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Extreme heat will return again this summer. Here’s California’s plan

Hagginwood Community Center in Sacramento hosts a cooling center on Thursday, June 17, 2021.
Andrew Nixon
Hagginwood Community Center in Sacramento hosts a cooling center on Thursday, June 17, 2021.

Governor Gavin Newsom’s office has released a plan for protecting communities hit by the extreme high temperatures that are becoming the norm in California summers.

This plan could result in all kinds of local impacts. Overall, it looks at how the state might better prepare communities before a heatwave hits, and how improved infrastructure might help them survive high temperatures when they arrive.

One near-term priority in the plan involves creating a public health monitoring system, which would track illnesses like heatstroke, so that local officials can intervene early.

The plan follows a report published in 2013, which was the first to address how California might prepare communities to face rising temperatures.

But a lot has changed in nearly a decade.

Sam Assefa, who directs the governor’s office of planning and research, says we’ve seen more of the impacts of extreme heat firsthand, from transportation and housing to your experience at work.

“Extreme heat is not just connected to extreme fires,” Assefa said. “It really connects back to the fact that climate change is an interconnected issue with transportation, agriculture, land use and our housing policies.”

It also emphasizes the need to act quickly.

“We don’t have time to keep putting up plans,” he said. “This plan recognizes that and it is really focused on actions.”

Newsom dedicated $300 million in last year’s budget to fund its implementation, but it must be approved by the Legislature this summer before it can be put to use. Newsom also wants to set aside more money in his upcoming budget proposal, which is scheduled to be made public in May.

Of the proposed $300 million, $170 million is set aside for “resilience centers,” which would be institutions like libraries or senior centers — basically, places that community members are already familiar with and that could then be equipped to serve them during climate crises.

Environmental justice organizations advocated for funding for these centers last year, which they said would better serve vulnerable communities.

Amee Raval, the policy and research director for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, says current models of response, like cooling centers, often come too late.

“Folks don't really know about these in advance, about where to go and how to access them,” Raval said.

She adds that working-class communities of color are often the most impacted during these crises, and responses need better outreach. That could involve making sure it is done in multiple languages, and that relief is found in familiar places.

“They can be sort of deployed again in those moments of crisis, like heat waves, as places that people were already going to, that they know and trust, to then be able to access cooling or have access to power during a grid outage,” she said.

Raval says they also wanted to prioritize upgrading homes to better weather extreme heat. In the Bay Area, where APEN is based, she’s seen the impacts of high temperatures on places without that infrastructure first hand. Since the area is historically cooler, not all homes have air conditioning or even ceiling fans.

“We're really seeing those infrastructure gaps and the ways our buildings weren't designed to cope with these sort of extreme conditions,” she said.

And as temperatures climb, it’s evident that Californians need to adapt for the long-term. Assefa says extreme heat will impact the entire state for decades.

“The urgency is clear from the science that we hear,” he said. “And specifically for California.”

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