OPR Director Kate Gordon on State’s Policy Challenge: Integrating Climate, Growth, Sustainability, Resilience & Equity for a Better Normal

Kate Gordon

The cascading challenges of 2020 have underscored the intersectional nature of California’s policy priorities on climate change, public health, housing, and equity. VX News spoke with Kate Gordon, Director of the Governor’s Office of Planning & Research and chair of the California Strategic Growth Council (SGC), to elaborate on the monumental task of aligning and integrating long-range planning on these issues across state agencies. Gordon emphasizes the accountability included in SGC's recently adopted Racial Equity Resolution and the continuing need for robust stakeholder engagement in planning to avoid one-size-fits-none solutions.

Kate, this interview takes place while record breaking fires rage across the state – with 2020 experiencing, so far, six of the 20 largest fires in California history. How do your responsibilities as director of the Governor’s Officer of Planning and Research relate to challenges posed by these wildfires?

The Office of Planning and Research is the office that does long range planning, research support, and advisory work for the governor and the cabinet. Because we focus on long-range planning, there's this very clear intersection with these issues around climate impacts and climate resilience. OPR has the Integrated Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Program (ICARP) which focuses very directly on – not only what we're doing within the administration and the state on climate resilience– but how are we building in resilience in our own operations into our agencies and what the best practices are across our regions and cities in the state.

We're very focused on this question of what the science tells us about increased severity and frequency of climate impacts—of wildfire, extreme heat, flooding, sea level rise—if it exists as a risk, we have it in California. What are the things we can do now to better adapt to those impacts, and also what can we do over the long term to make ourselves more resilient to them? Because the reality is that these impacts are the result of emissions that were put into the atmosphere decades ago. They are not going away; they are getting more frequent and severe. We need to be operating on parallel paths to bring down our emissions and to better adapt and become resilient to the impacts. It's just the reality we’re in.

Elaborate on what California agencies and departments are accomplishing. Friction between state agencies has been reported in the press related to the state’s electric grid, and while OPR is not point here, you bring many years of experience to this issue having led the Risky Business Project, laying out the business and operations perspective of the economic implications of climate impacts. Share what the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research involvements are during this current crisis.

One of the big areas that we're spending a lot of time thinking about, actually, is how do we make sure that we're integrating the best thinking and the best science on climate impacts into our own state operations. The governor put out an executive order last September that said we need to make sure that the assets we own and the investments we make are aligned with our climate goals. On the investment side, we need to be working closely with the pension funds – which between them have about $700 billion of investment capital. And on the asset side, we need to be working with two of our big agencies, the Department of General Services and CalTrans, to look at the places where we're directly investing in infrastructure and buildings in places that have risk. 

OPR was called out in both of those as being a really essential coordinating entity to think through both the investment and the asset strategy. A lot of that is hard to see from the outside and because it's a lot of internal conversation, this is not easy. This is really about thinking through how we change design and build standards on some of our transportation systems, for instance. How do we think about what we're asking when we sign a contract for some of the 19 million square feet of buildings that we own as a state?  How do we make sure that we're not contributing to our own financial risk as a state by investing in things that are high risk and subject to disaster? So, we're doing a lot of that work at OPR. Nuin-Tara Key who runs ICARP and our resilience program is essentially running an interagency process to look at our internal systems.

I've been working very closely with our Department of Finance and our pension funds on finding out the best practices from what they're doing, what they're seeing happen internationally, and how we can think more strategically about our investments, not just the pension fund investments, but also the state's own investments. How do we actually internalize these risks into our financial decisions because as a state? Our budget and our taxpayer accountability relies on our being smart about the fact that we know from the science, again, that these rates are increasing, getting more severe and more frequent. We need to get ahead of that.

Has the state legislature relied much on OPR when addressing climate resiliency, fire risk, and, ultimately, recovery?

The legislature has the benefit of living all over the state. In every single district, there are impacts that are affecting their constituents, so, I would say that the legislature is probably even thinking more about this stuff than those who are living and working in Sacramento, because they're living it in their communities.

Climate resilience is something that has to happen in both the immediate and the long term. There's an enormous amount of work happening just to try to reduce today's risk from, for instance, fires.. That is a commitment that you have to make in the immediate-term because these fires are happening now and we are stretched thin on response to them. Getting the resources in place now to have the person power on the ground, to have the trucks, the helicopters, the aggressive forest management strategies to try to bring down the risk in the immediate term—that's all happening now and I think the legislature has been a great partner in that.

In some ways, the harder question is, how do you act today to bring down the risks tomorrow? How do we act today to help communities build more resilience? That's particularly true for our most vulnerable communities across California, which are also the most affected by climate impacts, least able to move, most vulnerable to having their assets destroyed, and don't have the ability to restart. Looking at the science of what's going to be happening in the next 10 to 20 years, that is a harder question and something that we in the administration are particularly responsible for because we don't have the same day-to-day political pressures; we can actually look out over the long term. It's one of the reasons I like working at OPR, because we have that ability. 

Kate, before turning to the California Strategic Growth Council’s recently approved Equity Resolution, are you somewhat amazed that the climate crisis is not front and center in the national campaigns?

I'm always amazed when the climate crisis isn’t front and center everywhere because this is what I live and breathe. I honestly think that climate change is the biggest macroeconomic impact that affects everything we do across the world. It's on par with globalization, automation, and other major trends that we talk about all the time in terms of their significant immediate and long-term impacts on every sector in every region for every worker. So, I think everybody should be talking about it all the time.

I've been glad to see that climate is starting to be integrated into conversations beyond the environmental agencies and areas. It’s an acknowledgement that climate is about infrastructure and about finance, economics, workers and labor. It's integrated across all these areas. I was really heartened to see the Commodities Future Trading Commission—which is part of the Trump administration—come out with a big climate risk report this past week. So, interestingly this conversation is happening. But I would love to see it more front and center as it is the number one frame through which we should be looking at everything.

The California Strategic Growth Council late last month passed an equity resolution committing member agencies to the integration of equity into state practices. As chair of that Council, share with our readers the significance of this resolution and the racial equity action plan also adopted by the Council last year.

The California Strategic Growth Council, which I’m proud to chair, is a collection of seven cabinet-level agencies including OPR, as well as, three public members appointed by the legislature and the governor. That Council is, in some ways, the most significant cabinet-level or Secretary-level council looking at cross-cutting issues on climate, growth, sustainability, and equity across the government.

In our last public meeting, we passed the racial equity resolution. Instead of just saying we care about racial equity and committing to thinking about it, what's so important about the resolution is that it's very specific and goes into coherent detail on how we are committed to integrating equity into our operations, our leadership, our programs, and our practices. We're actually going to find concrete measurable actions and report back on those to the SGC. be accountable to them to make sure that it's not just at the agency level, but also the board and department level. That's very significant because it's operational; it's not just a commitment at a high level, but it's a commitment to implementation.

There are great examples of that already happening. Every one of the SGC agencies is part of the Capitol Collaborative on Race and Equity, which is a program specifically targeted at comprehensive training on racial equity approaches and how to incorporate them into our work— and how to develop a racial equity action plan—so, every one of us is already doing that. There are good examples of concrete progress across many of the agencies already who have incorporated plans or changed hiring practices or otherwise made real strides. I'm so proud we did it and that it's concrete because I am really all about the implementation. Goals are great, but implementation is where the action is.

Doesn’t a resolution fall short of what still needs to be accomplished?

One of the things in the resolution that we've committed to, and that the council itself called for during the meeting, is a commitment to having at least two meetings each year specifically focused on progress and reporting out on the implementation of the resolution. That's an accountability measure that's really important so that we're all accountable to each other, like a peer accountability system. But there are also public meetings, so we're accountable to the public. We're accountable to the people of California on how we’re doing. How are we integrating equity into the policies we write, the guidelines we put out, the hiring practices we use, and the culture we set within our own organizations? That's something that we are committed to.

Some of these agencies are ahead on putting out plans. SGC, as an organization, has a racial equity action plan, but some of us are just starting to put them together. So, we’ll see; the proof will be in the next meeting when we report out. 

One reader reaction to your detailed statement about your priority agenda for OPR made a year ago at the AIA -LA meeting was that it was an ‘exhaustive’ agenda which could easily result in limiting one's ability to focus. Similarly, it is hard to imagine a more exhaustive and challenging agenda than the Governor now has—climate change, racial equity, a pandemic, and recovering from an economic crisis. Does OPR have the capability  and the bandwidth  to address the breadth of the challenges now before the State. What necessarily gets short shrift?

That's an incredibly good question. One of the reasons I love OPR is that it's an integrated approach—a holistic approach— it's not an exhaustive menu of a million different things that don't relate to each other. It's a way of thinking across climate, housing, transportation, naturally working the land, equity, economics, highroad jobs—all of those things relate to each other by definition. We believe we can't have a sustainable, resilient, equitable, and inclusive economy if we don't tackle all of these things together. A sustainable economy relies on high quality jobs and on making sure we don't have impacts that are unequally felt across different communities. It's about prioritizing equity and making sure that we're reducing emissions and increasing resilience in the long term.

All of these things are related to each other. The key, and this is a challenge for us as an administration especially in a time of constrained budget, is to find ways to integrate and identify efficiencies in order to streamline and focus, so that we're not throwing process on process, on process, onto local and regional governments and stakeholders. We need to help find those efficiencies at the government level to streamline our own processes and have them be really consistent with those goals and priorities, and then pass on those efficiencies. That's hard to do with a government of this size, but it's critically important. Again, particularly with the budget constraints that we find ourselves with and will have for the next several years.

To close, Kate, given the above constraints and breadth of challenges, what is your take on the capacity of local government, which itself has been starved economically and challenged by the same issues, to be a partner in the formulation of these policies with the state so that there are not one-size solutions that complicate, rather than solve, problems?

I agree with you that local government is key and heavily constrained. The impact of COVID on local budgets is incredibly hard. As much as it is for the state, it's felt very deeply and very immediately at the local level. We know that there were already capacity constraints at the local level on planning in particular—I would say that we're very sensitive to that.

What we're trying to do with OPR and SGC is to continue pushing for technical assistance and stakeholder engagement to be a critical part of all climate policy and all planning so that we're not passing top-down regulations and resolutions. We've got to build into the process at every level ommunity engagement and the actual technical assistance to be able to support that engagement.

I would point to the environmental justice guidelines that we just put out from OPR for general planning processes, which we developed in consultation with a whole lot of people across the state at the local level, and are really drawn from this question of what do we actually mean by community engagement? It's not just writing a resolution and then coming to the community meeting and telling everyone about it. It's really about helping to set a table with technical assistance and capacity support, where stakeholders can be fully engaged from the very beginning.

From the minute you're deciding who should be at the table —that's the conversation to have with stakeholders all the way through to the final legs. We're very, very committed to that, and I think you'll see it really play out in SGC’s work where technical assistance is really built into every single one of those programs including the climate research program, which has a deeply held commitment to stakeholder engagement even on the wonky research side. I would say that's something we continue to focus on, but I don't want to underrepresent what a big problem it is because it is a huge challenge across the state. It's something that we're always looking for ideas on how to address.


"We believe we can't have a sustainable, resilient, equitable, and inclusive economy if we don't tackle all of these things together."
"How are we integrating equity into the policies we write, the guidelines we put out, the hiring practices we use, and the culture we set within our own organizations? That's something that we are committed to."
"What we're trying to do with OPR and SGC is to continue pushing for technical assistance and stakeholder engagement to be a critical part of all climate policy and all planning so that we're not passing top-down regulations and resolutions"—Kate Gordon