WHEN IT COMES TO CLIMATE CHANGE: THINK GLOBALLY, AND THEN ACT LOCALLY.
By now we have all read news articles that Donald Trump is a climate change denier, and that his administration will turn back the meager progress made by the Obama Administration on climate issues. This story, from National Geographic, is typical:
Trump has long questioned whether climate change is real, and he has dismissed claims that it poses a major threat. In public statements and in his campaign platform, the New York real estate developer and reality TV star has extolled a resurgent U.S. fossil fuel industry, at the expense of existing policies combating climate change. He has also said that he will cut U.S. payments to United Nations climate change programs. The President’s stance on climate change runs counter to physical evidence, near-universal scientific consensus, and analyses by military experts and the U.S. Department of Defense. What’s more, Trump has hinted that he might cut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as roll back the Obama administration’s Climate Action Plan and associated policies, including participation in the Paris Agreement.
This was written before the election, and so far it rings true. What it does not say is that much of the heavy lifting to mitigate and adapt to climate change – including in Los Angeles, where I live – is the responsibility of local officials. Since the Federal Government has done so little on this issue, and will do even less under Donald Trump, we must now turn to the vast array of local climate-related programs that can be pursued by households, non-profits, and most importantly, by City Hall’s across the country.
HOUSEHOLDS: While changes in personal behavior amount to a small amount of the climate picture, we need to ramp them up to make that small difference and to spur political change at the local level. These personal actions include, but are hardly limited to planting drought tolerant gardens and trees in lieu of grass, installing rooftop solar, insulating attics, operating fans instead of 24/7 air conditioning, walking and bicycling instead of driving, taking busses and mass transit, joining a community garden, adopting a no or low meat diet, turning down thermostats, using clothes lines instead of driers, unplugging appliances, getting rid of old fridges and even taking shorter showers.
"Since the Federal Government has done so little on this issue, and will do even less under Donald Trump, we must now turn to the vast array of local climate-related programs that can be pursued by households, non-profits, and most importantly, by City Hall’s across the country."
NON-PROFITS: Because well-intentioned life style changes have minimal cumulative impacts in reducing greenhouse gases, the next arena of political action is local non-profit organizations engaged in collective actions to mitigate climate change. Having taught a series of classes on sustainable city planning, these are my top ten local organizations for Los Angeles, and there are dozens of similar groups in every community. They are all eager for your help:
CicLAvia promotes mass bike rides on temporarily barricaded city streets.
Heal the Bay focuses on the clean up of the shoreline and local waters.
LA Walks promotes public policy and specific projects related to pedestrianization.
Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition is focused on broad improvements in bicycle infrastructure.
Los Angeles Guerilla Gardening seeds and plants empty lots, open space, and public rights-of-way with hardy native plants.
Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance links together sustainability and climate action committees from LA’s neighborhood councils.
Move LA sponsored a successful $120 billion dollar bond issue for transportation infrastructure, including alternative transportation modes.
Northeast Trees has organized many communal tree-planting projects on public rights-of-ways.
Transit Coalition promotes individual transit projects.
Tree People is model non-profit devoted to tree-related education, public policy initiatives, and community tree planting projects. They have also pioneered projects to capture rainwater, such as cisterns.
CITY HALL: While the contributions of individuals and non-profit organizations are always welcome, they cannot replace local governments’ multiple responses to climate change. The good news is that local governments in every corner of the planet are stepping up to these tasks. The other good news is that we know, in exact detail, what local governments can do. More specifically, when LA’s current mayor, Eric Garcetti, was elected in 2013, UCLA’s Institute for the Environment and Sustainability issued an 82-page report, Vision 2021: A Model Environmental Sustainability Agenda for Los Angeles’s Next Mayor and City Council. This report precisely identified exactly what LA’s new Mayor, City Council and operating municipal departments should undertake to mitigate and adapt to climate change in Los Angeles. Just as the King County, Washington Climate Change Strategic Action Plan has become a model policy and action document for many other cities and counties, the UCLA document can become a similar document for local government officials throughout the country.
The bad news is that in Los Angeles, despite devastating information about local climate change impacts in the 21st Century, City Hall is only taking baby steps. To counteract this foot-dragging and expected hostile actions from the Trump administration, Los Angeles must decisively and dramatically step up its game. While I encourage everyone, including our officials, to carefully study the UCLA Vision 2021 report, here are four take-aways from the report’s 11 broad policy and program categories.
1. PLANNING: Local government needs to systematically plan for climate change. At present, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s administration prepared its own Climate Action “pLAn” to unknowingly replace a similar shelf Climate Action “Plan” (2007) from the previous Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa. But these are only executive documents, not plans in any formal sense. They have not been subject to community workshops, public hearings, staff reports, legislative debates and legal adoption. They are not connected to the city’s General Plan, including its policies, goals, programs, and monitoring system for land use, housing, transportation, open space, conservation, public safety, infrastructure, public services and air quality. California state law requires all of these elements, and City Planning intends to update them all in the near future. Furthermore, if Los Angeles voters adopt Measure S, the Neighborhood Integrity Initiative, in March 2017, the City’s laws, not just professional planning practice, will mandate the total update of the General Plan, presumably including a careful consideration of climate change mitigation and adaptation. Following the lead of other California cities, the updated General Plan could even include a new Climate Change element.
"To counteract this foot-dragging and expected hostile actions from the Trump administration, Los Angeles must decisively and dramatically step up its game."
2. PRIORITIES: Local government needs to get its priorities straight. They should not allow major public investments that promote automobile driving, whether through freeway expansion or discretionary approvals for auto-centric buildings. Perhaps the most striking example of poor priorities is CalTrans and Metro’s $1.6 billion investment to widen a congested 10-mile stretch of I-405 Freeway in west Los Angeles. Despite the additional lanes, just as critics predicted, this highway is still gridlocked much of the day. Furthermore, just think of what else could have been done with that enormous pile of money. It costs approximately $5 million per mile to repave streets, repair and widen sidewalks, plant trees, upgrade street lights, construct ADA curb cuts, install bicycle infrastructure and build bus pads and lanes. These 300-plus miles of enhanced multi-modal corridors could have re-engineered all of LA’s major east-west corridors, such as Sherman Way, Burbank, Melrose, Olympic, Washington and Slauson. If this had happened, the reductions in the generation of greenhouse gases would have vastly exceeded the increased driving resulting from the over-priced 405 widening boondoggle. The City’s cumulative and per capita carbon footprint could have been reduced.
A. CEQA: The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) should be strictly adhered to since it forecasts project-related increases in greenhouse gas levels for City officials. The Mayor and the City Council must finally respect, not ignore, these findings. They also need to stop their routine rejection of the environmentally superior alternatives in the Environmental Impact Reports for these same projects. Likewise, they should reject approvals of the most environmentally damaging alternatives, and demand documentation and monitoring for developers’ unverified and unmonitored promises of increased transit use resulting from their projects.
B. BUILDING PERMITS: The same environmental approach should apply to projects that the Department of Building and Safety ministerially approves. McMansions, large residential structures, for example, are massive energy hogs that should be stopped in their tracks. All of the loopholes that allow McMansions in through the backdoor, while decision makers close the front door, need to go.
C. URBAN FOREST: Of all the infrastructure improvements the City can make, the urban forest should be at the top of the list. Trees are nature’s own antidotes to high greenhouse gas levels, topsoil erosion and depleted aquifers. Plus, a tree canopy promotes pedestrian activity through shade and beauty.
The questions facing Los Angeles’ elected and appointed officials is quite simple. Will they stick to business as usual, which means a few more climate baby steps such as changes at the Department of Water and Power over electricity generation? Or will they quickly and dramatically move on the 11 climate categories recommended in the UCLA report? Putting it bluntly, will they finally kick their addiction to real estate speculation and devote themselves to the City’s, the region’s and planet’s climate future?
Dick Platkin is a former LA City Planner who reports on local planning issues for City Watch LA, where an earlier version of this article first appeared. He is also a member of the Planners Network and taught classes on sustainable city. He welcomes questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.