Implementing LA’s Green New Deal Without Economic & Worker Displacement 

Susana Reyes

In July, the Westside Urban Forum (WUF) convened for a conversation on the components and challenges of implementing a Green New Deal for Los Angeles. Moderated by VerdeXchange chair, David Abel, panelists Evelyn Blumenberg, director of the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies, Lauren Faber O’Connor, City of LA Chief Sustainability Officer, and Susana Reyes (pictured), National Sierra Club Board of Directors vice president, discuss the need to prevent the economic and existential displacement of communities and workers as the city rapidly enacts policies and takes actions necessary to decarbonize LA in time to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

Lauren, why don’t you begin this panel discussion with a summary of the LA pLAn, and where the City is now on implementation.

Lauren Faber O’Connor: When I came on board in 2015, they had this masterfully designed document ready for me which set a vision for a sustained future in Los Angeles from near to long term goals and the metrics for us to achieve them.

This wasn’t just a conventional environmental plan and climate action plan. It looked at all the aspects of city life across not just the common areas like energy efficiency or clean local water, but also transportation, mobility, housing, and resilience in a way that is bringing equity and prosperity to Angelenos while providing a global model and upholding the Paris Climate agreement.

It’s really about reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 or earlier and what that means across all sectors in order to do so. We need to accelerate the action that we’ve committed to and continue to look at where we need to drive further action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Evelyn, what’s your point of view on the LA Green New Deal.

Evelyn Blumenberg: I’m a professor of urban planning, so I come from a research perspective. My background is doing work on transportation as it relates to equity. I think that the goals of the Green New Deal are extraordinarily ambitious.

I think transit agencies get a bad rap. We demand a lot from transit: more service, more/less rail, more/less bus, better first and last mile, etc. Those are, for sure, lots of worthy goals, but unless we look at those goals in a broader policy context—which includes disincentivizing driving a vehicle and making drivers pay for their use of the roads and parking spaces—there is no way that transit planners can achieve those Green New Deal goals.

I do a lot of work on equity. In terms of landuse and housing, it’s becoming increasingly unaffordable to live in dense, urban areas, which forces a lot of low-income households to move to transit-unfriendly neighborhoods. It’s not just about higher-income households, it’s about all households needing to rely on a vehicle in order to access the things that make their lives manageable. To achieve those goals, which I’m invested in, I think it’s terrific that the city is playing a leadership role on this. But we can’t be piecemeal about it, we really have to think about the broader policy context.

And your point of view on this Green New Deal, Susana?

Susana Reyes: I’m speaking on behalf of the Sierra Club. When the Green New Deal was first starting off in D.C., we had a hand in getting involved with Reps. Ocasio-Cortez and Markey on what provisions it would have. I’m proud to say that climate justice and equity have been included and prioritized in the deal and that LA’s Green New Deal is aligned with those principles and values. Because the working families that we have right now who are grappling with low wages and climate pollution, they’re the ones that are hit the hardest by climate-related storms, fires, and flooding.

The Green New Deal is not just one piece of legislation. It’s a resolution, there will be many policies and legislation that will be coming from it. It will manifest itself in communities of color and working class families by allowing for family-sustaining wages and stopping economic injustices; the goal, really, is to not leave anyone behind. 

This isn’t South Carolina, Mississippi, or Alabama; WUF’s audience is very attentive to climate change and supportive of investing in transportation and infrastructure. Is changing behavior a big challenge even when there is support for a Green New Deal. I couldn’t think of a better person address the latter challenge than you, Lauren. How hard is it to engage public support for behavior change?

Lauren Faber O’Connor: It depends on what issue, and there will always be a set of concerns that we have to recognize. We know that building out our public transit system isn’t necessarily a silver bullet. We understand the concern of communities that are seeing transit-oriented development and investment in their neighborhoods as a threat to being able to afford to live there. What are the policies and approaches that we need to take in order to minimize displacement—a real concern—and look at those high-risk areas of the city.

When it comes to building out our renewable energy system and transitioning off of fossil fuels, what does it mean to be able to support the system with distributed renewable-energy generation and the infrastructure to improve, maintain, or upgrade our transmission or distribution system. That’s a lot of construction, and potentially new construction in communities.

It really requires a significant amount of community engagement. We have to make sure all of our processes are engaging our community. We see really positive, popular outcomes when we we’ve had a direct engagement with the neighborhoods where services are being brought. For example, BlueLA was the first ever low-income, electric vehicle car share program. A program designed to serve low-income communities. It was built with community input to ensure that rates are designed to meet the needs of communities and to hopefully reduce drivers’ need for their own vehicle ownership.

Evelyn, please chime in on both the need for equitable transportation investment and the pushback that often occasions implementation?

Evelyn Blumenberg: I do want to build off the argument I made about some of the larger framework around which we hang changes in transit in downtown, and make an argument for not thinking about things piecemeal. The numbers don’t pencil out, at least for the declines in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) as an example.

I think a big obstacle is that we’re fearful about things getting out of control. It comes up in all of the policy initiatives that we talk about. I mentioned drivers needing to pay for their use of the roads. Automatically, there’s fear that comes up around that policy. First of all, why should I have to pay for anything that I’ve had for free my entire life? You pay for electricity and other services, but you don’t pay for your use of the road. Certainly, there are a lot of equity concerns there.

As Lauren mentioned, the gentrification and changes in lower-income neighborhoods are serious as well. We need to manage that in order to make progress, and we need to develop a shared imagination of what our city could be like. The outcome will be achieving those Green New Deal goals. 

Susana, elaborate on your perspective given your role with both the Sierra Club and LADWP.

Susana Reyes: The Green New Deal is not new; California has been doing it for the last few years. We’ve enacted legislation that has paved the way, and yet there’s still some opposition emanating from our fossil-fuel friends and their allies. We need to keep them grounded as well.

With that in mind, we want to make sure that there is constant education and outreach, and that is where the Sierra Club really is strong: our grassroots efforts. We work very closely with the city council, mayor’s office, and community-based organizations and right now with the Sunrise Movement, a youth organization that is forcing the debate on climate change with our legislators up in D.C.

We’re ramping up discussions over what the Green New Deal really looks like when it comes to actual action. We’re talking with AFL-CLO, United Steelworkers, and other labor groups about jobs, because we need to have that transition. Jobs won’t just happen in the renewable sector without a pathway or vision to upscale or rescale those workers. It’s a crisis, and we need to have legislative pieces that are tied to family-sustaining jobs, fighting climate change, and making sure that the racial, economic, and social justice inequities are also addressed.

I think there’s one model that I’d also like to cite. Through the efforts of the Sierra Club, California was able to pass Buy Clean California, where taxpayer dollars are paid to manufacturers, vendors, and suppliers who make sure that their products are produced locally, help promote clean air and water, help mitigate dirty fuel impacts, and hire locally. They also make sure that those businesses are located in working communities and communities of color. 

Lauren Faber O’Connor: If I could just jump in really quick here. One of the reasons we took the approach that we did with LA’s Green New Deal was because the mayor saw what was happening in Washington D.C. He was happy to see that this dialogue was really beginning again in an earnest, enthusiastic, and energetic way on all sides.

We had been working on this for well over a year, and we saw that these really are the same principles and formula. To get to a carbon-neutral world by 2050, the playbook is really here. We wanted to demystify what it means to deliver a Green New Deal and to show that we have real policies and people behind those types of policies.

We’ve been growing the Green New Deal here, but that doesn’t mean that it is immediately achievable. It’s going to require a lot of behavior change and people stepping up. These aren’t goals that we and the people at City Hall can achieve on our own, they really do require legislative change—which we’re working on now with city council—behavior change and market change.

A lot of things need to come together. This is not City Hall’s plan or the mayor’s plan; this has to happen through the work and commitment on all of our parts. That also means hearing from communities who can help us understand appropriate ways to implement this change, so that we don’t further burden low-income communities. We need to be uplifting and provide new opportunities that give everyone the chance to see themselves in the green economy; we need to provide clear pathways and visions to be able to transition.

We are clearly saying we are ramping down fossil fuel activity in Los Angeles, and we are seeing—whether that’s clean energy development, water infrastructure, or public transportation buildout in the plan—opportunities in growth in jobs.

Will there be sufficient local infrastructure support, ask many community leaders,  to support greater housing density?

Evelyn Blumenberg: That’s a big question. We tend to think about congestion being horrible. Going back to my point about expanding our imagination; we need to think about it differently. There are many congested places around the country and around the globe that are highly accessible. The key thing when we’re thinking about the buildout and development of cities is not to think about mobility per se, but how much accessibility our network provides. Think about places that you love that are highly congested, and think about how much access those places afford.

We need a change in framework; think about access, not solely mobility. Most of our travel is actually not to get to work. Most trips are for non-work purposes; it’s not the commute and that’s where we have a peaking problem.

The nature of the ongoing political relationship, Susana, between environmentalism and the labor movement—which is part of the fabric of the politics of the City of LA—is appearing to be fraying. Speak to this relationship and the challenges it presents re: implementing an LA Green New Deal?

Susana Reyes: That’s really a huge challenge that we have here in the City of Los Angeles right now with the union pushback. The Sierra Club believes that any oil or gas development should not be on the backs of our vulnerable communities, period. Having said that, there are a lot of examples that we cite where there is a union/enviro partnership with shared common ground.

Some folks don’t want to be upskilled, they want to be in a specific job classification and don’t want to get retrained anymore. There are situations, for example, in Maine where AFL-CIO has a shown such remarkable cooperation with the task force that they set up—composed of labor, community-based organizations, and businesses— to talk to and ensure that there will be renewable jobs in the future. The AFL-CIO has acknowledged that the State of Maine has come forward and invited them to be at the table from the very first conversation, resulting in this collaboration and cooperation.

If I were the union, I’d be excited. The union in D.C., the SEIU Local 32BJ, has from the very start of the Green New Deal expressed excitement. The 163,000 members service the buildings as custodians, security folks, and maintenance. They have come forward because, it’s going to be a renewable era, and therefore and it’s the job of unions to protect the jobs of its members. And, take a look at what other new job classifications in the renewable and technology sector that will help create those jobs and ensure that we have family-sustaining wages and ensure the future of generations of younger workers.

I am optimistic that there will be a roadmap towards achieving the shared goals of the Green New Deal, especially here in the City of Los Angeles, but it will just take some time. There will be some strategic thinking and really working with our educational and business institutions and our community based organizations.

Audience Q&A: We’re actually quite far behind in comparison to other cities and countries; the WHO has a chart that says that we put 4 to 6 times as much carbon in the air as Canadians and Australians do, 6 to 12 times as much as European cities, and up to 20 times when compared, on the extreme end, to Hong Kong. At the same time, we roll out our very ambitious plans, but change on the ground is very hard to notice and it’s awfully slow. What does the city do to market positive change to the communities, so that it can actually start to accelerate?

Lauren Faber O’Connor: Pace is the name of the game, absolutely. Just from the science, we know that we have to act much more quickly than we have and, every year, we think we would have. What’s exciting is that even in the last four years—from when we put the Sustainable City pLAn in place to now—what is possible politically and technologically has changed significantly. Things that we weren’t even thinking or talking about in 2015 are now things that we’re going to do, like building decarbonization for both new and existing building.

We’ve said that in the City of Los Angeles that we’ll never build another municipal building with gas, because we know we can, and that’s something that we’re beginning to ask of the private sector. All new buildings must be net-zero carbon by 2030 and all buildings in the city by 2050. Quantitatively, what that means for the pace that we have to move in order to meet that goal: it is extraordinary how quickly we have to move.

I hear you about pace, and that’s why I’m very excited on the labor side. It’s people in our communities working direct jobs—jobs that you can’t outsource— that have to happen in, by, and for our communities.

We know that the US is one of the top emitters in the world. Interestingly, the average footprint of an Angeleno is just a third of the national average. It’s exciting to think about how we’ve moved to a much more efficient economy in the city, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have to lead. The mayor absolutely sees Los Angeles as being in a leadership position for ambition and policymaking. We work with mayors across the country through a network called Climate Mayors, an example how we’ve aimed to accelerate action.

What we established and launched a year ago—and just announced an—is what’s known as the Electric Vehicle Purchasing Collaborative. We’ve essentially enabled a portal for any city or government in the United States to access pre-competitively bid RFP—unless your state prohibits joint procurement—for an electric vehicle so they can convert their municipal fleet to electric. That includes electric vehicle charging infrastructure as well as direct access to one-on-one technical support for a fleet manager, to understand and plan for electrification of their fleets across different sectors and duty cycles.

We know that we have to serve a leadership role to bring others alongside with us. That doesn’t stop at the US, the mayor also works very closely for an international organization called C40, the world’s top 90 mega cities that are raising and keeping the bar moving on climate action. We see that it’s really difficult at the national level to get significant progress.

"It’s a crisis, and we need to have legislative pieces that are tied to family-sustaining jobs, fighting climate change, and making sure that the racial, economic, and social justice inequities are also addressed.”—Susana Reyes