Vision vs. Execution: A reality check-in on climate action with the acting LA County Chief Sustainability Officer

“Surf and Snow – Venice Beach” by Wade McMillan. Copyright.

Vision vs. Execution: A reality check-in on climate action with the acting LA County Chief Sustainability Officer

By   |  Apr. 3, 2023

Sustainability and climate action plans have a reputation for being created, often at great expense, and then sitting gathering dust on a shelf. The entire conception of Pando Days and our sponsoring CSO Strategic Taskforce group is to bring grand visions down to Earth and physically implement them toward a necessary and urgent carbon neutral future within decades. 

As we celebrate the completion of the 3rd season of Pando Days, we asked Andy Shrader*, former Director of Environmental Affairs for LA City Councilmember-Emeritus Paul Koretz, to connect with LA County’s acting Chief Sustainability Officer, Rita Kampalath. They talked about the vitally-important implementation process of LA County’s remarkable OurCounty Sustainability Plan, what aspects of it need more focus, and how we can help.

ANDY SHRADER: The LA County Sustainability Plan, OurCounty, is almost four years old now. How is implementation going? Any recent big victories to highlight?

RITA KAMPALATH: It’s hard to believe that it’s already been nearly four years. Though sometimes, with everything that the world has been through since then – the pandemic, the racial justice protests – it seems like it’s been much longer than that! When we were writing the plan though, from the start, we wanted to make sure that it didn’t just sit on a shelf, so we really tried to build in a structure that would keep it alive and support implementation. I know there’s a lot more we have ahead of us, but given all the challenges, I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish to date. For instance, since the adoption of the plan, we’ve adopted an ordinance banning single use plastics at restaurants, a zero waste policy and a water conservation policy for County facilities, and released a Just Transition Strategy to support an equitable phase out of oil drilling in the County. We’ve also kicked off development of an Urban Forest Management Plan for the County, and are getting ready to launch our Youth Climate Commission.

You mentioned the racial justice protests and your Just Transition Strategy. One of the particularly outstanding elements of this OurCounty Sustainability Plan is that environmental justice is its foundational element. The entire climate movement seems to have finally shifted that direction to ensure that everybody wins in this new societal overhaul we are creating within a matter of a couple decades. Can you speak a little bit to how that occurred and why that is so important, especially in LA County?

While I think it’s right that that narrative has gained momentum in recent years, that shift was a result of decades of work and advocacy from environmental justice and social justice leaders to elevate the voices and concerns of underrepresented communities and really draw attention to the link between the causes of climate change and the drivers of some of those social inequities. We currently exist in a system where the benefits and burdens of economic activities aren’t equitably distributed, where certain communities shoulder a disproportionate amount of the burdens, while others reap a disproportionate amount of the benefits. Because of that, the distribution of the impacts of climate change, and environmental pollution more broadly, are inextricably linked to social inequities. This is further compounded by the fact that social inequities can lead to greater vulnerability to climate hazards – communities that have less access to resources like green spaces, transportation, or air conditioning are less able to adapt to the impacts of climate events like extreme heat days or flooding. LA County is a place of great prosperity, while at the same time being home to about half of the census tracts in the State considered to be the most disadvantaged based on the CalEnviroScreen tool. So, if we’re going to become a climate resilient region, it means addressing those inequities and ensuring that all of our communities have the resources, infrastructure, and support to thrive.

Any particularly big challenges for the OurCounty Plan coming up over the next year or two?

Our constant challenge is moving fast enough in the face of the ongoing and ever- growing climate crisis. We are going to be working on a building decarbonization ordinance and are also focused on making sure that we’re able to access the tremendous funding through both the State and federal government in a way that makes our communities more resilient, but all of those efforts will present their own challenges in terms of coordination and working with our community partners and stakeholders.

What is your biggest hope and/or biggest fear about implementing the plan? 

I am really excited and hopeful about the possibility of really making progress on some of the resilience goals we have with the funding that’s available, and starting to transform the County in a really visible way. My biggest fear is pretty related – that at the end of the day we won’t feel like we did enough or really took advantage of these resources to the maximum extent possible.

What does success look like two years down the road? And what does the ultimate success of a sustainability plan look like?

It’s hard to think about calling our efforts successful until we actually achieve the sustainability metrics we have in the plan, which obviously won’t all happen in two years. What I’m hoping to achieve though is some major grant and funding awards, significant projects launched or in the works, and growing partnerships across the region.

How do you see Pando Days as a useful partner in addressing the implementation of the plan?

We’ve always said that implementing the OurCounty plan and addressing our region’s sustainability challenges is an all-hands on deck project. The work that Pando Days does to spread awareness about the plan, and also engage future leaders in sustainability is invaluable. It’s incredibly important that students and young adults are engaged in solutions and feel empowered to address these challenges. The worst thing that could happen is for people, especially young people, to give up because they feel powerless.

Any issue areas which might need more of a spotlight that the Pando Days student teams could focus on in Pando Days ’23?  

We would love engagement on any part of the plan! I can say that our office is going to be focusing more on climate resilience over the coming months and year – what can we do to build resilient communities. There’s so much to think about within that, whether it’s infrastructure, programs and policies, and even building social infrastructure and a sense of community. We’ll also be developing and then thinking about implementation of our urban forest management plan, and even beyond that, our approach to biodiversity, and how those issues also tie in to climate resilience and sustainability overall.

Anything that the LA CSO Strategic Taskforce could be helpful with?

As our office is starting to think about an update of the OurCounty plan, we’d really like to think about how to build stronger partnerships to truly have a regional reach [LA County has 88 cities]. I would love to think about joint policies or issues that we can work on across our organizations to amplify all of our efforts.

*Andy has been one of the leading environmental and climate justice changemakers in the region the past decade, and has been essential to so many of Pando’s efforts including Magenta House, the CSO Strategic Task Force, City Blitz, the Pope is Pando event, and Pando Days.

Members of the Pando writing team include Rich Binell, Alexi Caracotsios, Amy Goldberg, Rebecca Schmitt, and Eugene Shirley.