A new effort to help communities adapt to climate change

President Biden's infrastructure bill includes $50 billion for climate ‘resiliency’: funding to help mitigate and adapt to the effects of global warming. Special correspondent Tom Casciato reports on a unique partnership in California that uses behavioral science and cultural awareness in climate studies to help communities cope with extreme weather, as part of our series, ‘Peril and Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change.’

Read the Full Transcript

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The infrastructure bill approved last night includes $50 billion for climate 'resiliency': funding to help mitigate and adapt to the effects of global warming.

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Tom Casciato reports now on a unique partnership in northern California that's adding behavioral science and cultural awareness to climate studies to help communities cope with extreme weather. This story is part of our ongoing series, "Peril and Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change."

  • Tom Casciato:

    Violet Wulf-Saena was raised in the Pacific Island nation of Samoa. There, she says, everybody recognized the menace posed by climate change.

  • Violet Wulf-Saena:

    You know, for a small island a hurricane can destroy the whole country. Right. Not like here. There's a hurricane in New York. In California it's safe.

  • Tom Casciato:

    Wulf-Saena once led Samoa's climate change adaptation effort, before moving to the States in 2005. She earned her Master's in Environmental Management from Duke University, then settled in the San Francisco Bay Area to work on climate issues.

  • Violet Wulf-Saena:

    I was very surprised that when I moved here, a lot of people didn't know what climate change was.

  • Tom Casciato:

    And you're in California, which is a leader in the United States.

  • Violet Wulf-Saena:

    I mean, leader, United States, there is a lot of funding allocated to mitigation, mitigating greenhouse gases, greenhouse emission, but not a lot was allocated to adaptation.

  • Tom Casciato:

    The need for funding adaptation is here. The United Nations recently called for fully half of all funds fighting climate change be used for adaption and acknowledged that some will need those funds more than others.

  • Noah Diffenbaugh:

    There's a lot of evidence that climate change impacts the most vulnerable, most marginalized people and communities, globally and it's also true here within the United States, true here within the Bay Area.

  • Tom Casciato:

    Climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh and his fellow Stanford University professor, Marshall Burke, published a 2019 study showing that global warming has increased the global gap between rich and poor countries by some 25%. That has implications for adaptation here at home.

  • Noah Diffenbaugh:

    Adaptation is hard. We're not succeeding at it. The climate change that's already happened is very costly.

  • ​​Marshall Burke:

    Just thinking here in California, you need a house where smoke can't infiltrate. You need a house that you can keep cool. you need a house that's not going to be flooded. Many of those things you can do, they just — they cost a lot of money. And some people don't have the resources to, on their own, make all of those investments.

  • Tom Casciato:

    Wulf-Saena's work involves helping low-income Californians to adapt, and the need for that is acute. One example: climate-change-fueled wildfires are becoming the new normal in California, where so far this year over eight thousand fires have burned some 2.5 million acres. The smoke, migrating hundreds of miles, can most harm the health of people who can't afford to weatherize their homes.

  • Violet Wulf-Saena:

    You know, construction-wise, of course, the smoke, the smoky air can enter the home easily. And a lot of them didn't know what to do that will keep them safe.

  • Tom Casciato:

    Finding solutions to keep the most vulnerable safe, and building a bridge connecting climate science to those most harmed by climate change is the mission of Stanford University professor and behavioral scientist Gabrielle Wong-Parodi.

  • Gabrielle Wong-Parodi:

    I do not think that climate science and the public need to kind of stay over here in their — on their — — on their own sides. I think we can study the change all we want but we may identify the perfect solutions, but they may fail in the real world. And so we have to engage with people. We have to engage with all people.

  • Tom Casciato:

    That's the rub — not only helping people adapt but figuring out how. She's begun a study of low-income areas to assess the ways technology and communication can help with the sometimes harrowing health risks people face in a smokey home.

  • Gabrielle Wong-Parodi:

    A woman who suffers from asthma wearing an N-95 mask at night when she sleeps, which exacerbates her asthma. People in homes during a wildfire smoke event during a heatwave. Do I open my window? It's hot outside. I don't have air conditioning. What can I do? Do I keep it closed? Because if I — I open it, smoke is going to come in.

  • Tom Casciato:

    Stanford is located amid some of the nation's wealthiest zip codes. The study's taking place among folks in nearby, low-income places areas like North Fair Oaks. Wong-Parodi has teamed up with Wulf Saena and a nonprofit she leads called Climate Resilient Communities, as well as a North Fair Oaks community leader, Ortensia Lopez. She's a crucial liaison to a population often too concerned with other matters to be reached by traditional survey methods.

  • Ortensia Lopez:

    People working two or three jobs to be able to survive, you know, trying to keep their kids in school and trying to be part of that. I mean, there's just other challenges. So when you talk about climate change, it's another language. But it does not mean that they don't care. It just means that right now you got to worry about feeding my family.

  • Tom Casciato:

    You're working with populations in low-income parts of this area.

  • Gabrielle Wong-Parodi:

    Yeah.

  • Tom Casciato:

    Those areas are surrounded by people with a lot of money.

  •  Gabrielle Wong-Parodi:

    Yeah.

  • Tom Casciato:

    Is it difficult to go from Stanford University into a lower-income neighborhood right next door and say, hey, we're here to help?

  •  Gabrielle Wong-Parodi:

    Oh, my goodness, yes. And I would not do that. [laughs]

  • Tom Casciato:

    And I'm not saying you do.

  • Gabrielle Wong-Parodi:

    Yeah, no, no, no, no no. Yeah. But I — yeah — I think — and it's kind of this self-reflection that we do. We don't want to be guilty of that, that here we are. We have the answers. We have the capacity to do this analysis and we're going to tell you and not necessarily work with you on what the solutions are. And it takes a long time to build that trust.

  • Tom Casciato:

    Lopez, the executive director of a nonprofit here called El Consilio helps build that trust. Her group helps residents with educational and work opportunities, and protects them from the traditional scourges of the poor, like predatory lending practices. She knows people from the outside need to tread softly and slowly here.

  • Ortensia Lopez:

    And then we want you to come to the community and walk around and introduce you to people and have you eat food from our communities because, you know, that's big in our communities. You know, and even hear the music in our communities.

  • Ortensio Lopez:

    In translations, you lose a lot. So, for example, the whole issue of climate change in Spanish translation, this means change of a climate. Well for a person that may not understand what climate change is. You have to really say it in another way, that it's culturally, linguistically they can relate to.

    For someone that I'm thinking I'm going to give this to, like a senior. Maybe that is limited English speaking. I'm going to — we're going to have to do something to massage this.

  • Tom Casciato:

    They're planning to use technologies in the study such as mattress sensors to assess sleep quality, and other devices to measure smoke exposure, as well as conduct surveys about adaptation.

    For example, they hope to learn if the clean air shelters some communities create during a heavy smoke event are an effective tool, or would more people prefer to be provided air purifiers to try to cope at home?

  • Gabrielle Wong-Parodi:

    So we're going to be able to couple their self-reported information with all of this information we're able to capture passively to get a holistic picture of what their exposures are.

  • Tom Casciato:

    The surveys are done through a smartphone app so people can report what they're experiencing in real-time. Even here, Lopez takes nothing for granted in preparing.

  • Ortensio Lopez:

    I'm wondering if we should have a picture of the smartphone.

  • Gabrielle Wong-Parodi:

    So that they know —

  • Ortensio Lopez:

    So that they know exactly what we're talking about. Cause some people are not gonna have — necessarily — this. Then they see it and then "Oh, ok, I know what they're talking about."

  • Gabrielle Wong-Parodi:

    Ok.

  • Tom Casciato:

    Eventually, they hope to identify low-cost measures to help people directly, including sending messages in real-time about climate hazards. It's a small step toward addressing an enormous problem, but it needs to be taken — and can't be until you understand people's real needs, says Wong-Parodi.

  • Gabrielle Wong-Parodi:

    The problem starts with people and the solution ends with people. If we want to do something about climate change, we need to understand how people are seeing things, how they're experiencing things, what sorts of solutions are realistic for them — behaviorally realistic, culturally realistic, socially realistic — if we're going to actually make a concerted effort to make meaningful change, whether that be adaptation or mitigation.

Listen to this Segment