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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on How Cities Can Fight Climate Change

‘We’re not waiting for Washington,’ he says. ‘That cavalry isn’t coming.’

Eric Garcetti

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti

Richard Vogel/AP/REX/Shutterstock

It is no secret that Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is pondering a 2020 run for the White House. Last December, he admitted — in Spanish, no less, during a Univision interview — that he is “thinking about” it, and has even made recent swings through Iowa and New Hampshire. Garcetti, who won re-election last year in a landslide, is term-limited; so if he doesn’t make history and become the first mayor to vault to the Oval Office, he’ll be looking for another job in 2022. However, none of that was on my mind (or his, it seemed) when we met up at a hotel restaurant in San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon. We were there to talk about slightly bigger stakes than his career goals: namely, the fate of the planet.

Earlier that day, I moderated a panel featuring Garcetti at the Global Climate Action Summit , a three-day conference co-chaired by California Gov. Jerry Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, on what cities, states and businesses can do to confront climate change – particularly in light of our current president’s reckless climate record. “While Washington refuses to act, while homes are lost, while firefighters are dying,” Garcetti said during the panel, “American cities are saying this is real and we will take action.”

Garcetti, 47, who co-founded the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, has preached since his first day in office that he wants L.A.’s culture of car ownership to end. On Tuesday, he set a mutual goal, along with the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, to make their cities’ transportation systems more sustainable before Paris hosts the Olympics and Paralympics in 2024 and Los Angeles does the same in 2028.  

With its pollution and wildfires, climate change should be a central issue to anyone living in Los Angeles — let alone to the man running it. But I am never one to assume — so I wanted to know why this matters so much to him, what he is doing to make Los Angeles cleaner, and what he thinks about a president who works to make the problem worse.

What do you want your partnership with Mayor Hidalgo to accomplish? And why is it important that it centers on transportation?
We’re lucky enough to be the only two cities, after London, who will host the Olympics three times in our history. She’s the chair of C40 [Cities Climate Leadership Group] and I’m one of her vice-chairs, and we really see the intersection of things from homelessness and immigration to the environment and poverty. I think, increasingly, cities are becoming this network, this global network to confront both national problems in our respective countries but also planetary problems from climate change to refugees that are fleeing conflict. So we signed an Olympic cities compact to work together on technology and innovation, on housing and social justice, and on health and fitness around the Olympics. We’re looking to be mayors who lead not just in our region but globally.

So, I’m gonna take the tack of the skeptic. Why not just do all that stuff and not have the Olympics? All these stadiums that are getting built that obviously have a massive carbon footprint, why is it important to do this in conjunction with the Olympics?
I think the skeptic is right for most cities in the world. I can only speak to L.A., where we’re not building new permanent structures that will be left empty afterward, and it’s one of the reasons in good conscience I could bid both financially and environmentally for the Olympics. We hope to be part of a new model that can help sustain the Olympics and focus on things like not just being a zero-emissions games but an energy-positive games, for instance, where all the electricity that we use leaves behind a legacy of greener energy. Our transportation program is being accelerated, “Twenty-eight by ’28” is what it’s called, where 28 projects that are due to be done, we can now say, “Hey, let’s use this date, 10 years from now, as a way to do it quicker to relieve our city, not to just welcome the world.”

Hidalgo and Garcetti

I’m reading about this initiative with the Paris mayor, and I’m seeing all this language and vocabulary that I think most folks don’t really traffic in. How do you explain why this stuff is important to not only your constituents but also to other folks who are maybe not following this stuff as closely?
For mayors around the world, this isn’t a made-up problem or an abstract one. We’re the ones who have firefighters who are dying from historically large fires caused by historic drought. We’re the ones who are on the front line, like my brother mayor Sylvester Turner in Houston, trying to rebuild a city [after Hurricane Harvey]. We’re the ones who in communities of color have kids who are dying of asthma. So I always talk about this in human terms, as a boy who grew up in a city where my lungs ached and we couldn’t see the mountains because the smog was so bad, as a family who’s survived cancer eight times between my parents and my sister, because we lived near two freeways with leaded gas. I think that’s the language we need to talk about climate change in. This is life and death stuff. It’s human beings, not about programs, statistics, tons of carbon; it’s about how hot it is, how unhealthy it is, and what the impact on people is.

People want results on things, they want things to happen right away. Climate is not one of those issues where things can happen right away. People have to think long-term. How do you do that, how do you work that into your political language?
You know, around the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which together account for 40 percent of the goods that come into America by sea, the dirtiest ships – where each ship is the equivalent of tens of thousands of cars – emit the worst pollution in communities of color that live adjacent to the port. We’ve been able to reduce our sulphur oxide emissions by over 90 percent, our diesel particulate matter by more than 80 percent, and our nitrogen oxide emissions by more than 50 percent in about eight years. So people can feel that. I can feel the difference in the air. Now, L.A. still has the worst air in America, but it’s 90 percent more healthy than it was when I grew up.

I did an internship in L.A. in the summer of ’96, and it’s a different place.
It was rough, it was rough. Some things you have to have patience for, but people should be impatient and demand to see real change. And that may not just be on health and conditions, it may be, “I really want to drive an electric car. When’s one coming to my neighborhood?” Well now EVs [electric vehicles] that people can essentially rent out and share are in our lower-income zip codes first, and people can see electric-vehicle chargers on the street as part of our street lights all around the city – over 2,000 chargers now, on our way to 25,000 chargers. 

We’re here at this conference with mayors from all over the world. I know this may sound weird coming from the guy who just moderated your panel, but what does all this talk do?
I think this comes down to peer pressure. These conferences are about showing off, and if you don’t have enough to show off, the next conference you better get your act together. It is the healthiest way – we joke that good mayors borrow, great mayors steal. If I hear that Quito, Ecuador, is doing something to have a whole area of town that’s zero emissions, and we’re thinking about that in Los Angeles’ downtown, I’m like, “I better catch up.”

The thing about mayors is, you know, all these politicians come in from Washington, they dip in and out on the weekends, mayors never leave. What is it about your particular job that makes you uniquely suited to confront the issue of climate change?
You know, mayors are accountable. Local governments are accountable. We’re not perfect, and I hope that we’re humble in always acknowledging how far we have to go, but you can’t bullshit about unclean water; you have to drink it. You can’t say a pothole is paved when it’s not, you can’t say that it’s not a hot day when it is. You’re right there. I mean, the great thing is, not only are you a leader, you’re a constituent, your own constituent.

I want to ask about fire season. Before I moved to L.A., I had never heard of such a thing. How do you face it without any kind of federal support during this administration, or at least insufficient support?
Well, it sure would be nice to have a Washington that was there for us, but most help has always been local and regional. We have many more police officers and firefighters who are local and paid for by the city of L.A. than FEMA can ever send. And the Feds haven’t stopped, even in this administration, helping out, for instance on fire or dam issues. They’re just burying their head about the source of the problem, how they might stop it from even happening. They should know as purported fiscal conservatives how expensive their ignorance is. I’ve always said we need to build resilience locally. We’re part of the network of 100 Resilient Cities, which the Rockefeller Foundation founded, and we had what they said was the most aggressive resilient city plan in the world to date, which is about how you strengthen your buildings, how you get rid of the heat island effect by, you know, cool roofs and lighter pavement, planting trees. We’re not waiting for Washington, even if we did have an ally in the White House. That cavalry isn’t coming. You have to build that capacity where you live. It has to come from you.

It’s been a year now since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, and as my colleague Jeff Goodell reported, it still stands on the brink of collapse. We’ve seen the frustration of the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, who Trump referred to this week as “totally incompetent.” How do you deal with the politics of it when this presidency is only concerned about the blame game?
He can either come together and figure out a way to work with people or he can invent problems, not solve them, divide us, and blame people. That doesn’t seem very presidential, that doesn’t seem to be taking responsibility, and I think anybody on the ground knows how bad the federal response and the president’s response was to what happened in Puerto Rico. In California, when we have historic fires, he says it’s because we’re washing water out to the ocean. I mean, this is just somebody who is the last member of the Flat Earth Society and he gets his science apparently out of, you know, Mad Magazine.

Him and Kyrie Irving, apparently.
That’s right, exactly. Yeah, he’s the second to last, sorry.

I have to ask you about the bill that Gov. Brown just signed mandating that by 2045 California will rely 100 percent on clean electricity. What do we need to do as citizens and you as mayor to make that happen?
We just have to go forward. This is not a matter of if, it is when. It now has to happen by 2045, but the quicker we get there the better chance we have to save a quality of life for ourselves and for our children and our children’s children. The governor kind of took what we had already pledged to do in Los Angeles. We already adopted that before this was signed. If L.A. can do this, the stakes are bigger than people realize. We’re going to be the first big city in America, and one of the first big cities in the world, to actually take an existing, legacy way of generating electricity and 100 percent change that. Now if we can do that, it’s off to the races for everybody.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

In This Article: Climate Change

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