Local adaptation

Chico State students localize global effects of climate change

Professor Mark Stemen (seated, second from left) and his geography class embarked on a project that underscores the importance of adapting to the local effects of climate change.

Professor Mark Stemen (seated, second from left) and his geography class embarked on a project that underscores the importance of adapting to the local effects of climate change.

Photo by Rachel Bush

What if you could take an immensely important global issue and scale it down to a community that’s, say, the size of Chico? That’s what nine Chico State geography students tackled this semester.

In professor Mark Stemen’s class titled Geography 506: Community Service in Geography, the students studied the effects of climate change locally and, as they wrap up their research project, reflected on ways to address the issue in the community.

“You have to create a story that people will identify with,” said Julia May during a recent visit to the class. “For example, a lot of people love getting up early and taking a walk when it’s still cool outside, but [because of climate change] that might eventually go away.

“You can’t just bring up the polar bears and ice caps,” she continued, “because people aren’t concerned about that if it doesn’t affect them. When you bring the issue down to a personal scale, people listen.”

Using that approach, Stemen framed the class around the impacts of climate change specific to Chico. “At first, it was hard for me to find a way to address this meaningfully in just one semester,” he said. “And then I found the Cal-Adapt website.”

Developed by the UC Berkeley Geospatial Innovation Facility for the California Energy Commission, Cal-Adapt is a Web-based tool that uses historical data to make climate projections into the next century. Users can pinpoint specific geographical areas by ZIP code and view projections of temperature change, snowpack, sea-level rise and wildfire risk.

Using the site as a primary tool for their research project, Stemen’s students analyzed the data, made local projections, and then met with city officials to discuss what these changes mean for the future of the city.

City Manager Mark Orme met with the geography class to talk about ways students could effectively communicate with local government.

“From the city’s perspective, we know the importance of environmental impacts, and that the city needs to adapt,” Orme said. “Any information that can anticipate what’s going to happen, and how we can keep up, is helpful to us.”

So, what did the student researchers find?

“Chico can expect four times as many extreme heat days within a summer by 2030,” warned Molly Marcussen. For Chico, an “extreme” heat day is when temperatures reach or exceed 103 degrees; currently, Chico averages four of those days a year. “With those consistent temperatures, we can expect more problems with heat-borne illnesses,” she said. City brownouts, melted power lines and damage to asphalt are other projected impacts.

The class also noted that, between 2050 and the end of the century, the snowpack in the Sierras is projected to decrease between 25 percent and 60 percent. “Thirty percent of our water storage comes from snowpack, so our access will be limited, especially for agriculture,” said Chelsea Meddings. Students explained that precipitation is expected to occur more as rainfall than snowfall, increasing the potential for flooding.

While that’s difficult to prepare for, Stemen stressed the importance of adapting. “The city of Chico is focused on alleviating a lot of the problems, so we’re focusing on adaptations,” he said. “Some things are too late to reverse; the greenhouse gases that will affect us by 2030 have already been released, so we have to adapt.”

With thoughtful preparation and planning, adaptations are achievable, as Stemen’s students outlined.

“We spoke with some people in the Public Works Department, and they’re talking about developing certified cooling centers around town—public places for people who don’t otherwise have access to air-conditioning,” May said. “And they’re working on installing generators for heat-related power outages, too.” Meanwhile, some businesses have started installing so-called “cool roofs,” which reflect more sunlight and absorb less heat by using highly reflective paint or tiles.

As for the issues resulting from changes in snowpack: “We need to increase the water storage capacity and water treatment capacity,” Meddings said.

Stemen finds the psychological aspects of people’s responses to climate change particularly interesting.

In his book, What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, author Per Espen Stoknes says major psychological barriers prevent people from accepting the reality of climate change. “We’ve heard ‘the end is nigh’ so many times that it no longer registers,” he writes.

Stemen, using the book as a guide for his course, structured ways to explore city changes positively. “We want people to know that it’s going to be OK,” he said. “They don’t have to be fearful. Things aren’t perfect, but we’ll be OK, we just need to adjust.”

As the class wraps up its research project, the students will put their findings on the website Chico2030.com, which provides climate projections between 2030-50. This is the same 20-year time frame outlined for Chico’s general plan, which happens to be scheduled for discussion at the next meeting of the Chico Planning Commission on Dec. 15.

“That’s the day after our project wraps up!” Stemen said, laughing. “The serendipity of all of this was perfect. I’m planning on bringing our findings to the meeting; the goal is to work some of these suggestions into the general plan. We don’t need to wait until 2030 to talk about these things. We should do it now.”