LA: Will City Hall Finally Get Serious about Accelerating Climate Change?

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-Finally, some potentially good news. The Los Angeles City Council has taken a long over due baby step to create a new City department, whose mission will be adaptation to and mitigation of climate change.  

Considering that our new normal is a mega-drought coupled with ironic warnings or catastrophic California floods, a 12-month wild fire season, worst case climate forecasts coming true, record breaking CO2 levels  – already higher than at any point in humanity’s entire history, and repeated heat waves, this should hardly be news. Yet, unlike other major cities, such as Seattle, San Diego, and Chicago, Los Angeles is amazing lackadaisical about climate change. In fact, LA’s City Hall has even moved in the opposite direction, helping to exempt real estate speculators from CEQA reviews, while City Planning endlessly dawdles in preparing a Climate Change element for its creaky General Plan. 

At best, the city’s General Plan may eventually consider climate change issues as a subcategory of “Resilience,” a nebulous term that Mayor Garcetti’s office rolled out in a new executive document, Resilient Los Angeles. Tipping the scales at 200 multi-colored pages, it is, nevertheless, not part of the General Plan. This means it has NOT been: 

  • Developed through public workshops, hearings, and comments.
  • Subjected to a Draft and Final Environmental Impact Report, per CEQA.
  • Debated or adopted by the City Planning Commission and the City Council.
  • Implemented through any ordinances.
  • Granted a budget.
  • Assigned permanent City staffing or offices.
  • Incorporated into any Departmental work programs.
  • Folded into the City’s Capital Improvement Program.
  • Integrated into any monitoring program. 

As a result, Resilient Los Angeleswill remain an impressive public relations document -- as long as Eric Garcetti remains Mayor. Then, like Mayor Villaraigosa’s similar GreenLA Climate Action Plan, this executive document will also be trucked over to the City’s archives. If lucky, it might linger on as a zombie document on obscure websites for several more years. 

As for the proposed Resilience General Plan element, it is currently one sentence long, and, like the Mayor’s tome, only mentions climate change adaptation (e.g. cooling centers), not climate change mitigation (e.g., reduction of Green House Gases).  

A kick in the behind?Stepping into this embarrassing void is an overdue proposal to create a new City agency: the Climate Emergency Mobilization Department (CEMD). It is based on an initiative from the New York-based Climate Mobilization organization. Its strategy is to work through city governments across the entire United States to prepare and implement local plans with twin goals: mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. Their proposals go far beyond “resilience,” for example, reaching net zero Green House Gas emissions by 2030. 

So far, the City Council has only approved the preparation of a report about this new department. It has not yet established it, including its budget, staffing, office space, and specific responsibilities. If the eventual report is ignored, assigned to yet another Council committee, or results in a token agency with a few recycled desks, it will send LA’s public a clear message. To quote Mad Magazine’sAlfred E. Newman, “What, me worry?” Business as usual will plod on at City Hall, with an occasional harrumph about this year’s strange weather. By their actions, LA’s officials will make it clear that that they, too, are, objectively, climate change deniers, setting the stage for another magazine cover, like Mad Magzine'shomage to New York City. 

If, hopefully, the report results in the creation of a new municipal department to comprehensively address all aspects of climate change, both adaptation and mitigation, what will this new department undertake? Here are some obvious suggestions that ought to be part of its work program. 

In order to build on and closely link together what already exists, the Climate Emergency Mobilization Department, should: 

1) General Plan.Work closely with the Department of City Planning to immediately prepare a Climate Change element for LA’s General Plan. While many climate-related goals and programs are scattered throughout LA’s aging General Plan elements, they are not linked together, monitored, and implemented through ordinances, LA’s Capital Improvement Program, and the city’s annual budgeting process.  

2) State of California. Just as bad, little of what exists is connected to the State of California’s many climate-relate programs and mandates, despite the state’s leadership on climate issues. 

For example, in 2017 the Governors Office Planning and Research issued new General Plan Guidelines with a chapter on optional climate change General Plan elements, as well as links to the entire spectrum of statewide climate related studies, and legislation. This is a treasure trove for any serious effort to bring Los Angeles up to speed on climate issues through its General Plan.  

Foremost among these state programs is CEQA: This is California’s premier tool to determine the short and long-term environmental impacts of private development projects, public works projects, and municipal plans. The new Climate Emergency Mobilization Department needs to carefully monitor the application of CEQA to these projects in Los Angeles, especially efforts to dodge CEQA, like City Council-adopted Statements of Overriding Considerations that reject alarming DEIR findings for large projects’ Green House Gas emissions. 

3) Other Cities.  Another important task of this new department is to review and apply the efforts of other cities to address climate change. This should minimally include King County Washington’s (Seattle metro area) Strategic Climate Action Plan, which involves all public agencies in the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. 

4) Prior City Department.  Pick up where the LA City Environmental Affairs Department left off when Mayor Villaraigosa summarily abolished it in 2010. We still have its legacy web page, as well as its files. Furthermore, most of its staff members still work for the City, so this Department’s institutional memory is alive and well at City Hall, ready to be tapped for the CEMD. 

5) Other Agencies.Identify and assess existing City and regional (SCAG, METRO, SCAQMD) programs that bear on climate change. At the municipal level these include the following, all of which need to be evaluated to differentiate public relations initiatives from actual funded, deliverable, and monitored climate change mitigation services to Angelinos. 

TheBureau of Street Servicesis in charge of LA’s diminutive urban forest. This is the critical, low hanging fruit of climate change since a well-planted, well-maintained urban forest offers mitigation by sequestering carbon and adaptation through drought tolerant trees that create shade, incentivize walking and biking, and enhance the absorption of rain water.  

In fact, this new city Department just might be the swift, well-targeted, kick in the pants that LA city government needs to finally plant and maintain a drought tolerant urban forest on its parkways, median strips, parks and open space, and private parcels. 

The Department of Water and Poweroffers equipment, rebates, and programs for its residential customers, including toilets, washing machines, and sprinkler controllers.  Its other programs include: 

  • California Friendly® Landscape Incentive Program- The LADWP’s subsidizes LA residents who replace their lawns with drought tolerant plants.
  • Landscape Training Classes- It also provides free California Friendly Landscape Training (CFLT) classes for its customers.
  • One Water LA 2040- Los Angeles is now developing its One Water LA 2040 Plan. It will identify projects, programs, and policies that will ensure long-term water supplies for Los Angeles. 

The Mayor’s Office. Prior to theResiliencedocument discussed above, Eric Garcetti’s office also authored another climate change document,The Sustainable City pLAn.It, too, is an executive Climate Action Plan, similar to Mayor Villaraigosa’s. 

The Bureau of Sanitation assumed some duties from the disbanded Department of Environmental Affairs. These tasks include educating Los Angeles residents about sustainable practices and environmental stewardship.  

When the CEMD report is filed with the City Council, we will have a major window on this potentially new City department. 

If the report calls for the preparation of a General Plan Climate Change element, strong advocacy of CEQA and other California state laws and programs, resurrects the Environmental Affairs Department’s agenda, connects to other agencies, and integrates existing climate-related programs scattered throughout many City departments, especially upgrading the urban forest, then the prospects for this new department are positive.

But, if the report ignores the obvious, kicks the can down the road, or resorts to a top-down formula that glosses over LA’s particular history, then the signs are not good. While Mad Magazinecould then have a field day with a follow-up climate change denial cover that featured Los Angeles, rather than New York City, as the butt of its jokes, City Hall might not properly understand this unsolicited honor.


(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who reports on local planning controversies for CityWatchLA.  Please send any comments or questions to [email protected].  Selected previous columns available at Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.