Los Angeles’ climate future hangs in the balance as city votes for new mayor

Show caption Smog envelops Los Angeles as environmental challenges for the city become more extreme. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian Los Angeles Los Angeles’ climate future hangs in the balance as city votes for new mayor While voters have cited environment as a top priority, the issue has become secondary to the homelessness crisis and crime Gabrielle Canon @GabrielleCanon Thu 2 Jun 2022 11.00 BST Share on Facebook

Share on Twitter

Share via Email

As Los Angeles heads to the polls for the first round of voting to elect a new mayor, the climate future of America’s second largest city may hang in the balance.

Los Angeles has built a reputation as a leader on sustainability and climate solutions, setting first-in-the-nation goals to decarbonize and plans to achieve them. But the progressive metropolis – home to nearly 4 million people – faces environmental challenges that will only get worse as the climate grows more extreme. The temperature is rising, water is waning and LA smog is nearly as renowned as the world-famous Hollywood sign.

Although many voters have cited climate as a priority, the topic has taken a backseat in the heated mayoral campaign, crowded out by what candidates and constituents have cast as more pressing problems, like the homelessness crisis and crime.

But addressing the environmental problems LA faces will require more than embracing the status quo, experts say. To secure LA’s grip on climate leadership, the new mayor will have to bridge the city’s immense divides.

Worsening air pollution

LA has made big strides in environmental policy in the past decade. Under the outgoing mayor, Eric Garcetti, the city made climate a priority, launching a “Green New Deal” composed of 445 different initiatives to get LA to a “zero carbon grid, zero carbon buildings, zero carbon transportation, zero waste and zero wasted water”, as stated in the latest annual report. Together, the efforts are promised to make LA the first large city in the nation to operate on clean energy, prevent 1,650 premature deaths, add 400,000 new green jobs and build resilience into LA’s water supply as drought conditions worsen.

“Moving from 15% local water to 70% local water just in 15 years will be as big as anything LA has done, including building an aqueduct 100 years ago” Garcetti told the Guardian.

We all live in the same city, but we are in completely different worlds

Yet steep challenges remain.

LA still suffers from among the worst air quality in the US. Traffic contributes most to the problem across LA county, according to its public health department, but congestion at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles during the Covid crisis that left ships idling offshore spiked pollution. By the end of 2020, there had been 157 bad air days – more than any year since 1997, the Los Angeles Times reported. This year, the American Lung Association awarded the Los Angeles/Long Beach region its top spot for highest ozone pollution and gave LA county failing grades across the board.

Meanwhile, punishing and dangerous heat already bakes the city, especially in areas where there are too few trees to offer a reprieve. The highest temperatures are expected to increase by 5.4F on average across LA county, according to a 2021 climate vulnerability assessment.

Geography plays a part in the city’s struggles with smog and heat. But decades of discriminatory redlining and infrastructure planning have left areas people of color call home to bear the burden.

“There are many LAs and I don’t live in the LA that you have in your imagination,” said Mark Lopez, a born-and-raised Angeleno and environmental justice advocate who lives in East LA. “We all live in the same city, but we are in completely different worlds.”

The port of Los Angeles contributed more than 903,200 tonnes of CO2 in 2020

Standing underneath a weave of highway arteries where his grandparents’ home was demolished decades before to make space for traffic, Lopez said he felt LA leaders’ climate policies had long fallen short, leaving frontline communities to navigate the worst effects of the crisis while they boast big achievements.

“The only way we see a future that is healthier for people and the planet is if there are mandatory reductions that are regulated,” he said.

Wilmington, a seaside stretch of roughly nine miles tucked against the south side of the city against the coast, is perhaps one of the starkest examples of LA’s divide. Unlike neighboring oceanfront districts that cater to a coastal lifestyle, roughly one in five residents in the approximately 89% Latino community live below the poverty line. Refinery towers gleam and stretch into the sky over small homes, which are sandwiched between them and the bustling ports, which are among the busiest in the western hemisphere. Spurred into bigger production numbers by online ordering sprees and the shipping crisis caused by the Covid pandemic, the port of Los Angeles contributed more than 903,200 tonnes of CO 2 in 2020.

Near the nation’s third largest oilfield, chemical plants, nearly a dozen rail yards, and five oil refiners, the neighborhood’s air is engulfed in chemicals, including known carcinogens. Industries in Wilmington released more than 434,000 pounds of toxins into the air in 2020 alone, according to the EPA.Cancer risks are nearly double what they are in the rest of Los Angeles, and residents suffer from higher rates of asthma and lower life expectancies – an astonishing seven years less than towns roughly a 30-minute drive away.

“We are in a climate emergency,” said Bahram Fazeli, director of research and policy at Communities for a Better Environment. “When you are in an emergency, you need leadership to bring everyone together” he added.

Our work on the clean energy transition and our work to forge a path to a completely decarbonized grid, is second to none

Providing climate justice

While the city can’t contain climate change within its jurisdiction, policies can play a role in mitigating the worst effects. Many of them are already in play in areas with more affluence, but organizers say it will be key for the next mayor to prioritize the hardest-hit communities, while ensuring they have a voice in new developments.

“South Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, parts of the valley – they have been left behind,” said Gloria Medina, the executive director at Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (Scope), a South LA grassroots justice organization.

“When folks outside our city think of Los Angeles, they think about a booming economy, they think about opportunity, they think about the beach and Beverly Hills but if you walk from one community to another there is a stark difference.”

In these areas, transitioning towards walkability or biking requires additional steps to make the streets safer. There are few charging stations for electric vehicles and with high housing instability, residents are unable to make investments in alternative energy. Many are scarcely able to pay their utility bills, Medina said.

Industries in Wilmington released more than 434,000 pounds of toxins into the air in 2020 alone, according to the EPA.

“We need someone to lead the city who understands that community engagement and community guidance is extremely important,” she said, noting that residents can help shape the city’s plans to ensure the transition is just. “It is not just a nice add-on.”

To realize the ambitions of the Green New Deal, too, a lot more work needs to be done. According to the effort’s latest annual report, 40% of the 97 outlined outcomes were not on track to be completed by the end of last year.

Lauren Faber O’Connor, the city’s chief sustainability officer, said the Covid crisis had consumed LA’s focus and financing over the last two years, setting back other priorities. But since then, she said, the city has accelerated clean energy goals by 10 years, invested in new areas of green space, and made community engagement and a just equitable transition central.

“When we see some of the most intense, record-breaking fires, the pandemic bringing on unprecedented supply chain challenges, and unforeseen or external circumstances that inevitably break into some of the work that we are doing, it is extraordinarily frustrating,” said O’Connor. “But what we also see is – within the noise – an incredible amount of progress that will, as we stay the course, continue to bring the results.

“Our work on the clean energy transition and our work to forge a path to a completely decarbonized grid, is second to none,” she added.

“Even as we lead we have to go faster,” Garcetti acknowledged, noting that communities of color and low-income communities are those who will continue to carry the burden of delays to progress.

It’s still unclear what that might mean for the ambitious goals he set after he leaves office, but Garcetti urged his successor to maintain momentum and govern for the future. “Because of the size of LA you can not only do what’s good for LA but what is good for the world,” he said.

Still, with mere days before Angelenos vote in the mayoral primary on 7 June, the 10 remaining candidates have not focused heavily on environmental problems or how they will navigate the grave justice issues caused by them.

One of the frontrunners, the billionaire businessman Rick Caruso, has yet to release a plan on climate or any substantial details on how he would address the growing crises. His closest competitor, congressional Democrat Karen Bass, has committed to building on Garcetti’s progress and says she supports the goal of reaching 100% clean energy by 2035. Endorsed by the Sierra Club, Bass’s plan outlines aims to curb emissions, build a clean economy and expand access to green spaces but the issue has not been at the center of her campaign.

Dr Manuel Pastor, a professor and the director of the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California, believes the issue will have to become a priority for whoever is elected. “This question of addressing climate and creating a more equitable economy along the way has long-term legs,” he said. “But winning power and wielding power are different things.”

Unraveling decades of discrimination, and challenging systems and changing infrastructure will not fall only to the mayor. But the new leader will be instrumental in fostering a just transition that will carry the whole city toward a cleaner climate. “A new mayor can build on those efforts and make sure environmental justice concerns are more broadly part of addressing climate change in the city and in southern California,” Pastor said.

Addressing the divide will be key – and will help people across the region far beyond the frontline.

“Where there is a lot more environmental disparity there is a lot more environmental pollution,” Pastor said.” That’s why, no matter who wins, Pastor said, LA’s mayor will have to be pushed to stay on path. “The work begins the day after the election.”