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Webinar Recap | Building Resilience to Extreme Heat

Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

People in a field picking strawberries

With extreme weather events on the rise around the globe, heat waves are impacting people, economies, and infrastructure. A July 28 webinar hosted by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment delved into the risks for outdoor workers and strategies for building resilience. Woods Senior Fellows Chris Field and Noah Diffenbaugh joined authorities from U.C. Irvine and the United Farm Workers Foundation to talk about the increasingly severe impact extreme heat events are having on farmworkers and others who are disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of climate change. This webinar marks the first in a series of Woods-hosted discussions focused on the rising risks of extreme events for human health, infrastructure and property as well as natural ecosystems. Read on for excerpts from the discussion or watch the full recording here.

Related: Stanford researchers discuss extreme heat’s impacts on laborers

A small amount of warming can lead to big increases in the frequency and severity of heat waves, explained Noah Diffenbaugh, the institute’s Kara J Foundation Professor and Kimmelman Family Senior Fellow. While scientists have predicted this pattern in many climate models, Diffenbaugh noted that “the gap between what was predicted and what is happening is pretty small, (but) the gap between what is happening and what we are prepared for is really big - and it’s getting bigger.”

To examine what this preparation gap means for people in the farming community, Perry L. McCarty Director Chris Field turned to Eriberto Fernandez, Government Affairs Deputy Director at United Farm Workers Foundation, and Aidee Guzman, Postdoctoral Fellow at U.C. Irvine.

How is the farming community thinking about and dealing with risk from heat?

Fernandez expressed that farm laborers are frequently exposed to extreme heat for long periods of time, and they face many barriers to receiving adequate attention and care when they do feel the physical effects of this extreme heat. “Because of the nature of agriculture being rural, many times the nearest hospital or clinic is miles away,” explained Fernandez. Additionally, while new regulations have passed in California that are meant to protect farm workers, few worker complaints are filed. “Because most farmworkers are undocumented, they have a real fear of these authorities and agencies” said Fernandez. “As well-intended as they are…underreporting is a big issue”.

Small farming communities in California’s central valley are particularly impacted by weather changes. Guzman described how resource imbalances can result in small farms being phased out by larger farms with better access to resources. When weather changes cause crops to ripen more quickly, “(small farmers) don’t have the infrastructure built up; the coolers, refrigerators, and warehouses to be able to store crops…they need to harvest earlier, but then they don’t have anywhere to store a lot of that produce.”

What are the strategies being deployed to help address worker vulnerability?

Stanford experts have noted that extreme heat causes many compounding problems for laborers. When discussing the possible solutions to the many compounding issues around rising temperatures, Field highlighted that “solutions have to involve the participation of the whole society, including farm workers, from the start.”

Fernandez advocated for a national federal heat standard to protect workers and supports collective bargaining as one way to ensure that farmworkers have a voice on the job.

Guzman pointed out that the disproportionate effects in marginalized communities have prompted some creative responses. Farmers have implemented regenerative agricultural practices, while community organizers such as the California Farmer Justice Collaborative have passed legislation to support disadvantaged farmers.

But some proposed solutions could also lead to negative consequences for farm workers. While the automation and mechanization of farming is a way to reduce risk, Fernandez noted that “mechanization leads to job loss…(and) we need to look at alternatives that are able to preserve people’s jobs and livelihoods.”

How will the impacts of climate change complicate this issue?

Panelists also considered the broader implications of extreme weather conditions. “Heat has its fingerprints on so many extreme events,” highlighted Diffenbaugh, “it is a real amplifier of water deficits and drought…it’s a real stressor for ecosystems…heat impacts air quality (and) is a big risk factor for wildfires.”

For the full discussion visit our YouTube channel

Read additional insights on extreme heat and labor in a recent scholar Q&A.

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