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Climate change could stress mind and body, Modesto audience hears. But there's hope

Modesto Bee - 1/12/2020

Jan. 11--Modesto Junior College hosted experts Friday on how climate change could affect physical and mental health in the Central Valley.

They said residents could breathe more smoke from wildfires, and more mold in flooded homes, if the predicted weather extremes play out in the decades ahead. And then there are the psychological effects -- including despair about the state of the planet.

But the speakers also noted steps people could take, such as low-emission vehicles and climate-smart eating, that could foster a feeling that all is not lost.

"Engagement in action and activity is a profoundly important thing for fending off the sense of hopelessness, the paralysis ...," said Dr. Robin Cooper, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

The experts spoke at MJC's annual Spring Institute Day, a gathering of employees and invited guests just before the start of the new semester. This year, the topic aligned with the college's new climate initiative.

MJC President James Houpis moderated the panel discussion on the East Campus. He said he was a climate change researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory starting in the 1980s, and the science has confirmed it.

The basics

Emissions from fossil-fuel burning and other sources have caused a buildup of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere. This could mean less snow in the Sierra Nevada watersheds that sustain Valley farming. It could bring heat waves even hotter than the region already endures, and infernos in over-dense forests and brush.

Melting glaciers near the poles could raise sea levels far away, including the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where about two-thirds of the state's fresh water flows. It could have widespread damage if its levee system falters, said Dr. Gina Solomon, a clinical professor of medicine at UCSF.

"Stockton would be flooded," she said. "Modesto would be basically lake-front real estate."

Solomon told of volunteering during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and seeing people sickened by the mold in their flooded homes. Such disasters also can make food and drinking water unsafe and damage the very hospitals that care for the victims, she said.

Solomon noted that smoke from the Paradise fire of 2018 drifted hundreds of miles south to Modesto and other Valley locales. The air was worse than any other place on Earth during some of those November days, she said.

"You just have to expect that that kind of stuff will be coming at us more than it used to in the past," Solomon said. "There have been floods before in California. There have been fires before. It's just that they're now being magnified in terms of frequency and intensity."

Mental health mission

Cooper is part of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, made up of mental health providers concerned about how people will react to these stresses.

She said they might become anxious or depressed at losing their livelihood as the climate changes. Especially hot days might drive people to domestic violence or suicide. Alcohol and drug abuse could spike.

If society does not act, Cooper said, Fresno's typical summer highs will go from about 95 degrees now to 103 degrees in 2100.

"It will feel like Chandler, Arizona, the deep desert," she said. "That is practically uninhabitable."

What to do

Solomon said the Valley's cattle are a key source of methane, a climate-changing gas, and so is the fertilizer used on farms. She suggested that people eat less beef and dairy products.

Major emission sources include motor vehicles, industrial plants and agriculture, said Genevieve Gale, executive director of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition in Fresno.

But she also noted efforts by the Almond Board of California to farm in responsible ways. Branches pruned from orchards used to be burned in the open. The Modesto-based board has looked at grinding up the woody material and tilling it into the ground, which enhances the soil and reduces the need for fertilizers, Gale said.

Solomon added that well-managed soil stores carbon that otherwise would escape to the atmosphere and worsen climate change.

Speakers urged efforts to make walking, bicycling and public transit more appealing than cars. And Houpis said MJC's two campuses should have more solar panels.

The college has formed a Climate and Sustainability Task Force, chaired by earth science Professor Noah Hughes. It aims to work climate science into the curriculum and to make energy-saving and other upgrades to the east and west campuses.


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