Climate Resolve’s Jonathan Parfrey on Prioritizing Extreme Heat Resilience

Jonathan Parfrey

Following the release of Governor Newsom’s May Budget revise, which projects a staggering $100 billion surplus, VX News sat down with Jonathan Parfrey, Executive Director of Climate Resolve, to reflect on what is and is not likely to be included in the California Comeback Plan and what that reveals about the state’s climate priorities. Noting that extreme heat presents the greatest threat to public health from climate change, Parfrey highlights the need for a coordinated statewide approach to mitigating and protecting people from extreme heat and points to solutions like preserving urban tree canopy, cultivating living streets, and building cool roofs as opportunities for multi-benefit investments in public health and climate resilience.

Jonathan, we do this interview following the release of Governor Newsom's May budget revise, which, in contrast to last year's $54 billion shortfall, includes $100 billion for what the Governor's calling the California Comeback Plan. What new state climate investments are (and are likely to be) included in the State Budget about which Climate Resolve is most enthusiastic?

Jonathan Parfrey: There have been some tremendous investments in the area of climate resilience. There's funding in there to help cities prepare for the impacts of climate change. There's money in there to fund the next round of much-needed science in the fifth Climate Change assessment. There's money in there to support new climate justice collaboratives that were spurred by the legislation SB 1072 that's going to help low income communities work with local municipalities to develop proposals and to have a joint approach to getting climate projects in the ground throughout the state. There's funding in there for the Transformative Climate Communities, which will also help disadvantaged communities. 

We're very supportive of those initiatives. There's also some funding in there to support the Department of Food and Agriculture to convert some of their County Fairgrounds to become resilience centers for rural parts of the state. We think that's a great idea for the rural parts of California. Unfortunately, we don't find a lot of funding for the urban centers in this budget.

Where does the proposed State budget fall short?

The May revise has some funding for the Solutions to Congested Corridors Program (SCCP) through Transportation California, and those are really important funds that we're very much in favor of. The things that didn't get funded were some of the active transportation programs. I also alluded to the local funding for resilience for the urban centers of California. I love the Fairplex and the fairgrounds up in Lancaster, but it's just not realistic for the urban cores of California to rely upon fairgrounds for their resilience needs. We think there needs to be a dramatic change in the priorities of the state in helping the vast majority of the population deal with the impacts of climate change. 

Another area that really concerns me is heat. The number one impact of climate change is going to be the public health impacts from heat exposure and heatstroke. The number one source of heat in our cities is from asphalt surfaces, whether those are streets, playgrounds, parking lots, or even rooftops. The sunlight hits those surfaces, it gets absorbed by the streets, and then vents off that heat into the rest of the day and into the evening. The smartest thing that we can do to protect public health is to find ways to mitigate the heat that's hitting all these asphalt surfaces. 

There's no money in the governor's budget for this, but there's money to put solar panels on top of homes. I love solar panels, but it's in the category of protecting people from the effects of extreme heat and it really does nothing to curb that. There's also no funding in this May revise even for urban tree canopy. We really think that that is an important investment to help protect people and cities as well. Those are some things that really come up short when it comes to protecting public health from the worst impact of climate change.

What explains what’s missing in the preliminary State budget? 

There is a lobby for planting trees in the forest and for forest health in our mountains, but there is no lobby to protect the public from extreme heat events. I think that's the main issue. We at Climate Resolve are working on it, but we're a small organization; there's only 19 of us. 

We found this to be a similar problem with the Biden administration when they announced their large investment in infrastructure, they mentioned every hazard under the sun—extreme flooding, sea level rise, tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires—yet somehow, the thing that kills people the most, which is extreme heat, eluded them, and I don't think it was on purpose. 

Even in the most recent budget where they have funding that is going to the California Office of Emergency Services, they also forget to mention extreme heat in their list of hazards. It's simply because there are other constituencies that are out really pushing for mitigating their disaster and it just hasn't happened yet for extreme heat.  It's up to us and the nonprofit community to make the case that it's in everyone's best interest to start lobbying the state and federal government to protect themselves from the most deadly aspect of climate change.

Returning to the heat island issue that you are prioritizing, what’s the thrust of Assembly Member Luz Rivas,’ AB 585, and your position related thereto.

We're really grateful to be working with Assembly Member Rivas on this bill. Currently, when it comes to extreme heat and efforts to mitigate its impact, there are about 15 to 17 separate agencies within the state government that are currently addressing this issue. It ranges from the Department of Public Health to the Energy Commission to the Public Utilities Commission, Cal ISO, Caltrans, Strategic Growth Council, Department of Community Services and Development, the California Office of Emergency Services, Cal OSHA, the Building Standards Commission, the Department of General Services, and the Natural Resources Agency, and they have other agencies that operate underneath them. 

All of these different agencies have different programs on heat-related impacts, and our idea is to have the governor's office coordinate the state's approach to extreme heat, so that there could be a much more effective approach to the number one health problem associated with climate change.

Elaborate on metro LA’s best urban cooling projects and speak to how government can and should be doing more like them.

Climate Resolve worked with StreetsLA and Alta Planning to do a public process to identify which assets in Canoga Park would really work well together, and what the public was amenable to. We looked at Cool Streets, tree-shaded streets, and shade structures in busy intersections, and I'm happy to report that the project has received over $30 million in funding to implement a number of those plans that have been previously identified. The Cool Neighborhood approach in Canoga Park is moving forward and we're really happy about that. 

In South El Monte, there is a very busy street, Merced Avenue, that's a mix of industrial, commercial, and residential, and it's also been highly prone to flooding. With a grant from the California Coastal Conservancy—because the waterways in that area do bleed into the Rio Hondo and ultimately into the LA River—were very curious about this concept called a Living Street. 

A living street is a green street where you can capture stormwater, a complete street where you're enhancing active transportation such as walking or cycling, and a cool street that will reflect the sun's energy back into space and help keep the neighborhood cooler. We want to take on the problem associated with very dark colored, highly heat absorptive asphalt and find a way to keep the community cool just by buying into physics, by sending the solar radiation away from people and back into space; it also has a greenhouse gas benefit as well. 

The Earth as it's currently constituted has about a 0.33 solar reflectance value. In other words, in preindustrial time when the Earth was in a very positive budget when it came to greenhouse gas emissions, we didn't have cities that were absorbing all that solar radiation. What we would like to see is for most of the materials that get used in cities to achieve that preindustrial reflectance level of 0.33 solar reflectance, which means that about a third of the sun's energy is reflected back into space.

School districts and community college districts arguably have the most asphalt in Southern California. Are you pleased with the aforementioned’s building programs and how facility bond money has been invested to build resiliency and address climate change?

We are working with a school district in Orange County called the Garden Grove Unified School District. Climate Resolve serves as their energy manager and we've implemented a number of ways of capturing stormwater and converting the asphalt into grassy areas for students.

My impression is that LAUSD and some of the other larger districts really want to maximize the amount of funding that's available for instruction. Because of that, they want to minimize all of the financial risk associated with children being injured by tripping in the transition areas between asphalt and any other surface. 

The district's default is to go with asphalt as much as possible, and their motivation of course isn't to cook the children, but instead to protect the district from spending extra dollars were children to be injured by any other surface.

A related question: How has the COVID 19 pandemic and the public health responses of the past year impacted Climate Resolve’s agenda, if at all?

I'm happy to report that not one staffer, intern, or fellow that we're hosting at Climate Resolve left our employ throughout the COVID pandemic. In fact, we even added a few staff members that I have never actually shared an office with. We have a very aggressive agenda in a number of different areas ranging from transportation to public health. The reality is that there's a lot of work out there for us because this external event—climate change—is continuing despite the COVID pandemic, and our work is still very much needed.

As you know, I'm one of the founders of CicLAvia, which is the open street event that really plants the seed for a new way of getting around the city. These wonderful events also have a policy angle to them in that it makes people realize that moving around Los Angeles by bike is actually an easy thing to do. It's currently unsafe and people are always getting injured by traveling by bicycle, but during COVID, we had an opportunity in Los Angeles to help people see the city differently—more from the street level—where it's experienced, not by being in a car, but by being on foot or on a bicycle. 

Other cities throughout the globe have used the pandemic as a way of clawing back some of that street space from automobiles and dedicating it to either active transportation or public transportation; Los Angeles, unfortunately, hasn't really done that aggressively, and I feel that it's a lost opportunity. As you know, transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Did we take advantage of this time to successfully promote alternative kinds of transportation? No, I don't think we did.

A related question: Does the state legislature’s push for greater housing density endanger Los Angeles’ existing urban green spaces and undermine (unintentionally) their mitigating impacts on extreme heat? 

When it comes to density and meeting some of our climate challenges, we believe it's possible to both increase green space as well as density. I happen to live in downtown Los Angeles, where it's pretty dense and at the same time, there's still access to green space. I love the Los Angeles that I know, but it's part of the maturation process to realize that the thing you grew up with may not be the thing that you ultimately bequeath to your children.

Jonathan, there is a proposal in the Assembly to streamline rezoning of public open space for housing production. What are your thoughts on repurposing, for example, municipal golf courses, streets, or beaches for housing? 

I'm not in favor. I would like to see the streets transformed, and I would like to see more housing. But I don't think taking urban greening away is the way to build housing. And I don't think that parks are a place to house people.  As you know, I've brought homeless people into my home for years, not for a short period but for a dozen years, so I'm someone who's put skin in the game related to addressing the homelessness issue. I'm convinced that for the social connection that we need, we need public spaces that we can enjoy. And if there are people who are going through a very difficult period of their life, for any number of reasons, I think that they should also have access to public spaces, but it shouldn't dominate public spaces. We need to step up and find ways to take care of people who are currently living in our parks so that they live in homes and buildings.

Lastly, preview for our readers Climate Resolve’s upcoming Coolest in LA Gala. 

Our organization is actually going to invite people to come together in person. This year we are acknowledging the great work done by the California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, LADWP General Manager Marty Adams, and last but definitely not least, the Dodgers Foundation CEO Nicole Whiteman. We've been working with Nicole on a project in Compton to provide solar lighting to the Dodger Dream Field at Gonzales Park. There's going to be a beautiful new park and electric car charging, which is going to be operated by renewable energy.



“The number one source of heat in our cities is from asphalt surfaces, whether those are streets, playgrounds, parking lots, or even rooftops…The smartest thing that we can do to protect public health is to find ways to mitigate the heat that's hitting these asphalt surfaces.” —Jonathan Parfrey
“A living street is a green street where you can capture stormwater, a complete street where you're enhancing active transportation such as walking or cycling, and a cool street that will reflect the sun's energy back into space and help keep the neighborhood cooler.” —Jonathan Parfrey