Climate Chaos

Extreme California weather may bring chaos, but do we resist, mitigate or adapt to preserve the climate, our common good? David L. Ulin explores the path head and our responsibilities.

There’s a building I pass often on my walks around Los Angeles: multistory, residential, occupying a nondescript corner of Wilshire Boulevard, just west of the Beverly Hills city line. I see it mostly in the early mornings, shimmering in the silence like an oasis or mirage. The effect has little to do with the structure itself, which is nothing special, a collection of right angles and rectangular windows, with a recessed lobby and an underground garage. It is distinguished only by its façade, which is planted, greened by what looks like moss or lichen, a pattern of flora that climbs the external walls in what appears to be a series of striations, reminding me of nothing so much (or so I imagine) as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Another building I encounter, on Pico Boulevard a block south of Olympic, is one of Los Angeles’ ubiquitous mini-malls. There’s little distinguished about it, except for the mural covering its back wall. “Water is life,” the artwork tells us, “Viva con Agua.” The words are accompanied by a series of impressionistic images: a boat at sail on a wavy ocean, an enormous fish with upturned eyes. 

These two locations have nothing to do with one another except, perhaps, for their proximity. And yet, I’ve come to think of them as existing, somehow, in conversation, a pair of signposts that suggest not only where we’re going but also what we need. Climate change is real, and all thinking people know it. The evidence is indisputable. In November, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, participants agreed that time is running out. A New York Times report quoted Helen Mountford of the World Resources Institute: “We’ve made much more progress than we ever could’ve imagined a couple years ago,” she acknowledged. “But it’s still nowhere near enough.” The conference itself might be said to represent such a conundrum in microcosm; a much-touted agreement by 197 nations to phase out the use of coal was ultimately watered down after objections from the Indian delegation, and in any case critics have argued that such goals are too modest, given the increase in global temperatures and extreme weather events.

“There’s no doubt,” Strauss acknowledges, “that the globe will change dramatically via climate chaos. … So the question for a community like Los Angeles is what do we do to ramp up our resilience?”

I’m a climate change pessimist, I may as well admit that. The problem seems too intractable, and in many ways too far gone. How do we accommodate what is a global issue in the face of global inequities? How do we work together in the face of not just differences of opinion but also conflicting versions of reality? This is a political matter, yes, but it is also a pragmatic one. At its heart is a simple question: How much can we do before we reach the tipping point? 

“Even the new pledges made at Glasgow put us at 2.1 or 2.4 and heading for 4 if we’re not careful,” notes environmental ethicist Brian Treanor, Charles S. Casassa Chair and professor of philosophy at LMU. The numbers to which he’s referring are the degrees, measured in Celsius, by which the planet’s temperature has been projected to rise by 2100. “But acting locally we can make real things happen. We can change how aquifers work and rethink transit and housing. We can keep people from despair.”

Treanor is one of several LMU environmentalists who approach climate change through the lens of adaptation rather than mitigation — or perhaps resilience is a better word. Since 2011, the university’s Center for Urban Resilience (CURes) has sought to “empower communities to build resilient, vibrant and just cities through meaningful interactions with their diverse ecosystems and each other.” This means taking a local approach to a global question and addressing ways for Los Angeles to sustain itself. This involves water, for one, and also tree cover, or the urban forest, which brings us back to those structures I encounter when I walk.

Water, of course, has long been an issue in Southern California. “There it is, take it,” William Mulholland proclaimed on November 5, 1913, as the taps were opened at the first Los Angeles Aqueduct, in the Newhall hills. Mulholland’s aqueduct was as much a matter of manipulation as it was an infrastructure project; its prime target was the San Fernando Valley, 100,000 acres of which had been bought up by a cabal of civic leaders, who then sold their newly irrigated holdings at highly inflated rates. We might call it Los Angeles’ original sin, but that’s too easy. It is also our creation myth. As a result of these machinations, this became a different sort of city, sprawling and decentralized. Now, we’re paying the price.

“We need to start thinking about how to change the ways we live among each other,” Treanor says. “That means public transit, Zipcars, rental cars. The entire city has been built to accommodate the automobile. It affects every aspect of how we live.”

What Treanor is getting at is symbiosis, the interdependence of the varied aspects of city life. This is not necessarily a bad thing, suggests Eric Strauss, President’s Professor of Biology and executive director of CURes, not least because it reminds us that we share a common destiny. “I’m relentlessly a cup half-full person,” Strauss laughs, “because I’m a Stoic. I have to be virtuous.”

If this seems a bit of indirection — what does philosophy have to do with climate change? — that’s entirely the point. For Strauss, it’s not a matter of abstraction but rather one of practicality: “If we don’t believe that we can do it,” he warns, “then we can’t.” He invokes the speed with which COVID-19 vaccines were developed in the wake of the pandemic as an example of our collective ability to adapt.

Such an ability, Strauss emphasizes, is equally necessary with regard to climate change. “The time for argument is over,” he insists. “Mitigation remains a long-term goal, but our immediate efforts need to be about adaptation. … There’s no doubt that the globe will change dramatically via climate chaos. But we live in a biotic world, where resilience is the ability to rebound from shock. So the question for a community like Los Angeles is what do we do to ramp up our resilience?”

As it turns out, we are already addressing this question, philosophically or otherwise. When it comes to water, for instance, daily consumption per person in Los Angeles County, Strauss notes, is half the national average: 50 gallons as opposed to 100. That’s a start, but it’s not enough, in a region that has turned the Los Angeles River and Ballona Creek into concrete storm channels, prioritizing water removal over absorption. “Solid trash,” says Lisa Fimiani, CURes’ Gottlieb Environmental Fellow, “comes from Griffith Park via Ballona Creek to the wetlands. It’s better than it used to be, but we’re still seeing a lot of Styrofoam in the storm runoff.”

Fimiani got her start as a volunteer with Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, and she describes efforts there to “fill fresh water gaps on the shoreline to prevent salt water incursion when the aquifer is not refreshed.” At the same time, she stresses that water is just one part of a larger puzzle: interdependence or symbiosis again. 

Ballona Discovery Park, a two-acre native garden and wildlife habitat down the bluff from LMU in Playa Vista, offers something of a model for this process, involving storm gardens, the use of semi-permeable materials that allow for water reabsorption, as well as lighting that is not disruptive to “the pollinators,” as Fimiani calls them. 

“One third of what you eat,” she continues, “is pollinated by birds, bats, bees and insects. When we interfere with their ecosystems, we interfere with our own.” 

Discovery Park offers if not solutions exactly, then a kind of laboratory where we might discover a new way of thinking and engaging with the natural world. “These are small steps,” Fimiani says, “but the idea is to think about practical ways we can adapt. We’re losing our riparian corridors. Birds are a bellwether for the health of the environment, and with habitat loss and pesticides and herbicides, every species is in decline.”

“One third of what you eat,” Firmiani says, “is pollinated by birds, bats, bees and insects. When we interfere with their ecosystems, we interfere with our own.”

Something similar might be observed about the urban forest, which is a particular focus of CURes. “It’s a matter of environment and equity,” explains Michele Romolini, the center’s managing director. An urban social ecologist, she is concerned with both the benefits of green space and how it is distributed. “Trees have multiple impacts,” she notes, “and they are great multitaskers.” Some of these impacts are obvious: shade, air quality, cooler ground temperature, wildlife habitat, storm water retention and the ability to trap pollutants in their leaves. At the same time, Romolini cites a slate of social benefits, which are less often quantified. These include lower crime rates, lower levels of ADHD in children and lower rates of domestic violence in communities with adequate tree cover. The problem, as with so many other issues that affect Southern California, is a lack of equity.

A CURes signature programs is the Tree Canopy Map Viewer. The Center’s website explains: “Interactive maps of the tree canopy cover for Los Angeles County … allow users to assess existing conditions and identify potential priority areas where enhanced urban greening could contribute to climate resilience, environmental equity and public health improvement.” The images highlight some striking disparities. Communities such as Hancock Park, Beverly Hills, Westwood, Brentwood and Pasadena appear as lush quadrants, whereas in Inglewood, Boyle Heights, Compton and San Pedro the urban forest is sparse. 

To address this, CURes teams with TreePeople and other organizations to engage directly with communities.  Collaboration is essential, both in terms of resources and to insure the community responds. Currently, CURes is working in Vernon, which has the lowest percentage of tree canopy in Los Angeles County. Because it’s an industrial city, with a population of only 100 people, the process is different than in areas like Paramount and Commerce, where CURes has previously worked. “We’ve gone to Chamber of Commerce meetings,” Romolini explains, “and directly to some of the businesses, like Whole Foods. We identify what already exists, but also think about the ways that we can get business owners excited to make this investment, which is an investment in the future, after all.”

This is an essential point — not in terms of reforesting exclusively but for all environmental efforts. To live more eco-consciously, we have to see how it benefits us directly, otherwise, it’s too abstract. “Think of the positive tipping points of recent years,” Treanor says, “such as marriage and gay rights. I don’t recall a single person changing their mind because of facts. Instead, it was because they saw that it affected them, because they had a friend or family member who came out.” That’s a process he refers to as “implanting virtue,” and it’s also true of climate change. The key, Treanor says, is “remembering the role the stories we tell have in framing virtues” — and how those virtues, and the attention we pay to them, affect how we behave.

For Treanor, this has everything to do with ethics, which he sees as a defining lens. Although he’s not overly optimistic — “I’m not pessimistic,” he clarifies, “just realistic.” — he believes in the necessity of working for the common good. When I ask about this, he talks about “environmental virtue ethics,” a field that has developed during the past decade or so. At its heart are questions of simplicity (Thoreau is an influence, as is Aristotle), as well as environmental care, environmental injustice or racism, and wilderness restoration, all of which can be addressed locally regardless of what happens around the globe. 

“We can’t understand our relationship to the environment without considering virtue,” Treanor argues. “It allows us to reset the narrative.” That’s a real value in a world where competing narratives often lead to arguments that leave us feeling hopeless and overwhelmed.

“The time for argument is over,” Strauss insists. “Mitigation remains a long-term goal, but our immediate efforts need to be about adaptation.”

Treanor has little use for these sorts of arguments; they are a sideshow, in his view. “We don’t need an overarching narrative,” he insists, “we need overlapping narratives, so we can tell a fundamentally different story about how to use shared resources — which is, of course, the essence of community.” In that sense, he echoes Strauss, who sees climate change as, among other things, “a commons problem,” as in: “We traded common space for private space.” This has been a defining vision of Los Angeles for many years, but there are other narratives. “Think about the smog in California in the 1970s,” Strauss says. “Now cars are cleaner and safer than ever, and the California Air Resources Board has set standards for the rest of the country.”

Is this enough? Who can say? But Treanor is right: We have to try. We owe it to ourselves, and to our children. We owe it to the world of which we are a part. “We tend to look at change as prohibition,” he says. “We give ourselves a lot of ‘Thou shalt nots.’ But if our goal is flourishing, or well-being, as Aristotle says, it’s more a matter of aspiration, of asking what’s the best way for us to live.” In the end, I like this vision, not least because it returns responsibility to us. We may not be able to change the outcome, but if we can adapt to meet it, in so doing, we may be enlarged.

David L. Ulin, former book critic of the Los Angeles Times, is the author of “Sidewalking: Coming to Terms With Los Angeles.” He has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Nation and other publications. His “Equal Play” appeared in the spring 2019 issue of LMU Magazine. Follow him @DavidUlin.