Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Pulling Back the Curtain on Gentrification in Los Angeles

 

LOS ANGELES
PLATKIN ON PLANNING-On Saturday, December 2, City Watch readers are invited to attend the Resist Gentrification Action Summit. The conference, sponsored by Housing is a Human Right.org,  takes place at Audubon Junior High School, 4120-11th Avenue, Los Angeles, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. 
According to Damien Goodman, the conference organizer, the gentrifiers have a three-word mantra for every problem facing Los Angeles, “Build more housing!” For those who listen carefully, their hymn has a second verse. It calls for rolling back zoning and environmental regulations on high-end real estate projects. This not affordable housing is the actual focus of their build-more-housing crusade. 
Little do these gentrifiers know, however, that their perpetual claim, that zoning and environmental laws stifle affordable housing production and overall economic prosperity, has been totally debunked.   For this tour de force, it is hats off to Bay Area planning journalist, Zelda Bronstein, for her new article, When Affordable Housing Meets Free-Market Fantasy,  in Dissent Magazine. [Editor’s note: this article is currently reposted in CityWatch.] 
Gentrification Basics: Before readers peel away to read Ms. Bronstein’s article, let me summarize the basic ins and outs of gentrification.  
While gentrification takes many forms, it is always based on the same underlying dynamic. The world is awash with underperforming capital, and real estate, especially market housing, is a lucrative investment option for sovereign wealth funds, hedge funds, mutual funds, insurance companies, corporations, and retirement systems. While their risks might be high, such as another Great Recession propelled by a catastrophic real estate bubble, the profits are immense. After all, in cities like LA landlords can charge tenants between $1000 - $3000 per month for a one bedroom apartment, forcing over 59 percent of Angelinos to fork over 30 percent or more of their income for housing. 
Lending a helping hand to this flood of investment, congenial cities like Los Angeles provide many conduits for investors to quickly move their idle cash into the high-end housing market. Sometimes cities pony up the real estate schemes and scams I recently wrote about on City Watch. Other times, developers rely on that old City Hall standby, pay-to-play, to get their pet projects quickly approved. Then, when they think no one is looking, some developers cut corners and also bootleg their projects, betting that the chance of getting caught is small, and the prospects that LA’s Department of Building and Safety would shut down an illegal project is almost nil.  
Finally, this perfect storm for gentrification also builds on the rapid growth of economic inequality in the United States, especially Los Angeles. As a result, the well-off dominate a housing market skewed toward their tastes and pocketbook. Meanwhile, a growing percentage of the population is only treading water or losing ground. This is why, according to renthop, most people living in Los Angeles can no longer afford to buy a home or rent an apartment. Nevertheless, the purchasing power of the top 10 to 20 percent is enough to drive a real estate market that excludes much of the city, but is still the most desirable location in the U.S. for foreign investors.   
In practical terms, this perfect storm is also causing local demographic changes.  Even though LA’s population is barely growing, the city’s population mix is shifting toward the well-off. Meanwhile, the middle and working class families pushed out of the gentrifying housing market are resorting to the streets, cars, and overcrowded inner-city apartments. Some, of course, choose to leave LA for the Inland Empire, Nevada, Arizona, and Texas. Those who manage to hang on may resent recent changes in retail stores, such as art galleries in Boyle Heights, but this is a consequence of gentrification, not a cause. 
Gentrification takes many forms in Los Angeles: These include mansionization, transit oriented development, evictions through the Ellis Act and cash-and-key, small lot subdivisions, and “churning,” in which landlords force out low-rent tenants by making buildings unlivable. The net result is that these many forms of gentrification eliminate rent–stabilized and affordable housing much faster than it is being built through such programs as density bonuses and Federal tax credits. In fact, during the past 15 years, over 20,000 affordable units have been eliminated in LA alone through the Ellis Act. If other forms of gentrifications are included, such as mansionization, churning, and cash-and-key, the cumulative loss of affordable housing is much greater. 
What can be done? Gentrification relies on supportive governmental policies and programs, all of which can all be amended, rescinded, or reversed to stem the tide: 
  • At the macro level, countries can slow the influx of foreign investment capital into speculative real estate by eliminating EB-5 investor visas or following the example of Switzerland, which reports all earnings back to the investors’ host countries. 
  • Countries can also rely on taxation, minimum wage laws, and social benefits to reduce economic inequality. 
  • States can promote programs, such as Community Redevelopment Agencies, which use tax increment financing for affordable housing construction. 
  • Cities can strengthen their rent control and rent stabilization laws, as well as eliminate evictions programs, like the Ellis Act, that decimate the stock of affordable and rent-stabilized housing. 
  • Cities can curtain many forms of gentrification, such as mansionization, through local land use ordinances. 
  • All forms of gentrifications depend of discretionary actions that can be slowed or stopped by initiatives, such as LA’s Measure S. 
  • Building departments can proactively enforce zoning, building, and environmental laws to slow down the gentrifications process. 
Why does gentrification continue? Why have local media, such a KCET and KPCC, devoted so much airtime to the gentrification story, but with few changes in public policy? Why have researchers at UC Berkeley and UCLA prepared detailed gentrification studies and maps indicating that transit oriented development primarily consists of expensive housing that does not lift transit use. 
The answer is the political side-effect of the economic dynamic that spawns gentrification. Through campaign contributions and lobbying, major real estate investors also promote an institutional culture at City Hill that uncritically accepts the gentrifiers’ arguments and then acts accordingly. As a result, elected officials and their hired departmental managers are pulling out all the stops to attract speculative real estate money to Los Angeles. 
When they point their finger at fanciful schemes to slow down gentrification, remember that there are still three fingers pointing back at them. 
(Dick Platkin is a former Los Angeles city planner who reports on local planning controversies for City Watch.  Please send any comments or corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

City Hall Putting Its Thumb on the Land Use Scale


LOS ANGELES

TOOLS

PLATKIN ON PLANNING-In the fanciful world of high school and college “civics” and political science classes, government is portrayed as a neutral force blindly balancing many competing interest groups. While a few gullible students might fall for this claim, a quick look at the City of Los Angeles puts this notion to rest. 
When it comes to land use decisions, City Hall places a very heavy thumb on the scale in numerous ways to help real estate developers, while simultaneously placing a host of barriers in the way of community and neighborhood groups. Let us, therefore, take a closer look to see how this game is fixed from the start. 
How City departments place many barriers in the way of community groupsMy list is just a start, and I expect that CityWatch readers can supply many more examples: 
  • Most land use decisions are ministerial. These cases are also called by-right decisions, in which applicants only need to comply with the Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC). In these situations, the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Building and Safety (LADBS) makes all calls in private. There is no transparency, and it is nearly impossible for local groups or individuals to learn what is proposed for their neighborhood until demolitions take place or construction begins. In fact, it is typical that local residents wake up to the sound of bulldozers, their first indication that the Department of Building and Safety has already approved a project that is breaking ground next door. 
  • The demolition of buildings older than 45 years requires contractors to post a demolition notice 30 days in advance, and also notify City Council offices and nearby residents of the proposed demolition. But few builders comply with this law because they know there are no consequences if they ignore it. Unlike moving violations and parking tickets, the City never enforces this code requirement, even when residents officially submit a code violation to Building and Safety. 
  • When the bulldozers demolish these older structures, the demolition spews lead paint and asbestos into the atmosphere. These toxins are carefully regulated by the South Coast Air Quality Managements District and LA County Public Health. Both agencies require the remediation of these unhealthy pollutants prior to demolition, yet the Department of Building Safety, which issues demolition permits, has no contact with these enforcement agencies. As a result, nearly all demolitions violate State and County health codes, releasing dangerous carcinogens and mutagens, usually next to neighbors totally unaware of what they have been exposed to. 
  • In the rare cases that neighbors want to stop a demolition because of these code violations, it takes several days for either the SCAQMD or LA County Public Health to send out an inspector. By that time it is too late. The contractors have completed the demolition and hauled away the rubble in open trucks, still another code violation. 
  • While neighbors can report code violations directly to the Department of Building and Safety, it is rare that they respond. When they do, they make it clear that they have a three-week response time. Furthermore, in the rare situations when a code violation is actually caught, there are no consequences for developers and contractors. They take the safe bet that they can do what they want and either will not get caught, or if caught, LADBS imposes no penalties on them. 
  • At the heart of this heavy thumb on the scale is the official policy of the Department of Building and Safety, as well as their sister agency, the Department of City Planning, to skip pro-active code enforcement. There is, in fact, no procedure for these employees to proactively report these violations. Instead, the City’s official policy is to only investigate code violations submitted by members of the public, almost all of which are then officially cleared. 
Discretionary land use decisions:  While most land use decisions in Los Angeles are ministerial, the ones that attract the most public attention are discretionary. These are those small percentage of cases in which developers, guided by their accountants, decide to maximize their profits by investing in illegal projects. In these situations, illegal means the projects conflict with the City of Los Angeles’ adopted land use laws. Luckily, the City has made these laws totally porous by providing an escape hatch for every zoning and planning requirement. With a modest amount of effort, real estate investors can circumvent zoning and planning requirements. This, however, is only one digit on the scale since the City really places both hands on the scale to totally tip decisions in favor of real estate speculation. These other mechanisms include the following: 
  • The Los Angeles Municipal Code (LAMC) offers three separate routes through which developers can circumvent the City’s adopted zoning code: The City Planning Commission and then the City Council, City Planning’s Office of Zoning Administration, and the Director of Planning. 
  • In instances where these routes are too cumbersome, developers can pay an extra fee to the Department of City Planning to expedite their applications for zoning and planning waivers. 
  • At this point City Planning approves over 90 percent of all zoning and planning cases, most with conditions. While these conditions may please neighborhoods groups, most are subsequently ignored by City Planning’s enforcement arm, the Department of Building and Safety. 
  • In really tough cases, real estate developers have a remaining option. They can turn to Pay-to-Play.  As carefully researched by the Los Angeles Times during the Measure S campaign, major contributions to elected officials’ campaign accounts and their preferred non-profits curiously produce the zoning waivers developers need to legalize their projects. 
  • While all zoning applications require legal findings through which applicants justify their applications, City Planning has lightened this load by giving a thumbs up to nearly everything submitted to them. Ditto for the City Planning Commission, Area Planning Commissions, and the City Council. They all have an exceedingly low bar for legal findings. 
  • One reason for this permissive approach among elected and appointed decision makers is their background in private sector real estate-related fields, like law. Long gone are the Mayor Tom Bradley days in which he included neighborhood and union representatives in every land use decision-making body. 
  • To further tip the scales for developers, all public hearings and decision-making meetings take place during the day, most at City Hall. Local community people who work or who cannot easily make it to City Hall are placed at a tremendous disadvantage. 
  • While applicants mail out notices for these City Hall meetings, the notices only go to those who live within 500 feet of a project. Furthermore, in some cases, such as Specific Plans, City Planning only sends notices to adjacent property owners. Finally, in other cases, such as Density Bonus/SB1818 and Community Design Overlay cases, there is no notification requirement at all. Planning only mails a determination letter to adjacent property owners. 
  • At decision-making meetings, City Planning staff has the first and last word on all cases, with the public limited to one minute of testimony. In appeal cases, for example, City Planning staff is always invited back to rebut the arguments raised against their decisions, with the public or their representatives not allowed a counter-rebuttal. 
  • Once land use decisions are final, a 14-day appeal period opens up, during which a neighbor could appeal an approval. But, proposals are afoot at City Hall to dramatically increase appeal fees, in some cases from $89 to as high as $13,500.  If the City Council eventually adopts this ordinance, it will eliminate nearly all appeals. 
  • While these barriers all take their toll, the Department of City Planning and the City Council are preparing new ordinances that allow most discretionary projects to become by-right ministerial decision. As this takes place, such ordinances as re:code LA or voluminous appended amendments to Community Plan Updates become law, the number of discretionary cases will dramatically decline. Once this happens, most real estate projects will become ministerial cases invisible to the public until demolition or construction begins. 
Even more barriers:  This list of the barriers to community groups is hardly definitive. But because some dedicated and knowledgeable local groups manage to nevertheless challenge projects, the City Council keeps busy by throwing up new barriers, including the following; 
  • To oil squeaky wheels, the City Council has adopted a long list of small zoning overlay districts, such as Specific Plans, Community Design Overlay Districts, Historical Preservation Overlay Districts, and Residential Floor Area districts. These ordinances are a concession to local residents who have not been successfully sidelined by the barriers described above. Meanwhile, the rest of Los Angeles outside the overlay boundaries, probably 90 percent of the city, remains an easy target for speculative real estate projects. 
  • In 2000 the City Council also adopted a new City of Los Angeles Charter that created Neighborhood Councils. Unlike the hundreds of community groups that already existed in Los Angeles, these new Neighborhood Council are linked to City Hall. Furthermore, according to the Charter, these Councils must have representatives from local businesses, local property owners, local employees, and local institutions, such as hospitals and museums. The result has been that many Neighborhood Councils no longer represent local residents, but, instead, skew toward commercial and institutional interests in their land use recommendations. 
The cumulative impact of the multiple barriers imposed on Los Angeles residents is that City Hall approves nearly all land use applications, with few successful appeals. This, then forces those rare communities that either have enough knowledge or money to hire lawyers to challenge a small percentage of the City’s land use decisions. While some of these legal challenges succeed, especially in Hollywood, developers know the odds are in their favor. Few projects ever end up in the courts because the City’s lop-sided approval process gives developers what they need. And, given their deep pockets, the same developers know they also have a good chance to prevail in court. 
The Upshot or Tipped Scales: While developers, their free market ideologues, and their naive supporters   repeatedly claim that LA’s residents somehow control the city’s land use decisions, this is total bunkum. Translated into plain English, it really means that developers want all of their currently illegal projects to be treated as ministerial decisions. If a few remain discretionary, they then want the approval process to become so short and so certain that they are de facto ministerial cases for which successful appeals are impossible. 
If you wonder about the consequences of this highly unequal land use decision-making process, just check out the real Los Angeles. It features sky-high rents, rampant homelessness, wide spread gentrification, toxic air and water, gridlocked traffic, cracked sidewalks, pot-holed and treeless thoroughfares, bursting water mains, unsightly billboards, miniscule parkland, and swaying overhead wires. These are all byproducts of the same deficient planning process that results when the City’s scales are totally rigged in favor of speculative real estate projects.

(Dick Platkin is a former LA city planner who reports on local planning controversies for CityWatchLA. Please send any comments or corrections to rhplatkin@gmail.com.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.
-cw

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.

http://www.citywatchla.com/index.php/los-angeles-for-rss/14411-dropping-the-ball-on-climate-change-it-is-a-big-club

LOS ANGELES

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 rhplatkin@gmail.com.)
-cw

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 rhplatkin@gmail.com.