfire will not be as severe of a threat in California and fire fighters will be able to control wildfire more easily.”

Garcia, who will graduate next spring, believes the field work as well as what she’s personally learning will have lasting impacts. 

“This project is so important to climate change,” she said. “People are very scared and shy away from the idea of fire, which as a Californian, I totally understand. But they also don’t get to explore how the application of fire has been a huge benefit to the people who know how to leverage it. Indigenous people have used fire to grow crops, manage the land, and even mark territory. It’s this unique relationship with fire, a respect for it and understanding of how to coexist with it. It’s unfortunate that a lot of historical neglect has prevented us from learning about fire and using it to manage the land.

“Cal State East Bay is providing me with so many hands-on opportunities,” she continued. “I feel like yes, I’m getting my anthropology degree, but I’m actually practicing anthropology. I have this confidence in my degree that I’m learning practical applications that will be valuable to anything I want to do in the future.” 

Everyday Actions to Take Now 

As they prepare students to make a difference in the world around them — whether as informed citizens or as leaders answering the call to effect generational change — Cal State East Bay professors also have practical advice anyone can use to act against climate change now. 

  • “Start a climate conversation.” — Assistant Professor Michael Schmeltz, Department of Earth & Environmental Studies
  • “Join a climate justice organization.” — Assistant Professor Tony Marks-Block, Department of Anthropology, Geography & Environmental Studies
  • “Spare the air! Check out sites like sparetheair.org and fire.airnow.gov.”— NBC Bay Area Meteorologist and Lecturer Rob Mayeda, Department of Earth & Environmental Studies
  • “Stay educated on the history, economics, science, and policies of climate change, and VOTE.”— Lecturer Elena Givental, Department of Anthropology, Geography & Environmental Studies
  • “Eat less meat and dairy.” Professor Jean Moran, Department of Earth & Environmental Studies

Next Story