Newsletter: Climate change is transforming how Angelenos live, breathe and escape the heat
This is the Dec. 9, 2021, edition of Boiling Point, a weekly newsletter about climate change and the environment in California and the American West. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.
If you’re looking for evidence that the climate crisis is taking a toll, look no further than a new survey of Angelenos.
Fifty-one percent of Los Angeles County residents avoided going outside at some point between summer 2020 and summer 2021 because of concerns about breathing wildfire smoke, the University of Southern California survey found. More than one-quarter of Angelenos said they had suffered psychological distress due to a disaster such as a fire, flood or extreme heat during that time.
Heat storms in particular are taking a toll on quality of life. Fifty-four percent of local residents said they had gone to a mall, library, community center or other cool location for the sole purpose of getting out of the heat — a startling number, at least to me.
Rising temperatures don’t affect everyone equally. The survey found that 27% of Black Angelenos work outdoors with no cover, much more than any other racial group. And whereas 62% of white survey respondents said their neighborhoods have enough trees to provide adequate shade for walking on a hot, sunny day, only 51% of Latino, Asian and Black residents said the same.
Overall, more than three-quarters of respondents said climate change is a threat to the well-being of Angelenos.
It’s not hard to see what’s giving people that idea. Los Angeles County recorded a record-high 121-degree temperature during an excruciating heat wave in summer 2020, following a decade in which heat killed an estimated 3,900 Californians, with the death count rising over time, according to an L.A. Times investigation. Southern California officials have issued air quality advisories due to wildfire smoke on 17 days so far this year — and 55 days last year, when the Bobcat fire raged in the San Gabriel Mountains.
Kelly Sanders, an energy and climate expert at USC who was not involved with the survey, told me it’s more than wildfires to blame for filling the air with smoke and keeping people indoors. California is in drought — and lack of rainfall not only primes the landscape for fire but also allows lung-damaging particles to linger in the air longer. High temperatures, too, can exacerbate smog.
All those forces — heat, drought, wildfires, air pollution — are made worse by the burning of fossil fuels.
Sanders pointed to the growing number of Californians who have experienced ash falling out of the sky.
“It’s not just a one-off — it’s happening every year, multiple times a year at this point,” she said. “We always talk about these apocalyptic events in the future, but ash falling out of the sky — it doesn’t get more apocalyptic than that.”
The USC survey offers reasons for hope, too. I was encouraged that 40% of Angelenos say their next car is likely to be electric. (I wasn’t one of the 1,244 people to take the survey, but I would have said the same.) Large majorities of Angelenos also try to limit their electricity and water use, the amount of time they spend driving and how much meat they eat — all good for the climate.
Interestingly, older people were more likely to say their individual actions can make a difference in tackling global warming — a sign that younger generations, such as my own, are fed up with decades of inaction by corporations and government and are sick of being told their lifestyles are to blame. Fifty-seven percent of survey respondents ages 18 to 39 said their actions can make a difference, compared with 75% of respondents in their 40s, 71% in their 50s and 65% age 60 and older.
Younger people “have a different idea about who are the humans that are causing climate change,” said Kyla Thomas, director of the LABarometer survey at the USC Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research, which conducted the polling.
One other key finding: Just 17% of Angelenos said local government is doing enough to fight climate change.
To be fair, I don’t know of any local government that’s truly doing enough, given the science showing that global emissions need to be cut roughly in half in less than a decade. But it’s not hard to point to places where Los Angeles is falling short. Just to offer one example from my previous reporting, the city still doesn’t have a plan for reducing planet-warming emissions from residential gas heating and gas stoves, despite Mayor Eric Garcetti setting targets for net-zero-carbon buildings way back in April 2019.
Garcetti did join with three City Council members this week to introduce a motion instructing L.A.’s climate emergency office to develop recommendations for slashing emissions from gas appliances in homes, with a focus on affordability. Environmental justice activists have raised concerns that requiring electric heating and cooking could raise energy and housing costs.
The new initiative “will ensure that the people who are most impacted by climate change and housing insecurity are the ones leading the conversation, and that the solutions proposed lead to strong labor, housing, and health protections,” said Martha Dina Argüello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles, in a written statement.
Shifting from gas cooking to induction stoves will be especially important as wildfire smoke and higher temperatures force people to spend even more time sheltered at home with the windows closed, Sanders said. That’s because cooking with gas can lead to high levels of indoor air pollution. And gas stoves aren’t the only problem — the air outside has a big effect on the air inside.
“We need to focus more on improving our homes and buildings to promote safe indoor air quality, as well as access to adequate air conditioning. People are spending a lot more time at home,” Sanders said. “Communities living closer to pollution sources like highways, wildfires, industrial centers, the ports — they’re really disproportionately impacted by this poor air quality.”
You can check out the detailed survey results here. They’ve really got me thinking about how many politicians still talk about climate change as a problem to be solved for the sake of future generations, as opposed to a disaster that is here now and making the planet progressively less livable for current generations. President Biden, for instance, recently pitched his “Build Back Better” legislation by describing the fight against global warming as an “obligation to our children and to our grandchildren.”
That attitude is admirable but behind the times. We live in a world where large and growing numbers of people are staying indoors to protect their lungs from wildfire smoke, going to the mall to stay cool and feeling anxiety from climate calamity.
If the survey says anything, it says people want action, and they want it now.
Here’s what else is happening around the West:
California’s biggest source of water supply — the Sierra Nevada snowpack — could be close to zero for five straight years as soon as the 2040s, new research finds. Here’s the story by my colleague Hayley Smith, which speaks to the critical importance of using water more carefully. And as scary as conditions might get in a few decades, they’re already bad now. Just 6% of the contiguous U.S. was covered in snow as of Friday, the lowest coverage since researchers started tracking that figure, according to AccuWeather’s Mark Puleo. There’s so little powder in the Rocky Mountains that one Colorado ski town is holding a four-day “snow dance” to ask Ullr, the Norse God of Snow, to please help them out, the Associated Press’ Thomas Peipert and Brittany Peterson report.
President Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill includes the largest-ever federal investment in U.S. forests — $27 billion overall, with $14 billion for fuels reduction to limit wildfire severity. This would mark a sea change from the current approach of throwing tons of money at firefighting and neglecting prevention, The Times’ Jennifer Haberkorn reports. Here in California, meanwhile, Pacific Gas & Electric has agreed to pay $125 million for sparking the Kincade fire, Gregory Yee reports. And in fire news of a different kind, local officials say the awful smell in the city of Carson was caused by a warehouse fire ignited by illegally stored flammable materials, including hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes, Hailey Branson-Potts and Andrew J. Campa report.
As part of a settlement agreement with environmental groups, a massive home development at Tejon Ranch in northern L.A. County won’t have natural gas hookups. Instead, homes will be built with electric heat pumps and induction stoves; details here from my colleague Louis Sahagún. At the same time, many Tejon Ranch residents will probably drive several hours each day commuting to and from Los Angeles, spewing carbon into the atmosphere. State lawmakers have tried to reduce emissions (and make housing more affordable) by promoting density, but some cities are racing to restrict new housing ahead of a law that would require them to allow duplexes and fourplexes in single-family neighborhoods, The Times’ Liam Dillon reports. L.A.’s City Council overwhelmingly opposed that law, despite new polling from The Times showing a strong majority of voters support the idea.
It looks like California will again mandate water-saving measures such as not watering lawns after it rains, with $500 fines for noncompliance. In the meantime, conservation is ticking up — Californians cut their water use by 13.2% in October, up from 3.9% in September, Hayley Smith reports for The Times. Out in the desert, Cadiz Inc. has pitched its plan to pump groundwater and ship it to coastal cities as a drought solution — but the Biden administration isn’t buying it. Officials are trying to reverse a Trump administration decision clearing the way for the Cadiz pipeline, which has long been opposed by critics as an environmentally damaging water grab, my colleagues Alex Wigglesworth and Ian James report. Columnist Michael Hiltzik was pleased by the federal government’s change of course, writing of the Cadiz project, “It’s time to bury it in the desert grave where it belongs.”
Hiltzik also slammed a ballot initiative backed by agribusiness that could require California to spend $100 billion on water infrastructure, calling it “a majestically cynical ploy being foisted on taxpayers by some of the state’s premier water hogs.” The ballot initiative could also help Poseidon Water get around the California Coastal Commission in its quest to build a seawater desalination plant in Huntington Beach, columnist Steve Lopez writes. In the Coachella Valley, meanwhile, water officials are basically shrugging their shoulders as developers make plans to build surf parks, Janet Wilson reports for the Desert Sun.
A powerful new ocean and atmosphere simulator at UC San Diego could help unravel one of the biggest climate science mysteries — the role of clouds in slowing or speeding up global warming. Reporting for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Joshua Emerson Smith describes the simulator as “like a giant aquarium — minus the fish but capable of growing a microscopic jungle of marine organisms.” It’s capable of generating “near hurricane-force winds at sub-zero temperatures,” which is pretty wild.
THE ENERGY TRANSITION
Southern California Edison is tearing down the San Onofre nuclear plant, in a process expected to take eight years and cost $4.5 billion. The San Diego Union-Tribune’s Rob Nikolewski has a detailed explainer on the teardown, with critics questioning whether Edison will manage it safely. In other nuclear news, the Biden administration is looking for communities that might want to store the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. And President Biden’s energy secretary said she might talk with California officials about extending the life of the state’s last nuke, Diablo Canyon, Reuters’ Timothy Gardner reports. Supporters of keeping the plant open past 2025 held a rally last weekend, Rachel Showalter reports for KCBX; see also my deep dive on Diablo from earlier this year.
The Interior Department has issued more onshore oil and gas drilling permits per month under President Biden than it did during any of President Trump’s first three years in office. Here’s the story from the Washington Post’s Maxine Joselow. You may recall that last week in this newsletter I wrote about the Biden administration’s slow pace of approving solar and wind farms on public lands, which makes for an interesting contrast. And although the timing is probably a coincidence, the day after that newsletter was published the federal Bureau of Land Management announced it’s planning to lower the fees paid by solar and wind farms.
Descendants of Japanese Americans whom the U.S. government imprisoned during World War II are outraged by plans for a wind farm within sight of the former Minidoka incarceration camp in Idaho. They say the massive towers would irrevocably alter the desolate and isolated landscape, part of which is preserved as a national historic site that allows people to understand what it felt like to be imprisoned there, Kylie Mohr reports for High Country News. In a similar controversy in Colorado, there’s opposition to a plan for transmission lines to facilitate clean energy within a few miles of Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, where hundreds of Native Americans were killed by the U.S. Cavalry in 1864, Kevin Simpson reports for the Colorado Sun.
AROUND THE WEST
Invasive cheatgrass is displacing sagebrush and other native vegetation in the Great Basin faster than people are chopping down trees in the Amazon. That’s according to new research finding that cheatgrass and similar nonnative plants now cover one-fifth of the Great Basin, Brianna Randall writes for Science News. It’s making wildfires worse, and global warming is at least partly to blame, by allowing cheatgrass to outcompete native grasses at higher elevations where it wasn’t previously viable.
There are so many bison in Yellowstone National Park — 5,400 after they were hunted nearly to extinction a century ago — that they’re causing overgrazing and hurting other species. The National Park Service will allow 900 bison to be killed or otherwise removed, Eduardo Medina reports for the New York Times. Yellowstone is just one example of a tension playing out across Western landscapes over the role of bison and wild horses, Indigenous stewardship, cattle ranching, the legacy of colonization and the meaning of “wilderness,” a topic that Stephen Lezak explores beautifully in this piece for High Country News.
Hollywood helped make Los Angeles what it is today — and so did oil. “Oil, motion pictures and real estate were like the trifecta of forces that were attracting migrants to come west to L.A. Oil was kind of right up there with the glamor of Hollywood,” one expert told my colleague Rachel Schnalzer, in the latest entry in our series answering reader questions about local business. While oil brought wealth and jobs for some, there were also safety hazards for workers, many of whom died falling into oil tanks.
ONE MORE THING
As I’ve mentioned in previous newsletters, I’m a huge Disney fan. So it definitely caught my attention that Walt Disney Co.’s incoming head of public relations, Geoff Morrell, is currently an executive at the oil and gas giant BP. As Disney’s chief corporate affairs officer, Morrell will also oversee environmental issues, Kim Masters and Alex Weprin write for the Hollywood Reporter.
At some point, I’ll write more about the intersection of Disney and climate. If you’ve got thoughts on that, let me know.
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