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A Climate Ambassador on Every Block: How One South Bay Community Is Preparing for Heat, Smoke and Floods

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A man stands against a chain fence. He's wearing a white shirt with two long, blue stripes and dark sunglasses.
Ever Rodriguez stands near an apartment building with few trees in North Fair Oaks on May 10, 2021. (Beth Leberge/KQED)

The COP26 climate conference is underway in Glasgow, Scotland. Here in the Bay Area, KQED’s climate reporters are talking with locals who are working on solutions.

Ever Rodriguez wants a climate ambassador on every block of North Fair Oaks.

His idea is to bolster the community’s resilience to climate-driven natural disasters like wildfire smoke, excessive heat and floods.

“Our ultimate goal is to unify our community,” said Rodriguez, president of the nonprofit North Fair Oaks Community Alliance and a member of the North Fair Oaks Community Council. “Climate change is going to affect everyone regardless of their socioeconomic status, language or culture.”

He and other community leaders will start recruiting climate ambassadors to help residents stockpile sandbags, locate nearby cooling centers and help install air purifiers as early as next year.

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Rodriguez says the community — an unincorporated area near Redwood City in San Mateo County — needs this kind of support.

A few weeks back, the Bay Area ping-ponged from severe drought conditions to flooding rains during an atmospheric river storm — the kind of whiplash that climate scientists warn is a hallmark of a warming California.

As the streets of North Fair Oaks filled with rainwater, Rodriguez said the Block Action Teams would have proved helpful.

“It was something that I haven’t seen before in the nearly 30 years that I’ve been living here,” he said. “I arrived at the conclusion that this must be the effect of climate change. I’ve also experienced the smokey, extra-hot days that we experienced last year from the surrounding fires; and then again this year.”

“I wish our plan was already in effect,” he said. “I was the only one around cleaning out the debris. The county systems can be overwhelmed very easily, and they may not respond by the time you need them. It’s better to have residents prepared.”

KQED climate reporter Ezra David Romero interviewed Rodriguez about how he’s preparing his community for the effects of climate change through his organization’s program.

A woman with a red and blue mask holds a pink umbrella while speaking to another woman who wears a purple shirt and a red, sun visor.
Amelia Estebez holds an umbrella to shield herself from the sun while she speaks with Alicia Montano in North Fair Oaks on May 10, 2021. (Beth LeBerge/KQED)

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the climate problem you’re trying to solve here in North Fair Oaks?

The problem that I’m trying to prevent is the vulnerability in this community. This is a community that is working class, predominantly Latino, up to 75%. Considering that the most vulnerable individuals are the ones that are going to be facing the worst results from climate change, that’s really where my focus is.

How do you want to help North Fair Oaks prepare for future climate-related emergencies?

We want to identify one neighbor per block that can become a leader and represent that block and be in communication with the surrounding residents. We have an interactive map that will allow residents to see who is their block leader and how many residents from their block are participating already.

What brought you to climate work?

It was my concern about the lack of bicycle lanes in North Fair Oaks. I was looking for better ways to transport myself to work. That was when I decided to go to the supervisor’s office hours and I started asking those questions.

Back then, climate change wasn’t really a thing. At least, I wasn’t doing it for those reasons. But I saw it coming because it is obvious that the more cars you produce, the more fuel you’re going to need and we are seeing the results as the climate changes.

Do you think the work at COP26 will help North Fair Oaks?

I hope so. The U.S. and other nations are leaders. My hope is that if many world organizations and entire countries implement the changes that are needed to benefit and rescue our environment, that ideology will trickle down eventually to small communities such as North Fair Oaks.

Raising awareness at the community level is also very important, regardless of what happens on the world stage. I think all communities need to start mobilizing and doing something. Whether that is to prevent disasters, to respond better, or to change the way we are doing things to benefit our environment.

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