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LA’s ‘Climate Mayor’ Just Cut Climate Response from the Budget

A short history of the Climate Emergency Mobilization Department and our Mayor’s role in destroying it.

Last month, the Mayor of Los Angeles introduced his budget. Surprisingly, $500,000 in funds set aside for a Climate Emergency Mobilization Office (CEMO) was missing.

But to truly understand the significance of this cut for the climate justice movement, and Los Angeles itself, we need to understand the magnitude of the proposal.

If the Mayor had supported it, this could have been the framework for our Green New Deal.

In January of 2018, when the motion was first introduced by Council Member Paul Koretz, the plan was to build “a Climate Emergency Mobilization Department (CEMD) with all the necessary powers to plan and coordinate all the City’s climate and resilience responses…”

This was not just an office. It was an entire department, and one that was well thought out. There was a detailed plan developed largely by Council Member Koretz’s office and LEAP LA, a coalition of environmental justice groups including many frontline organizations such as Communities for a Better Environment, Physicians for Social Responsibility — Los Angeles, Esperanza Housing, Strategic Concepts in Policy and Organizing Education (SCOPE) and a representative from American Indian Movement.

This department, according to the initial proposal from Koretz’s office, would “develop, coordinate, and track implementation of a comprehensive Climate Emergency Plan.”

It was also cost-effective. The department would consist of personnel already employed by the city, already working on sustainability, emergency preparedness, biodiversity, workforce development, housing, etc. It would be a way to streamline communication and ensure that our many interconnected plans work in tandem.

But the department would be more than just centralized communication: it would create real standards. It would be responsible for measuring our city’s carbon emissions — tracking them, and creating a climate budget that was tied to the financial budget (and thus enforceable).

The CEMD also would also create local commissions comprised of typically underserved and ignored voices (activists, labor, youth, indigenous representation) and would conduct assemblies in the areas of the city hit hardest by environmental racism.

These assemblies would allow communities to create specific localized solutions that would feed into city-wide policy.

“We asked for community oversight inspired by dignity and power,” Lydia Ponce, Communications Director for SoCal 350 tells me via phone, “and then that got watered down to town halls. We are insisting that the town halls aren’t just a bunch of questions submitted on index cards that get cherry-picked. […]Frontline communities have been living with water quality, land quality, and air quality issues for decades. […] This is literally life and death for them.”

Would the CEMD have been successful? The City Administrative Office (CAO) pointed to the failed Environmental Affairs Department (EAD) started in the ’90s which was defunded in 2010–2011. Activists, such as Jonathan Parfrey of Climate Resolve, criticized the EAD as underfunded and understaffed in a letter to Koretz’s office (March 11, 2019).

The save, he suggested, was to house the department in the Mayor’s office — the one place where it will have regulatory power, where we are already coordinating the city’s environmental legislation.

But no. This would have required the Mayor’s support, which he did not give. Some involved suspect that the Mayor encouraged other City Council Members not to support the department in its full form.

What passed through City Council in July of 2019 was a mere crumb of the official proposal: a Climate Emergency Mobilization Office (CEMO) with a staff of one. A director who has yet to be hired. Yes, LEAP LA won the community assemblies, but they lost the department implementing any policy changes.

And now the $500,000 allocated to these assemblies are missing from the Mayor’s Budget.

A budget, need we remind you, that protects the LAPD but nothing else.

In a letter, members of LEAP LA are now calling on the Mayor to secure the funding for the assemblies. CM Paul Koretz and the Neighborhood Council of Sustainability Alliance (NSCA) steering board have similarly spoken out against cuts to the CEMO and emergency climate funding.

In a motion submitted to City Council on April 22, CM Koretz called on the council to direct the Emergency Management Department to include efforts that reduce greenhouse gas and toxic emissions in its list of essential emergency services.

“The disruptions to our economy and society due to the global pandemic have illustrated the value of investments in emergency preparedness and crisis avoidance.” His motion stated, “Looming large is another imminent and pervasive threat to our way of life: severe climate disruption and its crisis-level impacts to the local and global economies, to migration patterns, ecological systems, natural disasters from flood, drought, fire, and the City’s infrastructure.”

The CEMO is not the only environmental effort subject to cuts, as the NCSA letter calls out. The budget also eliminates a wildlife pilot study and reduces services to trees.

“Unfortunately, the climate crisis will not wait on hold while we address the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic,” the letter stated, “we do not want you to repeat the mistake made by the Trump administration in disbanding the Office of Global Health Security and Biodefense prior to the pandemic.”

Lisa Hart, a member of the NSCA steering board, said she emailed the CAO, the office that puts together the budget. “A woman from the office emailed me back saying that we have to make public health and safety our highest priority.” Hart told me, “The climate crisis is a public health crisis.”

The budget is not final. The City council has until June 30 to approve it. In the meantime, at Monday’s Finance and Budget Committee Meeting councilmember Paul Krekorian predicts “regular, in-depth analyses of every department’s budgets, not just between now and June 30 but through the fiscal year.”

To clarify, the current budget assumes that the economy will be back open in July. More cuts will surely come. If we do not budget for climate mobilization now, it may not receive funding for years.

In her budget presentation with the CAO, Chief Legal Analyst Sharon Tso was very upfront cuts to programs that serve our most vulnerable populations. “Will likely see reduced hours, will likely see longer processing times, hours at counters, changes in types of services provided,” but she was very clear, these programs were reduced but not cut.

But the CEMO would service vulnerable populations — and it is not just reduced but has completely vanished from our city’s budget.

And again, Tso was very explicit. The reason these departments have been hit so hard with furloughs and reductions is that the fire and police departments have not been cut — the police department is even seeing salary increases during this time of austerity.

Currently, over 70% of our city’s general budget is going to fire and police. The city loves to clump these two together, but LAPD is getting a bulk of the funding, with 1.857 billion going to the LAPD and just 732 million going towards Fire. It’s also relevant to point out that the majority of the homelessness budget goes towards overtime for policing bridge housing and cleaning up encampments.

“For far too long we have allowed sacrifice zones and an extractive economy that have hurt people of color and low-income communities in our city,” said Andrea Leon-Grossmann, an environmental justice advocate representing Azul during public comment, “For the last two and a half years we have been fighting to bring justice to these communities by creating and funding a climate emergency mobilization office.”

But let’s take a step back. Because Mayor Garcetti is not just any Mayor, he is a “Climate Mayor.”

He is the chair of two separate coalitions of “Climate Mayors,” neither of which seems to do much of anything.

He claims that 2020 is the year of “Climate Action.”

And read this press release he wrote recently about the new normal of COVID-19:

“COVID-19 has laid bare the systemic inequities too often found at the heart of our communities — and as we start to emerge from this crisis, we must rebuild an economy that truly works for everyone,” said C40 Chair and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. “Our C40 statement of principles will provide a framework for a fair recovery — a sustainable and equitable vision that lifts up our most vulnerable residents and advances the work of our Global Green New Deal.”

His global coalition of mayors has declared a “Global Emergency.” Yet he still has not officially called on for our city — even though our City Council voted to declare a climate emergency the same day they passed the CEMO.

It has been said that he feels like we are already doing enough. But our city has only taken mere steps on the path to addressing the climate crisis.

Perhaps he’s too busy looking into who’s going to be Biden’s VP, counting his $5 million “generous humanitarian gift” from Qatar, or hiding from activists as they protest outside his house.

He has introduced a Green New Deal for Los Angeles, but its layout and graphic design are more impressive than the policy inside (in fact, this is generally a theme with reports from his office, the first page of the Mayor’s budget touts a design award).

His Green New Deal’s timeline is decades too late. It has been dismissed by environmental groups as a joke — carbon neutral by 2050 is not a Green New Deal. In fact, the tool used to calculate emissions in the city, Green House Gas Protocol, is funded by, Volkswagen, Chevron, Shell, Dupont, Texaco, and other companies with a vested interest in making sure regulation doesn’t happen.

Other major cities have used this time to take action on transportation. Boston and Minneapolis have plans to temporarily close streets to cars. Meanwhile, in Paris, Mayor Anne Hildago is planning to phase cars out of the city permanently and invest in clean transportation.

But our Mayor cannot even make good on the $500,000 allocated to a one-person office saddled with coordinating our response to the climate emergency.

“We are an oil town,” Ponce says, “The damage is done.”

Currently, the budget will be going to City Council later this month for public comment. Without substantial pressure from the public, CEMO will not be added back in. You can sign onto LEAP’s letter here. And call your representative, your Mayor. Tell him that you see how he is failing this city on climate.

Our “Climate Mayor” is setting Los Angeles up for failure and we cannot let him do pretend he is doing otherwise.

**Update: as of August 30th, 2020 the Mayors Office said that they had restored funding to the office, and were in the process of hiring a director.