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LA’s Not-Very-Green New Deal(s) to Address the Climate Crisis

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-City officials have offered Angelenos two, or possibly three, local versions of the Congressional Green New Deal.

 

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s dubbed the latest version of his executive climate change document, Sustainability pLAn 2019, LA’s Green New Deal, even though this new title was a dutiful aide’s afterthought. Furthermore, Mayor Garcetti’s proposal omits two key provisions of the Congressional Green New Deal: high quality health care for all and jobs offering a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations and retirement security. 

On a different track, the Los Angeles City Council is slowly creating a new Office of Climate Emergency Mobilization. Councilmembers Paul Koretz and Bob Blumenfeld originally proposed a new climate department – now downgraded to a small office -- in April 2018. After a year of meandering through different Council committees, the City Council finally adopted a diluted version of the original proposal on July 3, 2019. Their action will kick-start the following: 

  • Create a Climate Emergency Commission.
  • Hire a Director for the new Climate Emergency Mobilization Office.
  • Draft a Climate Emergency Declaration. 

On what appears to be a third track, in April 2019, the City Council also adopted a motion listing the goals of a different Los Angeles Green New Deal:

  • Reduce by 50 percent the number of census tracks lacking equity and environmental parity.
  • Create a $100,000,000 Transformative Climate Communities program.
  • Include an “Equity and Environmental Justice Impact Statement” in official City reports.
  • Analyze the LADWP budget for environmental equity metrics. 

How these three tracks relate to each other, much less to the specifics of the climate crisis is, at best, murky. 

This is what we know about California’s climate future, some of which is already happening. It will include a wetter, warming atmosphere and rising, warming oceans that drive a host of climate changes. There will be rapid weather fluctuations, with more drought years and more wet years, accompanied by statewide wildfires, severe storms, and extreme floods. The chances of a flood of biblical proportions, similar to the great flood of 1862, which completely inundated the Central Valley, is substantially greater. The damage from each mega-flood would approach $1 trillion and permanently change the state’s geography. Furthermore, because the state’s population has grown from 500,000 in 1862 to around 40 million people in 2019, the human impacts of future mega-floods, such as death, disease, and dislocation, will be much greater.

Sacramento during California’s 1862 mega-flood, a preview of floods to come. 

As for the response of cities to this grim future, climate changes policies and programs call for both mitigation (the reduction of Green House Gases) and/or adaptation (resilience) to climate change impacts. These two approaches are well known, even if LA’s three climate crisis proposals pay little heed to them, despite the following blueprints. 

In 2012, UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability published a remarkable 85 page document: Vision 2021 LA:  A Model Environmental Sustainability Agenda for Los Angeles’ Next Mayor and City Council. Seven years later, its 13 policy categories are still valid and should finally be folded into all local climate emergency plans: 

  • Energy and climate
  • Climate change preparedness
  • Green buildings.
  • Transportation.
  • Air quality
  • Environmental justice.
  • Waste.
  • Water.
  • Open space.
  • Urban greening.
  • Green economy.
  • Food systems. 

In 2017, the Governors Office of Planning and Research updated its General Plan Guidelines, applicable to all California cities, including Los Angeles. They have added major new material on the climate crisis, including precise details on how each city and county in California should prepare a Climate Crisis Element  for its General Plan. These guidelines, backed up many database links, could easily be applied to Los Angeles. But this would totally upend the Mayor’s approach, which is to stick to glossy executive documents, and to the City Council’s main approach, establishing a commission and small city office to address a severe climate crisis. 

Even though the City Council’s approaches have flown below the radar, the Mayor’s Sustainability pLAn 2019 had been a lighting rod for criticism. 

On one hand, a conservative city employee union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW 18), spent at least $1,000,000 through a front group, the Working Californians Research Fund, to attack Mayor Garcetti and his customized version of the Congressional Green New Deal. They claim that the Mayor’s Sustainability pLAn 2019 will cost union jobs, increase energy bills, erode the middle class, and push union workers toward Donald Trump and the Republican Party. 

On the other hand, according to Streetsblog LA, many environmental advocacy groups were sharply critical of the mayoral document for not proposing investments in transportation alternatives. These include increasing the size and accessibility of local bus systems and the city’s bicycle network. Other groups, such as the Sunrise movement, challenged the Mayor’s 2050 goal for Los Angeles to reach zero emissions. They maintain that the city’s deadline – not goal -- to avoid a total climate catastrophe should be 2030, not 2050.  

What is missing: In my view, the IBEW18 critics from the right and the environmental advocates from the left missed the main weakness of the Mayor’s Sustainability pLAn 2019. It is not a plan. It is only a slick, multi-colored executive document. Like Mayor Villaraigosa’s equally glossy Climate Action Plan, Mayor Garcetti’s similar executive climate documents will vanish when he leaves office.  

This is because unlike the preparation of a General Plan Climate Crisis Element, the public did not have the opportunity to review the Mayor’s climate document(s) through workshops and hearings.  The City Planning Commission and City Council never voted on them, and they have never been subject to a CEQA-driven Environmental Impact Report. They also do not have any implementing ordinances, budget allocations, or work programs in the City’s many operating departments. Finally, the Mayor’s climate documents have a flagrant climate-related omission. They never mention the use of the California Environmental Quality Act, through which the City can objectively determine the climate impacts of public and private projects. Since private projects largely consist of speculative real estate ventures, all of which are car-oriented, the direct and indirect climate impacts of this omission are staggering. 

The advantages of the alternative route, a General Plan Climate Crisis Element, already carefully described in the State’s 2017 General Plan Guidelines, are many. It would allow the city to consolidate scattered municipal climate change policies and programs into one coherent and regularly monitored document.  It would, therefore, include: 

  • Ongoing environmental and climate programs dispersed throughout many City departments.
  • Existing climate-related policies and programs in LA’s aging General Plan, especially the General Plan Framework Element.
  • Policies, programs, and measures specified in the Mayor’s executive climate documents and the City Council’s motions and resolutions.  

These would be reviewed at public workshops and hearings, as well as through City Planning Commission and City Council discussions and votes prior to adoption. After adoption, the many existing and proposed programs implementing the City’s climate change policies and goals should be subject to an annual monitoring report [reduction of Green House Gases] to determine what is working, what is not, and therefore what needs to be changed. 

Considering the extreme dangers of the climate crisis already bearing down on California, as well as the carefully prepared recommendations prepared for Los Angeles by UCLA in 2012 and the Governors Office of Planning and Research in 2017, it is reckless to stick with short-lived Mayoral executive documents and innocuous Council motions and resolutions instead of the real thing.

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning controversies for CityWatch. He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and welcomes comments and corrections at rhplatkin@gmail.com. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.)