Assessing LA County’s Extreme Heat Risks: LA County Chief Sustainability Office’s Kristen Torres Pawling


Recognizing extreme heat as the deadliest climate threat facing Americans, last week the Biden administration launched Heat.Gov, a one-stop hub offering maps, data and information across disciplines to empower the public and decisionmakers plan for and mitigate the health impacts of extreme heat. With a focus on Los Angeles County, VX News recently spoke with Kristen Torres Pawling, Sustainability Program Director at the Los Angeles County Chief Sustainability Office, about what LA County’s Climate Vulnerability Assessment reveals about extreme heat. Torres Pawling elaborates on her office’s current work to inform the county’s vision & policies for delivery of services, infrastructure, and advocacy at the intersection of climate policy and public health.

A recent New York Times headline states “Misery Spreads as Nearly a Third of the U.S. Faces Excessive Heat and, acknowledging the latter, President Biden, stopping just short of declaring a national emergency, described climate change as “a clear and present danger.” Elaborate on LA County's vulnerability to extreme heat, and how the County should be preparing itself for the urban environment heat challenges of today and tomorrow?

Heat is the most-deadly of the climate threats that we're facing in LA. We've done a Climate Vulnerability Assessment, which found, unsurprisingly, low-income communities and communities of color are the most vulnerable to heat. Make no mistake that extreme heat will be felt by nearly everyone in LA County by mid-century.  What we looked at is understanding how our physical infrastructure and our social infrastructure is vulnerable to climate hazards and the findings for extreme heat are stark.

The Climate Vulnerability Assessment reported that we will see a tenfold increase in extreme heat waves by 2050. That leads to a doubling of the population that's highly vulnerable to extreme heat. We're talking about millions of people who are going to experience high vulnerability to extreme heat.

We especially try to bring a public health lens to the extreme heat conversation. As the County, we provide the unique service of being the Public Health Department. Luckily, we are one of the public health departments that actually has a climate change and sustainability team. We have experts whose job is to make sure that we're considering the public health aspects of climate change, and extreme heat is right up there on their priority list.

The beauty of our report is we also looked at the social conditions not just how much hotter it will get physically. As an example, Reseda and Winnetka will certainly get much hotter, but they also have a higher share than average of households with limited English and a higher share of people with health conditions. When you add the extreme heat exposure plus those social conditions, that community rose to the top. That's an example of a community where we need to think about another level of resource deployment for extreme heat conditions.

It’s always important to define the problem; it's another to both proscribe appropriate remedies are identify available resources to address them. What might the County do going forward to address the challenges that your report identified in LA’s vulnerable  neighborhoods and communities?

The OurCounty Sustainability Plan that the Board adopted in 2019 had several actions in it related to extreme heat. That included everything from revisiting how we design our transit stops, planting shade trees, and establishing health focused targets. We established a target for 2025 to actually reduce the number of heat stress emergency department visits per 100,000 residents by 15 percent. Keeping it flat would have been ambitious, but we went past that and want to actually reduce that number.

One of the key aspects as we step into this space is we don't actually know how much extreme heat is costing us today as a county government. How can we know if we're prepared to deploy new resources as extreme heat conditions worsen if we don’t know how it’s hitting us today?

In response, we're undertaking a first in the nation exercise in an effort to account for what extreme heat is already costing us. We identified periods of extreme heat and asked every county department head questions like: Did costs go up? Did we have absenteeism from employees? Did people get more workplace injuries those days? Did more clients need services those days? Then, we can assess where we are today and better prepare as more extreme heat comes our way.

Right now, there's one only item in the county budget about heat, and that is the bucket of money for activating cooling centers when those are declared necessary. We have a strong suspicion that there are costs from the extreme heat to the county beyond the cooling centers. We're interrogating if we know how much extreme heat is costing us now in anticipation of needing to potentially bring in new funding mechanisms during extreme events, like a parametric insurance product.

What is a “parametric insurance product?”

It’s a concept I learned about while serving as the only local government representative on the California Climate Insurance Working Group.  Parametric insurance is one of the key tools we recommended to help California prepare for extreme heat.  It’s an insurance policy that could be purchased by local governments where there are some agreed upon parameters—say, X number of days in a row with temperatures above 95th percentile average for heat. Then, whenever that parameter is met, there's Y level of payout, which would fund activities to directly respond to that level of danger. Payouts would go to paying for services like for example public health nurses checking on vulnerable people, transportation to trusted community centers with reliable air conditioning, and other kinds of services in places where we know people are struggling to cope with the heat.

You can imagine a scenario where we add a lot more to the supports and services that we could roll out during heat events to save lives.  So, let's design and make available to public agencies insurance policies that can address these new costs.

The County’s Sustainability Plan addressed itself to all the service delivery departments in the county. What precisely is the Sustainability Office’s role in following up on the Vulnerability Assessment’s findings?

We're a policy team, and we're out there looking at the latest science and reports and coming up with that kind of innovative content ourselves. Then, we’re working with the service delivery departments and the infrastructure delivery departments to coordinate and identify best practices. People do come to us with technology solutions, which then we will connect them to the departments who are on the ground.

I see our role as the spark. To me, the value of the vulnerability assessment is that it sets the groundwork by analyzing data so that every community can go forth and craft a solution for itself. It doesn't provide specific set of action recommendations because we’ve got 88 cities and those solutions should be locally vetted.  The Climate Vulnerability Assessment is not meant to provide all the answers for what to do next, but to get the ball rolling.

We play that vision setting role for the county government, which is what the County Board of Supervisors asked us to do when they created us. We crafted that vision in the sustainability plan, oversee its implementation, and then act as a thought partner and leader for the rest of the region, and we hope especially for cities.  I see us playing a similar role for responding to climate vulnerability in our region.

The County’s many service departments are part of an immense bureaucracy. How do diverse department directors take to having a policy shop alerting them to new responsibilities they should address asap?

A lot of times we as the Chief Sustainability Office are not bringing totally new ideas to the table. We often trying to bring more resources to bear for County departments to deliver on community services that they would like to be doing or are already have underway and feel the need to expand. We also have been able to attract philanthropy dollars in ways where potentially departments haven't because they're so busy doing the delivery. We have a little bit more space to have those conversations and talk about where some investment might make sense.

For example, the Public Health Department had started crafting  a Climate Change and Health Equity Report informed by community stakeholders prior to the pandemic. But then the pandemic happened and it was clearly an all-hands on deck effort for our public health staff to respond to the severe crisis.  All the while, there was the beginnings of this document that we felt could inform critical conversation and debates around climate change resilience in the state budget. We wanted to advocate for money to do the kinds of things that were recommended in the report, but the report was sitting there in draft form due to the very serious demands on the Public Health Department at the height of the pandemic. We asked the Public Health Department what they needed to be able to get the findings out to the public. We were able to find those resources and work with philanthropy to support Public Health to close the loop on the report. We used the findings of that report to advocate for the state budget to bring more resources around extreme heat to LA, which is ultimately a win for the whole County, but including the Department of Public Health.

Elaborate on how the Sustainability Office’s policy work translates into the delivery of the services “on the ground?”

We won a $1.5 million state grant for an urban forest management plan, which will be done in coordination with the City of LA. It certainly does a of course create a new plan, but that process will deliver tree plantings in the unincorporated community of Florence-Firestone. 

We really believe in regionalism and try cross jurisdictional boundaries whenever we can. The city and the county collaborate a lot, but on this issue, it's another level of collaboration and willingness to engage not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because the state and philanthropy are interested in resourcing new kinds of partnerships.

Was not TreePeople doing this work 30 years ago as a nonprofit? What then, re tree planning, is the county’s role?

One of the main places is the right-of-way issue. A lot of the shade opportunities are on private land rather than public spaces. Nonprofits can go into that private land in a way that’s just less likely to be successful than if it was government-led.

Non-profits like TreePeople also fill an additive role with community trust. TreePeople have been a really good messenger for making sure that communities—especially those of color— feel like and become owners of the process of tree planting. Tree People, in recent years especially, has been able to be hone in a way that I don't think county government has traditionally.

There are also just so many trees to plant!  Frankly, it's good if there's overlap in deployment because we there are a lot of trees to plant if we want to increase our tree canopy let alone keep up with our current levels of tree canopy if you consider the tree die-off due to invasive pests, presenting a serious challenge.

There's obviously so much skepticism today about government and whether it properly delivers ‘on time and on budget.’ As a policy shop that cuts across all the service delivery elements of the county of LA, can you opine on whether the latter can, informed by your office’s policy research,  effectively “get stuff done?”

I can speak to that from the perspective of policy wonk and a planner.  We have just released our draft annual progress report and I’d leave it to the reader to assess whether they think we’re delivering. The sustainability plan had 60 actions that departments were undertaking this fiscal year, and we've reported out on everything that's been undertaken.

I'm an urban planner, so I ascribe to the philosophy that without quality plans, the delivery doesn't happen or there's distrust. So on the planning front, County Board of Supervisors updated our safety element just last month to consider all the inputs of the climate vulnerability assessment, including extreme heat. We have also updated land use regulations around very high fire severity zones and flooding zones to restrict new development in a way that's actually quite pathbreaking for any California jurisdiction.

To be a bit provocative, how hard has it been, or how hard is it, to get stuff done in the County?

I'd note first that, we've never had even a single year without there being a global pandemic since the Sustainability Plan was adopted. The Plan was adopted in August 2019, and then we started on implementation. A few months later, the pandemic started. I would love to see what we're able to do without the constraint of a pandemic on the county government. But even considering that constraint, we’ve achieved quite a bit.

Right now, the Chief Sustainability Office role is to inhabit the gray space, the unknown. In terms of extreme heat, we know some interventions, but we're still trying new things and being intentional about measuring success. I’d characterize us as the bleeding edge.

We're also intentionally chasing and advocating for resources from the epic state surplus for extreme heat and other tools the state could deploy. During last summer’s state budget session, there was advocacy around extreme heat, and a lot of that advocacy came from LA and the county, but it was unclear what exactly the state would do with that pot of funds. We're now at the forefront loudly repeating that extreme heat is a problem, and LA is facing it disproportionately. We need to be leaders who are okay with the uncertainty and turning to community-based solutions in that context.

With respect to executing the vision of the Sustainability Plan, how vital is it to have the Board of Supervisors’ full support?

It's so important. There's no guarantee that because something is in the sustainability plan that it's going to be funded. We try to align as much as possible, but there's still a regular budget process that we go through to fund these actions. They're nice words on paper, but it comes down to the supervisors when asked to support the sustainability plan implementation and they have been critical in getting action funded.

I’d also highlight their role in selecting who the Chief Sustainability Officer is and the perspective that that individual brings to guiding the work is equally important. Most people are surprised when they learn how small we are, staff-wise, because the vision that Gary set was so ambitious. The ambition and the vision that Gary articulated to the supervisors, I don't know that every elected official would have gone for that.

The vulnerability assessment mentions the housing affordability crisis and broader economic inequality in LA. With respect to the ‘heat effect,’ address how the County is focusing its resources.

The housing affordability crisis does deeply intersect with extreme heat.  In a listening session we hosted with people experiencing homelessness, one of the top points raised was that more permanent housing options are needed under extreme heat scenarios. We also heard in that session about Project Roomkey and other more temporary solutions, but that permanent housing is paramount. That was our most direct intersection with housing affordability.

On the broader economic inequality issue, that's where we turn to how extreme heat impacts workers. It is intuitive that outdoor workers are going to be impacted by heat, but we learned about the perils that indoor workers are facing.

We’ve spoken to workers inside containers at the ports that could hear their sweat sizzle when it fell off of them and hit the floor. A lot of times it's actually hotter in some of those indoor conditions. Warehousing jobs are another place where we heard about workers who are technically indoors, but their role in the economy puts them at a higher level of risk. Often those same workers are going home to communities that don’t have good thermal comfort and higher levels of pavement in their community. They're working all day in hot conditions and going home to disproportionately hot conditions. Our bodies can't keep up under those conditions over time.

Again, given the headlines in July about the impacts of heat on 100 million Americans, how much better will the County’s service delivery systems be in response two years from now?

I’d envision that we'll have successfully drawn down state money in LA to address extreme heat, especially around community resilience centers. I’d expect a first cohort meeting of leaders of each community resilience center where we could convene and learn about what they've been able to accomplish in their first year. I want a disproportionate share of that money to come to LA because we have real, severe burden in terms of heat vulnerability.

We're especially excited about with the state’s community resilience center funding in that the grant will  bring resources to places that communities already feel really comfortable in. It’s not about stale rooms that happen to have air conditioning where community members don't want to spend time during a heat event. It’s a place where their peers are already convening and people can access what they need to stay safe. That's my hope for two years from now, that we'll have gotten the millions of dollars to build community resilience and help save lives.

Kristen, before we close,  address the CSO’s leadership transition with the retirement of Gary Gero; and, what the public can expect from your office going forward?\

 We've always been a small team, and Gary set up the office with a very horizontal structure. We all play unique roles, but we also know how to support each other and fill in when there are gaps. We've been continuing to support the needs of the county departments and the supervisors during this transition period.

"What we looked at is understanding how our physical infrastructure and our social infrastructure is vulnerable to climate hazards and the findings for extreme heat are stark."—Kristen Torres Pawling