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Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa, David Suzuki Share Broader Visions on Climate Protection Challenges before Cities, Nation

By Judy Sheahan
November 19, 2007

At the second day’s opening session, key leaders including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa and David Suzuki, offered their views on the challenges before cities and the nation in developing effective responses to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emission.

Villaraigosa talked about Los Angeles’ unique challenges when dealing with climate change as well as his action plan. His goal is to make his city the “cleanest and greenest big city in America.”

Villaraigosa explained how Los Angeles, which is the 17th largest economy in the world, has not had a sustainable history. “We were designed to accommodate the single passenger car,” Villaraigosa said, “and as a result people are stuck in traffic on average for over two and half weeks per year.”

Villaraigosa outlined his Green Los Angeles Plan with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent over the next 20 years, the highest carbon reduction goal of any major city in the United States.

Some components of the plan include:

  • Los Angeles owns its water and power utility which is the largest municipally-owned utility in the United States. Since they utilize coal-fired utilities, one-third of the carbon emissions are owned by the city. The Mayor’s goal is to switch to 20 percent of renewable energy by 2010 with continued increases after that.

  • Los Angeles’ Clean Air Action Plan incorporates planning for growth. According to the Mayor, for the first time, they are doing real planning that focuses on Smart Growth and transit-oriented development. “Cities across the country are growing and we need to plan for that,” Villaraigosa said, “we’ve got to demonstrate that density doesn’t have to be slum-like but can be elegant with mixed-use development where people can live, work, and play.”

  • Every city building over 7,500 feet will need to be LEED certified and the City is streamlining its permitting process and providing incentives to encourage the development of additional green buildings. The Mayor said that businesses are starting to realize that they can make money by going green.

  • As one of the major gateways to the Pacific, the City of Los Angeles is working to implement a clean truck program in the shipping and hauling industry where16, 000 trucks will go from dirty diesel to clean diesel.

  • Los Angeles has the second largest clean fleet of hybrids in the U.S. (only behind New York). It has also converted 68 percent of city vehicles and 94 percent of its buses to clean fuels, which will be increased over the next few years to 85 percent and 100 percent, respectively. It is also converting 100 percent of city trash trucks to alternative fuels by 2010.

  • Villaraigosa said that a new emphasis is being placed on mass transit. He discussed how one million people go to work on Wilshire Boulevard but there is no subway system. If it had a subway, the Mayor claimed, it would be the most used subway in the United States. The Mayor said he is committed to find funding for mass transit.

The biggest argument against doing something to combat climate change, he noted, is the commonly held misperception that any changes from traditional fossil fuels will ruin the economy. He argued, however, that there is a whole existing and potential new economy available which can be exported to spur additional economic development.

He urged the mayors to take on the bigger battles — involving the auto industry on CAFÉ standards, ensuring that all new growth should be green growth, and the need to balance infrastructure investment from highways to subways.

“China, Russia and other great manufacturing powers are not going to follow, if we refuse lead,” Villaraigosa said, “Mayors can play an essential and pivotal role in the conversation and debate that needs to happen here in the United States and in the world — together we can meet the challenge. Cities need to lead the way.”

“This is Defining Moment,” Says Suzuki

David Suzuki, Co-Founder of the David Suzuki Foundation and a geneticist, gave mayors a historical and scientific perspective regarding how humans are affecting the environment and talked about what can be done about it.

In 1988, scientists wrote that climate change was one of the most important issues facing mankind, Suzuki told the participants. Scientists believed then that we had 50 years before any great changes would take place. However, the impact of warming, Suzuki said, has already taken hold — Arctic ice is thinning, level of Great Lakes is dropping, the Mountain Pine Beetles are infesting because no cold weather is killing them off, and birds are migrating sooner and leaving later.

Suzuki read from a document, entitled “World Scientists Warning to Humanity,” that was released in November of 1992 and signed by half of the living Nobel Prize winners. In the document, more than 1600 scientists warned that human activities were having a severe impact on the environment and that fundamental changes needed to occur in order to sustain life on the Earth in the manner that we are used to. “No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost.” Suzuki thought that this document would get some attention but expressed great frustration that the media didn’t consider it newsworthy.

Suzuki warned that there is no more time to waste, “We can not afford to let this moment pass us by…it is a defining moment.” He said that he was inspired by the works of Mayors Nickels and Villaraigosa and the rest of the mayors, because they were doing something and they weren’t letting a climate of fear regarding warnings of economic devastation divert them from what needed to be done.

Suzuki said that mayors need to be aware as they embark on their sustainability plans of the impact that population growth and a younger generation will bring. This new generation, Suzuki said, grew up in a non'sustainable way with continual growth and continual change. This is what they have become accustomed to but which can not be maintained. He suggested that we all take some lessons from our elders who didn’t grow up in a disposable society and who saved for the future.

Providing some data on population growth, Suzuki said that in the last 100 years, humans have undergone a shift in the way we live. In 1900, there were a 1.5 billion people in the world with only 14 cities of one million or more people. At that time, people lived primarily in a rural society where they were more in touch with nature. Today, there are over 6 billion people with more than 400 cities of one million or more people. Children and many people do not have an understanding regarding where there food comes from or where their waste goes. Therefore, most people don’t realize the impact that their actions have on the Earth.

Suzuki also said a fundamental change needed to happen in how we value things. For example, in our current economy, a tree is only valuable if it is cut down. There is no current value for it to remain in the ground, maintaining our air supply, and doings its part to prevent soil erosion.

Suzuki closed by challenging the mayors, business leaders, and the world to try to change these issues and approach the future with an eye towards sustainability and balance.

Engage Business Community

Roger Bernstein, Managing Director of State and Local Government Affairs for the American Chemistry Council (ACC) opened the morning session, by praising mayors for being on the forefront of implementing solutions to climate change. He outlined how the products of the companies represented by ACC will play a key role in current and future solutions to climate change and energy efficiency. Products such as insulation to weatherize homes to the ever-increasing use of plastics in automobiles will play a major role in improving home and auto efficiency.

Bernstein advised the mayors, as they embark on climate change and energy efficiency plans, to set an objective without being overly prescriptive. “Bring in the business community and tell them the goal,” Bernstein said, “and let them be innovative and creative…collaboration and flexibility are essential in meeting your goals.”