PLANNING WATCH - If you look out your front window, you know that climate change has arrived as heat waves, floods, wildfires, storms, air pollution, eroding beaches, and long-term droughts. But there is much more going on because nine critical planetary boundaries have also been or soon will be breached. Once crossed, recovery is impossible.
Climate change: Summer heat domes have appeared across the planet, a result of long-term fossil fuel burning.
Nitrogen cycle: This critical nutrient cycle replenishes soils and allows plants to grow.
Phosphorus cycle: Phosphorus is mined for use in fertilizers, detergents, pesticides, steel, and even toothpaste. In the oceans it depletes oxygen levels, harming marine life.
Carbon cycle: The carbon cycle between the atmosphere and the oceans plays a key role in regulating the planet’s temperature.
Water cycle: The circulation of water through the atmosphere is crucial to ensure freshwater is recycled, without which life could not exist.
Mass extinctions: The planet’s sixth great extinction is now underway.
Deforestation: It occurs when forests are leveled to make way for agriculture and industry.
Ocean acidification: The oceans absorb 25% of all manmade CO2 emissions. As a result, ocean acidification is unfolding 100 times faster than at any point in the last 20 million years.
Stratospheric ozone. The stratospheric ozone layer filters out the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays that can cause skin cancer in humans and damage plants and plankton.
How can cities respond to such overwhelming and interconnected threats?
First, cities like Los Angeles have a powerful environmental tool at their disposal, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). CEQA can identify the harmful externalities of each project – their overall environmental impacts. These externalities are, however, cost-free to developers because they have no legal responsibility to rectify their projects’ environmental harm. In Los Angeles, CEQA’s extraordinary potential is negated because each major project’s harmful environmental impacts are whisked away through a Statement of Overriding Considerations. These Statements invariably claim that a project’s unverified generation of jobs or transit trips offsets the project’s unmitigable environmental impacts.
Second, cities could undertake “. . .massive investment in green energy, public transport, low-carbon jobs, restoration projects, and climate resilient infrastructure while also reducing the huge amounts of waste inherent to capitalism. All of this would massively improve human welfare while reducing environmental damage.”
Unfortunately, in Los Angeles this, and much more, is not happening.
- There is no monitoring of environmental conditions, including those specifically identified in project-specific Environmental Impact Reports.
- LA’s General Plan has not added a mandatory Environmental Justice element nor a voluntary Climate Change Instead, LA’s two previous mayors, Antonio Villaraigosa and Eric Garcetti, prepared executive documents focused on climate change adaptation. As for the ecological boundaries closely linked to the climate crisis, they were not addressed in these withdrawn Mayoral documents. As for any new or holdover environmental documents, I have not located them.
- Beyond planning and monitoring, there are many underfunded municipal programs that could slow down climate change by reducing the carbon footprint of Angelinos. They include extensive tree planting, fare-free mass transit, bicycle lanes, Road Diets, and widespread sidewalk and street repairs.
Who is responsible for these sins of omission and commission regarding the climate crisis? LA’s officials, whether elected, appointed, or civil service face a major challenge. On one hand, their devotion to “growth” results in their fervent support for real estate speculation. On the other hand, they need to display concern for the life-threatening long-term impacts of climate change. So far, their efforts have floundered. As devout members of the urban growth machine, in the 1950’s and 60’s their focus was suburbanization and urban renewal programs that eliminated “blight,” their euphemism for centrally located neighborhoods ripe for private real estate investment.
Since then they have turned to Reaganomics to create new real estate investment opportunities. Instead of well-funded urban renewal programs based on eminent domain for entire neighborhoods, they turned to deregulation. Their new agenda involved paring back zoning and environmental laws they claimed restricted private investment. Even though deregulation makes the housing and environmental crises worse, the officials, and their supporters in academia, media, and booster groups, stuck to their guns. They still claim that deregulation will alleviate these crises. In LA, they favored climate change adaptation instead of climate mitigation programs.
At the same time, they ignored planning and monitoring efforts to impede climate change, as well as municipal programs to upgrade sidewalks, repair roads, and plant and maintain a genuine urban forest. Furthermore, by promoting new, expensive apartment buildings, they replaced low income transit riders with high-income, transit-averse automobile users.
The cumulative outcome of these policies is that local efforts to thwart climate change have collapsed. Instead, City Hall is in full climate change denial, and its devotion to unplanned, unmonitored real estate speculation is the new normal.
(Dick Platkin is a retired Los Angeles city planner who writes about local planning issues for CityWatchLA. He is a board member of United Neighborhoods for Los Angeles (UN4LA). Previous columns are available at the CityWatchLA archives. Please send any questions to [email protected].)