Beyond the grade

Chico State students’ project on climate change effects will shape local public policy

Molly Marcussen will compile student data on climate change for use by local government.

Molly Marcussen will compile student data on climate change for use by local government.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Climate changes:
Cal-Adapt figures for Butte County:
Current 2050 2100
Temp 71.1 76.4 79.7
Rain 41.9” 46.8” 50.9”
Snow *18.7” 4.2” 1.2”
Fire **2,277 2,980 3,595
*average: Butte Meadows, Bucks Lake, Gold Lake
**area of wildfires, in hectares

Before the start of the fall semester at Chico State, Natalie Kinney didn’t give extensive thought to climate change. She understood the phenomenon generally. As with so many others—fellow students, fellow Chicoans, fellow Americans—it didn’t hit home.

Now, it’s personal.

Kinney, a senior, just finished a course taught by professor Mark Stemen titled Community Service Practice in Geography (aka Geog 506). As their class project, the 19 students used the climate-modeling software Cal-Adapt to forecast conditions in Butte County for the years 2050 and 2100, then anticipated potential consequences.

Their work—a de facto climate vulnerability assessment—will help inform the state-mandated adaptation and resiliency strategies that the county, as well as all cities, must add to the general plan. The requirement stems from Senate Bill 379, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October 2015.

Molly Marcussen, a Chico State grad who took Geog 506 last year, is drafting these documents for both Chico and Butte County for her CivicSpark fellowship. CivicSpark is an AmeriCorps program for California dedicated to sustainability initiatives in local governments.

Marcussen, along with Brendan Vieg from the city’s Planning Department and Dan Breedon from county planning, worked with the class. All attended a public forum last Wednesday night (Dec. 6) in Colusa Hall where students answered questions about their findings.

“I knew about climate change [before the course],” Kinney said, “but I didn’t think of it as much as I do now, and how much it’s going to impact everyone and everything.”

Kinney’s group focused on impacts to public health. A duo, seniors Matt Sterkel and Samuel Lowinger, assessed infrastructure. Others looked at agriculture. Groups also examined water management and biological resources.

“I got some really good responses from a good number of them, especially the public health group and the agriculture group,” Marcussen said. “They laid a good foundation for me to build off of; while a lot of the work wasn’t necessarily turned in ready for a county document, they sparked a lot of ideas.”

Take, for example, one that resonates deeply with Kinney.

For the scenario she crafted—the “Dispatch from the Future” assigned by Stemen, describing the conditions and mitigation measures—Kinney wrote about a woman and her dog. Kinney’s roommate owns a dog; often, she’ll take the pet for a walk or for an afternoon in Bidwell Park. She’ll even “borrow” friends’ dogs.

Climate projections from Cal-Adapt indicate a significant rise in average temperature (see box) but also in peak-heat days. Humans and animals alike are vulnerable to dehydration and sunstroke; dogs, additionally, can suffer burns on their paw pads from scorching streets.

“Sometimes [a person’s] only exercise is taking the dog out on a 10-minute walk,” Kinney said. “Knowing that when I have a dog in the future, and that’s not going to be a possibility [in extreme heat], that’s what made it so personal.”

We’re already seeing temperature spikes. Stemen, in his introductory remarks, said summer 2017 virtually mirrored the record-setting summer of 2006 in terms of extreme heat days (over 103 degrees) and heat waves.

Noted Kinney: “Even right now, in December, it’s sunny out and people are wearing shorts and short sleeves. That’s not a thing.”

Just that day, the high of 66 was 9 degrees above the historical average and 21 degrees hotter than the same Wednesday in 2016.

Climate change’s impacts on public health alone, delineated by Marcussen to the 25 forum attendees, include overheating, depression, post-traumatic stress and suicide.

“Not a lot of people think of public health when they think of climate change,” Kinney said. “They think of water rising and snowpack and temperature, but not a lot of people focus on how it’s going to impact you. That’s a big part of climate change, and that’s why it affected me, because it’s going to happen to me personally.”

Kinney, who’s majoring in geography, intends to pursue a career in transportation planning. Classmate Daysi May brought a different perspective: She’s a senior biology major and environmental studies minor who took a big-picture approach with her assignment, biological resources. May raised the issue of wildlife populations, which Marcussen said she hasn’t seen in other counties’ vulnerability assessments.

“Vernal pools and how they’re going to be responsive to increased temperatures are things I didn’t even think about,” Marcussen said, citing one example. May also brought up wetlands, woodlands and forests, plus waterways that support chinook salmon.

“I was thinking about not just the flora and fauna we see with our eyes,” May explained. “I was thinking about the microbes in the soil, the microbes in the water that we all need, that the aquatic life needs …. There’s a lot to it when I think about it.”

Marcussen found that systemic approach complemented the micro scale in other reports.

She expects to have a draft version of the county climate impact within a month; by February, Marcussen will sit with city and county staff to start the adaptation strategies. The full process will extend past her fellowship, which ends in August.

Nonetheless, her work—and the students’—will shape government policy.

“I think that’s really cool; it’s awesome,” May said. “I didn’t just do something for a grade—I did it to help this county that I really love.”