Heat is putting a hurt on vulnerable Californians, but it’s a tough story to tell

Published on
December 26, 2018

A few times this year, I asked myself, “Why is this so hard?”

It turns out, that’s not a bug, that’s a feature of health reporting. The private and public systems that should protect people’s health are complicated, and they’re optimized to avoid litigation, not to encourage comprehension. Feeling irritated and bewildered by the health care system is, at times, a rational reaction, and it helped me empathize with the people whose stories we told.  

The impact of climate change on health is still an evolving story in California. Data, research and expert perspectives are hard to come by — and for stories about heat-worsened health problems, I had to figure out how to connect people with the systems that aren’t great at helping them.

I was surprised about one big reason that’s so hard to do: People aren’t always the best storytellers about their own lives, even where they’re suffering.

Bad air caused by smoke, smog, and hotter temperatures is one of the state’s key climate-driven concerns, and just about everywhere in California this year — north, central or south — people have felt it. State officials warn that the impacts are disproportionate, since they’re felt more not just by sensitive populations but also among low-income communities and certain ethnic groups. But nobody surveys the impacts in affected communities, the state doesn’t fund interventions to address the hazard, and it doesn’t require useful tracking of heat-related complaints at work, in homes, or in public health systems.

My team set out to make our own data, and report on the heat-related experiences of people in four counties, where we measured homes and more than half a dozen workplaces across almost as many cities. We couldn’t have done it without people allowing us into their lives. Here’s how we found them:

  • Finding vulnerable groups. Studies suggest who might be most vulnerable in the Bay Area: people in hot areas without air conditioning, and people who are older. I had reported on sea-level rise around the bay, and thought of immigrant communities who fit all of these conditions, and had to work to feel empowered to complain about them.
  • Going to meetings, community groups, door to door. One day I drove all the way around the lower half of the bay, from the East Bay, to San Francisco, to San Jose, to Union City and Fremont, back up to Berkeley. To quote “Breaking Bad,” I was the one who knocks (except without the menace).
  • Multilingual flyers. We translated outreach documents into Spanish, Vietnamese, and Korean with the help of bilingual Bay Area residents, community groups, and my brother-in-law. It actually helped, even though the reporting was always going to be in English.
  • Making promises, but carefully. The first question I got in Huntington Park, a predominantly Latino neighborhood in LA, was the same one I got in the Vietnamese community of San Jose: “How are you going to help us?” My answer was that information I’m trying to provide can give communities leverage. Heat is an emerging problem, with multiple causes. People who agreed to let us measure their neighborhoods and their homes should get the data. But I resisted the temptation to tell people we’d improve their housing circumstances.
  • Wary data-gatherers: Getting people to talk about heat in Bay Area housing was more difficult than I anticipated. We compensated people for hosting sensors and returning them to us safely, but that didn’t require anyone to speak to us about their lives. Even still, simply finding hosts to help create data where none existed was a challenge. A dozen people, most in Santa Clara County, called me to say they felt vulnerable to heat, they had significant symptoms related to it, and their living conditions aggravated their symptoms. But those callers didn’t want to host sensors, even with guaranteed anonymity, because they worried that even measuring the heat would draw unwanted attention, cause their landlords to evict them, or otherwise destabilize their housing circumstances.
  • Talk to them in person: The biggest thing I learned about people who were reluctant to talk: Emotion affects how people talk about their health, so hearing what they have to say in person matters a great deal. If I had only done interviews by phone, I wouldn’t have found much. In some cases, I visited people at home multiple times before they told me about dramatic health circumstances. Take Floyd Ware, a resident of a single room occupancy building in San Francisco: I talked to him on the phone and saw him a couple of times before he told me that he had nearly $3,000 in debt due to asthma attacks prompted by heat.

Even where I had limited time, interviews in person yielded new information. “Brandon,” who works in a warehouse in the Inland Empire, told me at first that other people at his work got sick and fainted from heat. He wished to project toughness and strength. But he experienced temperatures above the standard the state is proposing about half the time. Towards the end of an hour-long interview, I asked him again, about what it’s like to work inside a metal shipping container on a hot day. He told me about visiting the doctor, and feeling frustrated because the visit cost him money and didn’t help. In the end, he spoke passionately: “Inside the container is where death is.”

Climatologist David Hondula told me that he observed people who felt entitled to clean air and clean water, but not so much a livable temperature at work or home:

We've begun to detect a sense of a lack of agency. There’s this … sense of being stuck with the conditions the way they are … They say that they don't like being hot but they also say that they recognize that's what it means to live here and that's how it's always been and that's how it's always going to be.

I also think there’s an important journalism lesson here: Anything involving you looking someone in the eye, and them looking you in the eye, is a more complex and valuable interaction than with a social media channel, or an email. Human interaction takes more time than the technology we’re accustomed to. You just have to decide up front that it will be worth it, and make the investment.