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Three Crises that Feed on Each Other: Covid-19 Pandemic, Financial Crash, and Climate Change

PLANNING WATCH-Despite the White House’s pre-pandemic boasts about a booming American economy, its bungled response to the Covid-19 crisis was the straw that quickly broke the back of the American financial system.

This also explains why the enormous Federal stimulus packages managed to buoy the crashing stock market, but not stop 30 million people from applying for unemployment insurance, 13 million of whom also lost their employer-provided health insurance.

But, the third crisis, climate change, has also become worse because of the Covid-19 Pandemic and its financial crisis. Even though reduced economic activity has sidelined oil consumption, the underlying factors responsible for climate change remain. Despite the Covid-19 Pandemic, the climate crisis is permanent, and temporary changes in personal behavior because of layoffs and shelter-in-place orders will not in themselves alter long-term trends.  

Of course, if the sharp increases in poverty and disease also spark mass social movements, the outcomes could be much different, but there is no automatic process that transforms hard times into organized and sustained political action. 

Michael Harrington, author of The Other America, the guide book for the War on Poverty waged by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations a half century ago put it this way, “To solve problems which the Government passively records, there must be radical departures and a political movement capable of initiating them.” His words still ring true. 

National and global trends still impacting the climate crisis

Immediate profits sacrificed for long-term growth: The short-term tactics used by most governments to slow down the spread of the coronavirus are strictly stopgap measures. They sacrifice immediate profits in order to allow long-term economic expansion. Done right, they include short-term closure orders, social distancing, personal protective equipment (PPE), testing, contact tracing, and increased surge capacity at hospitals. While widespread in most industrialized countries and many developing ones, in the United States social distancing has been inconsistent, while PPE, testing, contact tracing, and hospitals are dramatically under-resourced. The result is extremely high levels infection and death rates compared to other countries, with the virus hitting the poor and frail hardest. 

Unfortunately, there is no counterpart to these immediate public health measures for the slower moving but more deadly impacts of climate change. Loss of agricultural production, heat waves, storms, floods, changes in sea level and precipitation, and new plant and animal diseases are already taking a heavy toll, and they will get much worse for the foreseeable future.  

In the words of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres“The social and economic devastation caused by climate change will be many times greater than the current Pandemic.” 

Underlying causes of the climate remain: The 6 percent Green House Gas emission reductions resulting from the Covid-19 Pandemic and related economic crisis are welcome, but unplanned and short-term. This reduction is also less than the mitigation required to prevent a predictable and irreversible breach of climate change thresholds. As a result, unless there is a dramatic global change in public policy, the pre-Pandemic increases in temperatures and CO2 levels will quickly resume.  The atmosphere’s carbon dioxide level was 416 PPM (Parts Per Million) in April 2020. This is the highest CO2 level since the Middle Miocene era, 15-17 million years ago, and it is forecast to reach 500 PPM by 2065. This is double the pre-industrial level of carbon dioxide, the most threatening Green House Gas.  

The Shock Doctrine: According to Naomi Klein, the Trump administration and some local governments have used the Covid-19 Pandemic as their political cover for accelerated environmental deregulation in order to bestow favors on privileged business sectors, such as airlines. Unless these Federal regulations, especially for water and air pollution laws and regulations enforced by the EPA, are miraculously restored when the Pandemic recedes, we will experience greater exposure to microbial threats and toxic chemicals.  

Local trends aggravating the climate crisis 

In Los Angeles City officials made a series of decisions that have worsened the climate crisis worse. Last week I discussed the impact of staff reductions in building LA’s green infrastructure, but there is more. 

Inadequate climate change planning: Before the Covid-19 Pandemic, under the administration of Mayor Antonio Viaraigosa, City Hall eliminated the City’s Environmental Affairs Department. A potential successor agency, The Office of the Climate Emergency Mobilization, has languished for over two years, waiting over one year for City Hall to hire its Director and one staff position. Meanwhile, several short-term mayoral Climate Action Plans have substituted for real climate change planning. 

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office prepared the first one, but it vanished when he left office. Mayor Eric Garcetti’s prepared LA’s second Climate Action Plan. It too will expire when he leaves office in 2022. Until then the current Mayor’s Sustainabity pLAn can be found on the Mayor’s web site. Like all Executive reports, it is not linked to the funded work programs of the City’s operating departments. Neither Climate Action Plan benefitted from public workshops and hearings, City Council adoption as an ordinance, or an Environmental Impact Report. Likewise, neither the previous or current Climate Action Plan is linked to the City’s legally required General Plan, despite detailed State General Plan guidelines on how California cities should prepare a Climate Change General Plan element. As a result, the City of LA’s General Plan only addresses climate change mitigation and adaptation by coincidence, when policies in other General Plan Elements, such as Mobility and Health, happen to mitigate Green House Gas emissions. 

Mansionization: As I have frequently explained through CityWatch, the City of LA’s romance with gentrification, especially McMansions, makes the climate crisis worse. As LA gentrifies at a furious pace, without even a pause during the Mayor’s Covid-19 porous closure orders, the embedded carbon in hundreds of smaller, older homes is bulldozed away during hasty demolitions. After that, contractors quickly build new houses with a carbon footprint at least three times larger. Furthermore, these new super-sized residences feature 24/7 heating and air conditioning, restaurant-sized appliances, whole house vacuum systems, heated spas and pools, prominent double and triple garages, extensive hardscape with reduced percolation of rainfall, and larger pipes to connect them to the LADWP’s main water lines. 

This Sherman Oaks McMansion's triple garage and massive driveway accelerate climate change. 

In-fill luxury apartments: The second type of gentrification is the wide scale construction of infill luxury apartment buildings and small lot subdivision town houses.  In most cases, they replace smaller, older apartment buildings. They not only eliminate the embedded carbon in the older buildings, but also displace lower income tenants who lived in rent stabilized (RSO) apartments and who were also more likely to take mass transit. In contrast, the new buildings’ affluent tenants almost always own and drive cars, except when they opt for Uber and Lyft. 

Because the City of LA does not undertake any climate change planning linked to the work programs of the City’s operating department or to the City’s General Plan, no one has compiled a list of the many scattered climate related policies and programs scattered among the City’s many department.  As a result of this omission, there is also no way to reliably monitor the success or failure of these dispersed policies and implementing programs to reduce LA’s carbon footprint. 

Given this information vacuum, there is a remote chance that the City of LA is making progress in mitigating and adapting to climate change. But City Hall’s green light to continue the uninterrupted construction of climate-damaging McMansions and luxury apartments during a Pandemic says otherwise. Since these projects were labeled essential and therefore carved out from the Mayoral Executive Orders to cease all non-essential activities, the chance that LA is meeting long-term climate change reduction goals is nil.

 

(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning issues for CityWatchLA. He serves on the board of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA) and is co-chair of the new Greater Fairfax Residents Association.  Please send comments and corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.