Friday, December 1, 2017

Dropping the Ball on Climate Change – It is a Big Club

Talk is cheap when our local pols offer press statements about climate change instead of taking clear actions.


PLATKIN ON PLANNING--For those who care about the planet’s future, it has not been a good week.  There are no shortages of public officials who have dropped the ball, despite their power and bully pulpit to do good. (Graphic above: Maps of planet earth documenting observed global warming.) 
The most egregious example took place at the recent United Nations Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany, where holdouts Syria and Nicaragua finally signed the Paris Climate Accords.  This leaves the United States as the sole country that is not a signatory. 
At Bonn the U.S. delegation also made the peculiar case for the continued burning of fossil fuels, including coal, as a mitigation program to slow down climate change.  Before a jeering crowd, chief U.S. negotiator, George Banks, declared, “Without question, fossil fuels will continue to be used, and we would argue that it’s in the global interest to make sure when fossil fuels are used that they be as clean and efficient as possible.” 
Not to be outdone, California Governor Jerry Brown, a long-time fracking supporter, pushed back at anti-fracking demonstrators who chanted, “Keep it in the ground!”  He told them, “Let’s put you in the ground,” before proceeding to his rationale“I wish we could have no pollution, but we have to have our automobiles.”  He concluded by arguing that if California stopped fracking, it would simply import polluting oil from somewhere else, so there was no reason to oppose fracking. 
While both conservative and liberal politicians make parallel arguments, climate change continues its relentless rise.  According to the Scientific American, in 2016 carbon dioxide, the chief component of the Green House Gases responsible for climate change, reached 403.3 parts per million.  The planet earth last experienced this level three to five million years ago! 
For those who still question if this CO2 increase has consequences, well known climate writer and environmental activist Bill McKibben offered the answer on the national news program Democracy Now.  I wrote the first book on climate change 30 years ago.  Back then it was abstract.  We knew what was coming, but we didn’t know exactly what it was going to look like.  By this point, every single issue of your broadcast is a kind of gazetteer of the destruction wrought by what we’ve done to the environment.” 
Are there grounds for pessimism, perhaps leading governmental authorities to focus on climate change adaptation rather than climate change mitigation? Yes.  Does this apply to the City of Los Angeles, one of this country’s greatest generators of Green House Gases?  The answer is that L.A.’s City Hall has dropped the ball on climate change just as much as the Trump administration and Governor Jerry Brown.  In fact, our local officials are also accomplished at polishing their reputations as climate change opponents while turning a blind eye to the demands of the oil, automobile, and real estate industries.  
To begin, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has ballyhooed his office’s urban cooling campaignto reduce the urban heat island effect.  While this sounds like climate change mitigation, it only addresses the added increment of temperature increases resulting from buildings, streets, and cars, not the underlying surge in heat waves caused by climate change. 
Mayor’s Office of Sustainability:  Likewise, the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability has adopted its own climate change document, the Sustainable City pLAn.  But what the Mayor’s office calls a “sustainability plan” is no plan it all.  It is merely an executive document that expires when Mayor Garcetti either returns to part-time college teaching or moves into the post-Michael Pence Vice Presidential bastion in Washington, DC.   
More specifically, pLAn is not part of the City’s official General Plan, nor does it conform, except by coincidence, to the extensive resource material on climate change mitigation and adaptation included in the new 2017 California General Plan Guidelines.  The pLAn is not based on public participation, and is not based on workshops or public hearings before the City Planning Commission and the City Council.  
It has never been subject to public testimony, official debate, an environmental review, or an official Council vote.  It is neither a formal policy document nor an implementation ordinance.  It also has no relationship to the City’s budget or the work programs of any City Department.  Likewise, it is not subject to any of the requirements of the City’s mandatory General Plan, that it be internally consistent and timely.   
General Plan Climate Change Element:  Los Angeles desperately needs a Climate Change General Plan element, and other California cities, like Richmond, Vista, and Livermore, have demonstrated how it can be prepared, adopted, implemented, and monitored.  If the L.A.’s elected officials are serious about climate change mitigation and adaptation, a Climate Change Element needs to be their top priority, not photo shoots or boosting luxury housing construction through unverified claims that apartments built within a half-mile of bus stops cut Green House Gases.  
What should this Climate Change element include?  Foremost, it needs to address management of the Urban Forest, which some cities treat as a separate General Plan element, and which could become a stand-alone General Plan element in L.A.  In fact, Jill Stewart and Ileana Wachtel of the Coalition to Preserve L.A. have already prepared a detailed position paper outlining the contents of a stand-alone Urban Forest element.  There is no way to sufficiently emphasize the importance of the urban forest’s role in mitigating and adapting to climate change.  Trees breathe in CO2 and sequester carbon in leaves and plant tissue, while simultaneously breathing out oxygen.  Trees also capture three components of SMOG and Green House Gases: small particles, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide. 
Trees also perform other mitigation and adaptation functions. 
  • Well-planted trees can reduce the energy consumption of houses for heating and air conditioning by 10 percent. 
  • Trees can shade sidewalks and streets, enhancing walking and biking in lieu of driving, as Los Angeles steadily heats up throughout the 21st century. 
  • Trees buffer hard rains, allowing precipitation to percolate into the ground. 
CEQA:  The other key tool for City Hall’s decision makers to mitigate and adapt to climate change is the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).  The State legislature amended CEQA to measure Green House Gases so decision makers would be informed about the climate change impacts of public and private projects.  In addition, CEQA’s Environmental Impact Reports (EIR’s) offer decision makers environmentally superior alternatives for each project.  If this information were followed, officials could use their decision-making authority to approve project alternatives with fewer climate impacts.  
It is a preventable tragedy that our elected and appointed officials routinely abuse their authority to consistently approve the most environmentally damaging alternatives, especially for private real estate projects.  Through their boilerplate Statements of Overriding Consideration, they approve one environmentally damaging project after another.  Their flimsy justifications, that these projects will create jobs or bolster transit use are never subject to monitoring to document the appearance of the promised jobs and transit ridership.  
While changes in the review of public and private projects could become a powerful tool for the City of Los Angeles to seriously address climate change, they would become even stronger if linked to a new Climate Change General Plan Element. 
The time has already passed for City Hall to stop dropping the ball on climate change.  Our leaders need to join the ranks of other local officials who are taking a strong stand, not posing as climate change advocates while pursuing policies that are exactly the opposite. 
(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning controversies for City Watch LA.  Please send any comments or corrections to

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

LA’s People’s Climate Change March and Rally takes Place on Saturday, April 29, in Wilmington’s Banning Park. Will you be there?

By Dick Platkin*

If your email box is like mine, it is filled with invitations to Saturday’s Climate Change march and rally in Wilmington’s Banning Park.  This rally begins at 11 AM, and it will be followed by a march to the nearby Tesoro Refinery, 1331 Eubank Avenue, in Los Angeles.

If you are already going to this rally, the three articles I discuss below will give you a deeper understanding of why this march is so important.  Plus, I end with specific suggestions about what you can pursue locally to adapt to and, more importantly, to mitigate climate change.

If you haven’t thought about going to the rally, or on the fence, then please check out the articles I link to below.  I consider their authors – Bill McKibben, John Bellamy Foster, and Michael Klare -- to be the best U.S. writers on climate-related issues.   What I appreciate is their accessible writing style and thorough scientific knowledge about climate change.  But, more importantly, all three writers dig deeply into the economic, political, and social processes responsible for global warming.  These are not writers who fall back on a vague concept of human-caused climate change.  Instead, they identify the industries, companies, political forces, and politicians most responsible for what all three writers consider inevitable terracide if not abruptly stopped.

If this strikes you as alarmist, then you are absolutely right.  Despite their differences, all three writers are alarmists, and they explain, in painful detail, the political and economic processes that are already leading to planetary-wide destruction.  Furthermore, even though their solutions differ, all three call for deep systemic changes beyond their harsh critiques of the Trump administration and of trendy life-style changes dubbed “going green.”  

The lead story in the week’s issue of The Nation, On April 29, We march for the Future, is authored by Bill McKibben, this country leading climate writer, advocate, and political organizer.  Widely known through his many articles and appearances, McKibben is also the founder of Saturday’s Climate March in Washington, DC, and in many other cities, like Los Angeles.

McKibben describes our current situation in these unsparing words:

It is hard to avoid hyperbole when you talk about global warming.  It is, after all, the biggest 
thing humans have ever done, and by a very large margin.  In the past year, we’ve decimated the Great Barrier Reef, which is the largest living structure on Earth.  In the drought-stricken territories around the Sahara, we’ve helped kick off what The New York Times called “one of the biggest humanitarian disasters since World War II.”  We’ve melted ice at the poles at a record pace, because our emissions trap extra heat from the sun that’s equivalent to 400,000 Hiroshima-size explosions a day.  Which is why, just maybe, you should come to … a series of big climate protests that will mark the 100th day of Trumptime. Maybe the biggest thing ever is worth a day.”

McKibben’s solutions largely rest on a combination of mass political pressure on both political parties and extensive technological change.  His goal is to keep as much carbon in the ground through total bans on fracking and the Dakota Access and Keystone pipelines.  He also calls for the full transformation to renewables: solar panels, bikes, buses, electric cars, wind power, and improved batteries.  His ultimate goal is the elimination of all new fossil fuel infrastructure and the transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

In Trump and Climate Catastrophe, University of Oregon environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster carefully describes the combined political and economic processes that have lead to the current climate catastrophe.  Like McKibben, Foster considers the current crisis to be much larger than Donald Trump.  And like McKibben, Foster thinks Trump’s efforts to stop climate research and fully deregulate the fossil fuel industry could move the existing current climate crisis past the point of no return.  In Foster’s words:

The effects of the failure to mitigate global warming will not of course come all at once, and will not affect all regions and populations equally.  But just a few years of inaction in the immediate future could lock in dangerous climate change that would be irreversible for the next ten thousand years.  It is feared that once the climatic point of no return—usually seen as a 2°C increase in global average temperatures—is reached, positive-feedback mechanisms will set in, accelerating warming trends and leading, in the words of James Hansen, … to “a dynamic situation that is out of [human] control,” propelling the world toward the 4°C (or even higher) future that is thought by scientists to portend the end of civilization, in the sense of organized human society.

Where Foster disagrees with McKibben is over the latter’s faith in a transformation to renewable energy.  In Foster’s words, Even though a conversion to renewable energy is hypothetically conceivable within the system, capital’s demand for short-term profits, its competitive drive, its vested interests, and its inability to plan for long-term needs all militate against rational energy solutions.  In other words, the economic and political barriers of modern capitalism will effectively block the total technological energy transformation that McKibben calls for.  Foster is not opposed to such an energy transformation in theory, but in practice he believes that the political barriers cannot be overcome without a parallel economic transformation.

As a result, Foster comes to a dire conclusion; we can continue to live under capitalism or we can make the wide-ranging political and economic changes that will ultimately prevent imminent planetary catastrophe.  But, we cannot have our cake and eat it too: we can choose one or the other, but cannot choose both.   Foster calls his alternative political/economic program eco-socialism.  He also points out that many others have reached the same radical conclusion, such as Eric S. Godoy and Aaron Jaffe in their October 31, 2016, op-ed piece in the New York Times, “We Don’t Need a ‘War’ on Climate Change, We Need a Revolution.”  Their point, like Foster’s, is that we are now at a critical juncture in human history.  Governmental and corporate allegiance to fossil fuel profits has become a death knell to humanity.  We must now assure that a dangerous economic system ends, not the planet and human civilization.  The choice is stark, but it is ours.

Michael Klare’s recent article, Climate Change is Genocide: Why Inaction equals Annihilation, first appeared on-line at TomDispatch and then was widely republished.
Like McKibben and Foster, Klare, who teaches at Hampshire College, contends that humanity is at the precipice.  Emerging conditions in Africa reveal what this catastrophe eventually portends for the entire planet.  In Klare’s words:
The overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists agree that any increase in average world temperatures that exceeds 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above the pre-industrial era -- some opt for a rise of no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius -- will alter the global climate system drastically.  In such a situation, a number of societies will simply disintegrate in the fashion of South Sudan today, producing staggering chaos and misery. So far, the world has heated up by at least one of those two degrees, and unless we stop burning fossil fuels in quantity soon, the 1.5-degree level will probably be reached in the not-too-distant future. Worse yet, on our present trajectory, it seems highly unlikely that the warming process will stop at 2 or even 3 degrees Celsius, meaning that later in this century many of the worst-case climate-change scenarios -- the inundation of coastal cities, the desertification of vast interior regions, and the collapse of rain-fed agriculture in many areas -- will become everyday reality.
Klare’s program is not fully articulated in his Tom Dispatch article, but he does spell it out in more detail elsewhere, and he also calls for readers to join one of the April 29 Climate Marches.  More specifically, Klare proposes that those who understand the calamity already underway work on two fronts.  The first is broad political struggle, similar to McKibben, especially against the Trump administration, as well as a full energy transformation.  The second is local actions that can proceed with or without hostile laws and regulations from the Trump administration. 

Therefore, let us consider a few of these local actions, especially since the effects of climate change are already appearing in California as more intensive forest fires, droughts, heat waves, tree dies offs, beach erosion, and heavy rains.

What you can do at the local level:  As I have previously written at City Watch and Progressive City, despite weak leadership in both major parties on climate issues in Washington, DC, there is still much we can achieve at the municipal level.

Extensive urban tree planting:  As explained by a recent LA Times investigative study of tree die-offs in Southern California, climate change plays a decisive role.   It expresses itself as five years of drought, which weakened trees, followed by an extremely wet year in which insects now thrive, including invasive species.  The result is millions of dead trees, with no end in sight.  Therefore, we need to accelerate our planting of a highly diverse urban forest in Los Angeles so future combinations of extreme climate events, plant diseases, and invasive species will not devastate entire neighborhoods. 

Once achieved, this vigorous urban forest will reduce CO2 levels, which have recently reach 410 parts per million (ppm).  Trees can also filter out other dangerous air pollutants, such as particulate matter.  In addition to climate change mitigation, trees also play an important role in adapting to climate change by creating shade that protects us from heat waves and makes walking more inviting, while buffeting heavy rains and allowing percolation into aquifers. 

Alternative Transportation Modes:  Los Angele already has a range grass roots group that advocate for more transit, bicycle infrastructure, and pedestrian improvements.  While all these options require money, they also need public supporters who are fully engaged.  They must write articles and letters-to-the-editor, heavily lobby elected officials, make their case at public meetings and hearings, organize participatory events and demonstrations, and when necessary, engage in civil disobedience.

California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA):  On one hand, we have a powerful tool to understand the climate impacts of plans, programs, and public and private projects.  It is the California Environmental Quality Act, which also provides elected officials with a lever to stop or downsize projects that contribute to global warming.  On the other hand, our elected officials have a developer-guided political agenda to reduce the scope and power of CEQA.  Since the developers have no intention of changing this cozy relationship, it is up to local activists to drown out and expose the City Hall pay-to-play that is contributing to terracide.

Conclusion?  When Saturday’s march is over, roll up your sleeves for the long haul.  Through CityWatch, you will get some report cards and action plans for the tumultuous years ahead.

*Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who reports on local planning issues for City Watch. He recently taught courses in sustainable city planning at USC’s Price School of Social Policy, where he used articles by the three authors cited in the above column.  Please send any comments and corrections to

Monday, March 27, 2017

Corrections to LAT's “Time for a new conversation about L.A.’s future”

The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, March 21, 2017
Corrections appear as footnotes below.

For what may be a brief moment in Los Angeles, planning is hot. Measure S, the slow
[RP1] -growth, anti-development initiative, failed at the ballot box but succeeded in one very big way: It drew attention to the city’s broken land-use process and the need for a new[RP2]  comprehensive vision for how Los Angeles should grow.

Measure S forced city leaders and voters to confront the very real challenges facing Los Angeles, such as the lack of affordable apartments, homelessness, gentrification and how to manage the transformation of once-suburban Los Angeles into an increasingly urban city. There was near-universal agreement among proponents and opponents of “S” that the status quo isn’t working. Land-use rules are outdated and routinely ignored. Every new project is a political negotiation and a fight over[RP3]  height, density and community impact, making housing[RP4]  construction a high-stakes gamble and turning[RP5]  residents reflexively into NIMBYs.

Yet voters overwhelmingly rejected the solution offered by Measure S: a[RP6]  two-year construction moratorium on certain developments. Clearly, voters do not want to stop building[RP7] . But what do they want built? Where do they want it built? And can Los Angeles finally fix this broken system that doesn’t produce enough housing, erodes public trust[RP8]  in government and doesn’t result in well-planned communities?

The answer is yes, but only if Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council embrace the opportunity created by the failure of Measure S. The initiative created a chance to have a transparent, inclusive and wide-ranging civic dialogue about how Los Angeles should grow and evolve.

Yes, the mayor and council have committed to updating the General Plan and the 35 community plans, which set goals and rules[RP9]  for development in a neighborhood. Those are good long-term reforms, but they’ll take four to six years to achieve. In the meantime, all the urgency, advocacy and momentum for change[RP10]  spurred by Measure S will fade away, and Los Angeles runs the very real risk of repeating what it has done time and again: The city[RP11]  develops a plan for growth, homeowner groups oppose it, and then elected officials ignore it.

In the 1970s, Planning Director Calvin Hamilton developed the “Centers Concept” as the city’s official vision for growth in the General Plan. The idea was to concentrate denser development in regional centers — including downtown, Hollywood, Century City and Warner Center — and connect the centers with rapid transit, while largely leaving the surrounding suburban single-family neighborhoods alone. (The plan also called for creating more recreational[RP12]  space by turning flood control channels into streams and lakes, an idea that’s been revived with the Los Angeles River restoration project.)

But the rapid transit wasn’t built, in[RP13]  part because voters kept rejecting sales tax hikes to build rail lines. Real estate interests and City Council members largely dismissed the vision in favor of developing on a case-by-case basis.

The city revised its approach to growth in 1996 with the Framework General Plan, a name that told Angelenos absolutely nothing. The Framework said L.A. would[RP14]  channel most new development onto 5% of the land in the city, mostly dense commercial boulevards such as Wilshire, Ventura, Pico and Venice. In those targeted areas, the plan called for dense, walkable neighborhoods where shops and apartments would be mingled rather than separated as in suburban development.

It’s now 20 years later, and some of the ideas in the Centers Concept and the Framework are still relevant. For instance, it makes sense to concentrate growth in areas served by rapid transit and to mix residential and commercial development to reduce the need to drive for every errand.  But Los Angeles as a whole needs to be far more walkable, bikeable and transit-oriented, with most communities within easy reach of frequent bus or rail service and amenities such as parks, libraries and grocery stores.

Since[RP15]  2008 voters have twice approved sales tax increases for public transit. That money will help the county double the size of its rail network, as well as build more bus lanes, bike lanes and pedestrian projects, making it easier for people to get around without a car.

Downtown now has added thousands of apartments and condos, becoming a hub of 24-hour activity. And once-industrial parts of downtown like the Arts District are becoming residential neighborhoods. There are ambitious plans underway to restore the Los Angeles River and create a 32-mile swath of green space through the city. Recent elections — not only Measure S, but also the decisions in November to raise taxes to build rail lines and homeless housing, and to require affordable housing in certain new developments — suggest that Angelenos are open to a more urban[RP16]  city. So it’s time to take pulse of the residents again and start writing better guidelines[RP17]  for the future L.A.

--> -->

 [RP1]Measure S was about the General Plan.  It did not advocate anti-development or slow growth policies. It imposed no limits on the size, amount, or location of real estate projects as long as they adhered to adopted plans.

 [RP2]Measure S never called for a new comprehensive vision for Los Angeles.  It called for following the existing vision of planned growth.  It is also called for updating the General Plan, but never linked this to real estate investment.

 [RP3]No, only between 3 to 5 percent of new projects involve negotiations.   Furthermore, there is nothing reflexive about targeted local opposition to selected high profile projects.  It is based on both environmental impacts identified through the California Environmental Quality act, as well as concerns for citywide quality of life issues.

 [RP4]The only housing that local groups have opposed is luxury housing whose location and scale conflicts with adopted plans and zones.

 [RP5]Local groups who want the City to follow its own laws and CEQA are opposed to unplanned projects.  They are not reflexive in their criticisms of these projects, and as demonstrated by Measure S, they have broad citywide concerns.

 [RP6]The moratorium was only one of 5 provisions in Measure S.  The reasons for the building moratorium was that it established a timeout that would allow the City Council to create a new General Plan finding for ministerial decisions, adapt to clearer Charter findings for General Plan Amendments and zone changes, and prepare regulations for variances granting reduced parking reductions.

 [RP7]Measure S created a formal process for not just a vast citywide discussion, but to transform it into adopted policies and laws.  City Planning claims it has already begun to update the General Plan, and the real question is whether the elected officials and the LA Times want to strengthen this process or intend to undermine it.   

 [RP8]Pay-to-play erodes public trust, and as long as spot-zones continue, public trust will wither.

 [RP9]By rules the LAT apparently means the land use ordinances (laws) that the City Council adopts to implement the General Plan.

 [RP10]There is no reason why updating of the General Plan will result is more permissive zoning.  This is what real estate developers and the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board want but realistic demographics and better information about infrastructure, freeway health dangers, climate change, seismology, and geology should might lead to down-planning and down-zoning in some areas.

 [RP11]This is simply wrong.  Homeowners groups did not oppose the development of the General Plan Framework and its implementation through zoning ordinances, including specific plans, RFA's and HPOZ's.  They welcomed it.  It was the City Council that ignored and often violated the letter and spirit of the General Plan, which now appears to be the same "changes" that the LAT editorial board promotes.

 [RP12]Los Angeles needs much more recreational space, but the barrier to this is the City's budget, not its General Plan.   Furthermore, spot General Plan Amendments allow the City to transfer Open Space for luxury housing and hotels rather than for new parks.

 [RP13] More importantly, what the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board left out is the massive cuts in Federal funding for transit in recent decades, placing the bulk of financing on the backs of local tax payers through bond issues subsequently paid off through higher regressive sales and parcel taxes.

 [RP14]The Framework repeated and expanded the policies of the Centers Concept,” which former Planning Director Calvin Hamilton developed; and he was a visionary who the LAT editorial board embraces.  The Framework also was clear that General Plan Amendments must demonstrate sufficient public infrastructure and services to support greater un-planned density.

 [RP15]There are no existing planning policies that stand in the way of these bond issues.

 [RP16]The vision of a more urban city, including areas that have already been designated for high density buildings, is baked into the existing General Plan, beginning in 1970, and reiterated in 1996 and 2001.  Furthermore, the zoning ordinances adopted to implement these plans do not block inclusionary housing.  Where the plans fall short is their failure to consider the capacity of the city’s infrastructure and services to support greater density, as well as health threats from proximity to freeways, earthquakes, and climate change.  This, plus State laws and accurate population data, is why they must be updated.

 [RP17]The City Planning Commission (CPC) adopts Guidelines, not the City Council.  These guidelines also include “Do Real Planning” a visionary planning policy document that the CPC approved but has rarely followed.