Climate Change: No Time for Angelenos to become Smug about Smog

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-The jury is no longer out. Our new President, Donald Trump, is the climate change denier-in-chief. He has called climate change a Chinese plot. He has appointed another unabashed climate change denier, Scott Pruitt, to run the Environmental Protection Agency, a Federal agency established by Republican “moderate,” Richard Nixon. Trump has also withdrawn many Obama era climate-change regulations, such as restrictions on power plant emissions. Last, but hardly least, Trump nominated retiring Exxon CEO, Rex Tillerson, to become Secretary of State. On his way out the door, Exxon gave Tillerson a $180 million severance package, about six times what Exxon spent under his leadership to foster doubt about climate change.

If this situation strikes you as grim, you are correct, and given the upward trend of all climate change indicators, such as CO2 levels, extreme weather events, sea level rises, and the loss of polar ice caps, the world’s climate situation will only get worse. In fact, even before Trump, these trends were already quickly unfolding, which means his historical role is to make an already bad situation much worse.  

In light of these harsh realities, some Angelinos might become smug about climate change. After all, we live in a state, California, and a city, Los Angeles, where prominent elected officials, especially Governor Jerry Brown and Mayor Eric Garcetti, have assumed a major leadership role in opposing the Trump administration’s dangerous pushback against modest Obama era climate change programs. 

But, this smugness is premature. A closer look at LA’s actual climate change policies and practices issues reveals that our glass, too, is mostly empty. The following information should wipe the smile off anyone gloating about how forward thinking their city and state really are when it comes to climate change. 

Basic Environmental Programs where the City of LA falls short

CEQA: As I have previously written, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is a potentially powerful tool to stop climate change. It provides appointed and elected decision makers detailed information on a specific project’s climate impacts, especially its likely generation of Green House Gases. Through CEQA, Environmental Impact Reports (EIR’s) also provide these decision makers with specific data on at least four project alternatives, including those identified as environmentally superior. Given the extraordinary dangers from climate change, some of which are already appearing, like mounting forest fires, most of us would assume that elected officials obviously opt for the environmentally superior alternatives. 

Wrong. In Los Angeles this does not happen. Instead, our elected officials reflexively select the most environmentally destructive alternative. This action, which sweeps hard evidence of unmitigatable climate change impacts under the carpet, requires the decision makers to adopt a Statement of Overriding Considerations. These statements sideline an EIR’s environmental findings through a text that routinely echoes a project’s claims about job and transit ridership generation. While these promises could conceivably be true, we will never know for sure because the approval process stops with the decision maker’s vote to adopt their Statement of Overriding Considerations. After that no approvals are contingent on evidence that a project actually boosts transit ridership or jobs, much less that these supposed outcomes offset the project’s actual generation of unmitigatable Green House Gases. 

Trees: The lowest hanging fruit in fighting climate is quite literally growing on trees, a basic infrastructure component that is, year-after-year, one of City Hall’s lowest budget priorities. As a result, most LA streets and parkways are either barren or haphazardly planted with inappropriate trees that are seldom pruned or watered. 

Nevertheless, when it comes to addressing climate change, trees are the closest things we have to a miracle cure. As we learned in high school biology classes, trees absorb CO2, sequester carbon in wood and leaves, and then exhale oxygen through photosynthesis. In addition, some trees, like Ficus, filter out other air pollutants, such as particulate matter. But, these benefits are just the beginning since trees also create beauty and a shade canopy. Both features promote walking in a city whose built environment remains auto-centric and whose natural environment is getting hotter.

Furthermore, trees also buffer another feature of climate change, heavier rains. Without trees these rains cause soil erosion and runoff. With trees, most of this damage is prevented because the rain hits the leave and then slowly percolates into the ground. 

Pedestrianization: Any successful climate mitigation program attempts to reduce automobile driving, the largest source of Green House Gases in California. This means that all alternative transportation modes, whether walking, bicycling, busses, light rail, heavy rails, commuter rail, and high speed interurban rail deserve more political and financial support. Among these, walking and bicycling are the low-cost alternatives. Furthermore, three other West Coast cities, notably Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco have already demonstrated that walking and bicycling can become significant alternatives to automobiles. But, in Los Angeles the sidewalks are crumbling, and most do not have a proper tree canopy or ADA curb cuts. As for bicycling, even though Los Angeles has perfect weather, many wide corridors, and broad bicycle-friendly flat areas, LA ranks 24th in the United States when it comes to bicycling. 

Planning Documents: The City of Los Angeles has a Mayoral climate change document, pLAn, which markets itself as LA’s first climate action plan. This is an odd boast since Mayor Villaraigosa’s even more detailed climate action plan, Green LA, is still easily found on the City of LA’s website. But, such piddling details aside, the real problem with the City of LA’s overall approach to climate change mitigation and adaptation is that there is no there there. Other than another short-lived executive document, there are no legally adopted policy documents, implementing ordinances, or independent monitoring. 

Furthermore, the official city planning process, the General Plan, does not yet directly address the environment. While climate change related goals and programs are coincidentally scattered through many General Plan elements, especially Air Quality, Mobility, and the General Plan Framework, nothing links them together and nothing measures their effectiveness. 

While City Planning has resumed preparing its required annual General Plan monitoring report, the current document makes no mention to either the Villaraigosa or Garcetti climate action plans. For that matter, it makes no direct references to many existing City department climate-related programs, especially those at the Bureau of Sanitation. In theory, they all have a bearing on climate change adaptation (securing water) and mitigation (transit), but this is only implicit. They are never identified per se, and the monitoring report does not draw any climate connections from these programs to any executive climate initiatives or to multiple State of California climate mandates, such as AB 32 and SB 375. 

As for the preparation and adoption of a new General Plan Climate Change element that could build on executive documents and a vast array of city programs, we can always make a wish. After all, some California cities, like San Francisco, already have a General Plan environmental element, and the Governors Office of Research and Climate, has posted detailed policy guidelines and data bases for new General Plan environmental/climate change elements. 

Theoretical issues: The most common form of climate change denialism, exhibited by Donald Trump and his cronies, is rejection of the natural science climate consensus. The planet is now experiencing relentless climate change resulting from human activity. It has been observable for at least a century, and is now accelerating because of the increased generation of Green House Gases through industrial production, power generation, and transportation. 

But, one of the most astute climate change analysts, University of Oregon environmental sociologist, John Bellamy Foster, convincingly argues that there are two additional types of climate change denialism. They equally apply to the President, the Governor, and the Mayor. 

Foster’s second type of climate change denial is the belief that climate change is disconnected from the economy. Foster argues that “growth,” or what he terms capital accumulation, inevitably leads to climate change. By extension, he also argues that capitalism cannot be tweaked to allow perpetual expansion (i.e., growth), whether slow, like the United States, or fast, such as China, without adverse climate impacts. This is what he considers to be third level of climate change denialism, the belief that climate change can be controlled or even reversed without changing the economic system. 

Needless to say, California, including Los Angeles, does not yet have elected officials who link climate change to the country’s economic system. As demonstrated by their repeated efforts to undermine the California Environmental Quality Act in order to promote real estate speculation, it is clear that their pronouncements and their actions reject Foster’s contention that economic “growth” stands in the way of environmental protection. 

Final thoughts: This list of deficient programs, plans, and approaches to address climate change is hardly definitive. A closer look at Los Angeles reveals many more efforts to undercut policies and programs to reduce Green House Gases, such as exempting more real estate categories from CEQA. 

If smugness is creeping up on you, please stay tuned for a review of these programs.


(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA. He has also taught courses of Sustainable City Planning at USC’s Price School of Social Policy. Comments and corrections welcomed at Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.