Credit: John Walker / The Fresno Bee

Saying climate change is a “global poisoning event” that threatens the health of Central Valley residents, the head of Fresno County Public Health on Sept. 17 called for congressional support of climate investments through President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act.

Interim Health Officer Dr. Rais Vohra said Fresno County “is among the regions in California that are most vulnerable to the detrimental effects of a changing climate, specifically the combined hazards of excessive heat, drought, wildfire smoke and air pollution.”

In a press conference hosted by California Climate and Agriculture Network, Vohra and climate activists called for Congressman Jim Costa’s continued support of the $3.5 trillion spending bill as it heads to a House vote, possibly as early as next week.

Supporters of the bill say the massive infrastructure plan would increase investments in clean energy to cut pollution, create jobs, address environmental injustice and tackle the climate crisis.

Climate change is expected to continue to disproportionately affect lower-income communities already faced with the health challenges of higher rates of pollution and fewer resources to adapt. During this summer’s drought, rural residents in the San Joaquin Valley have faced water shutoffs as a result of declining groundwater, and high-heat days worsen air quality for communities adjacent to busy highways.

Vohra, an emergency medicine physician and toxicologist, said it’s an environmental justice issue.

“Central Valley communities that already experience health disparities based on race, income, neighborhood, language, immigration status and other social factors are particularly vulnerable to climate health-related threats, while also having more limited resources necessary to protect themselves,” Vohra said. “Communities of color and low-wealth communities are hit first and the worst by pollution and they suffer severe health and economic impacts.”

Programs in the San Joaquin Valley that could receive funds from the bill include physical infrastructure improvements and modernization for public health departments and facilities, as well as agricultural incentives to replace polluting farm equipment on dairies, improve soil health and build more renewable energy projects on agricultural lands.

Farm Bill-funded programs could see extended and expanded funding with this proposed budget.

“Farmers across the state are struggling right now under the weight of water scarcity, wildfires, extreme heat and of course the challenges of the pandemic on top of the climate impacts that we’re seeing,” said Renata Brillinger, executive director of the California Climate and Agriculture Network.

“Though growers are capable of adapting to changing conditions, the speed and the scale of the challenges that are already underway require investments that only government can deliver,” she said.

Climate change is like COVID-19, Vohra said, in that multiple disruptions require multilateral, multi-agency efforts.

“But instead of one infectious agent that is now preventable with the vaccine, we will be dealing with dozens of hazards at once and many of them without easy solutions,” he said.

Vohra said the healthcare Industry and others are ready for the federal government to take action to best use limited resources and to avoid redundant or conflicting initiatives.

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