Heidi On The Hot Seat

All Global Warming Is Local

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The South Bay region I live and work in covers an area of 161 square miles and encompasses 15 cities plus portions of the City of Los Angeles and unincorporated portions of the County of Los Angeles.

The South Bay is defined by the LAX Airport to the north and the Port of Los Angeles to the south – two of the biggest polluters in Southern California.

cog-mapCities that make up the South Bay include: Carson, El Segundo, Gardena, Hawthorne, Hermosa Beach, Inglewood, Lawndale, Lomita, Manhattan beach, Palos Verdes Estates, Rancho Palos Verdes, Redondo Beach, Rolling Hills, Rolling Hills Estates, and Torrance. The South Bay also includes the 15th District of the City of Los Angeles (the LA Strip) and portions of unincorporated Los Angeles County.

The Exxon/Mobil refinery in Torrance and the Chevron refinery in El Segundo are both located in the South Bay and are each a big part of the carbon-based economy that causes the majority of climate change – although you’ll never get either of these corporations to admit this truth or take responsibility for it.  They’re kind of funny that way.

And for all those cities, with all those sources of pollution pumping CO2 and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere and into the lungs of the South Bay’s one million residents, we’ve got just one woman on the payroll as the Climate Action Plan Coordinator.

Just one solitary person tasked with coordinating the entire regions’ emissions inventory and helping each city create its climate action plan to reduce its carbon footprint.  It hardly seems fair.

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It’s a daunting task made ever more difficult by the ambitious goal of those action plans – reducing our region’s greenhouse gas emissions 7% below what they were in 1990  – in just the next four years, by 2012.  At this very moment, as you read these words, emissions are still climbing,  just as they have been every year since 1990.  Just as they will continue to do until some historic action still-to-come is taken – if in fact it is taken.

Presently I’m sorry to report that there is no local leadership driving these emissions down.  The truth is that hardly anyone outside government even knows about the goal.  And with citizen awareness currently nil and polls showing economic concerns now overriding the public’s concerns about global warming, the sense of urgency our situation calls for is nowhere to be found.

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Against this seemingly insurmountable backdrop stands Heidi Aten, the South Bay Environmental Services Center’s Action Plan Coordinator.  She has just four months left on her current contract to get all 15 cities’ inventories completed and each city’s action plan in place.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet Heidi at the the COG Green Task Force and through my volunteer work of the South Bay Environmental Services Center (SBESC).  She graciously agreed to be interviewed for Creative Greenius and give me some insight into the vital job she’s been tasked with.

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Hopefully Heidi’s contract will get renewed and she’ll continue her work, but there are certainly no guarantees.  City and county budgets are now getting slashed; the state of California is currently broke and issuing IOUs; and funding of all kinds is impossible to come by.  And you thought YOUR job situation was tough.

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As if the climate plan goal wasn’t hard enough, Aten holds a position infused with local politics – so much so that after reading a first draft of the one-hour interview we had conducted on January 15, 2009, she asked me not to publish our conversation as recorded and transcribed. Although Heidi hadn’t said anything the least bit controversial and the interview cast her in a favorable light, she had second thoughts about her willingness to be transparent or share her conversational tone regarding her assignment with Greenius readers.

Since the Creative Greenius is fully supportive of the work Heidi does and the emissions cutting goals of the South Bay Cities Council of Governments (the COG) and the South Bay Environmental Services Center (SBESC) who employ her, we agreed to scrap our original question and answer interview write-up because of Heidi’s trepidation.  So you won’t be reading any direct quotes from my interview with her – but that won’t impact my ability to report this important story about the work Heidi is doing and why she’s doing it.

Let me begin by admitting that when you study climate change as I do, you find no comfort or reasons for optimism in the science or the results of the latest research findings.

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Just this year it’s been reported that: the dangerous levels of CO2 currently in the atmosphere are irreversibly fixed at at least that level for at least 1000 years; that global warming is killing our trees in the Western United States at double the rate of 20 years ago in a new, dangerous carbon-cycle feedback loop; that our CO2 emissions growth was up 300% during the Bush years; that the US Geological Survey report says sea level rise will substantially exceed IPCC projections, while Southwestern States in the US face a permenant drought condition in the next 40 years; and that the American press and mainstream media has failed to report the story accurately or honestly.

So you have to look for hope elsewhere, outside of the harsh reality of facts and science. You have to place your faith in people and our ability to change reality through extraordinary efforts and determination.

President Barack Obama gives me and many of us a reason to believe again through not only his recognition of the threat and its urgency, but also through the people he’s put in place to respond and the programs he is introducing.

NEWSWEEK COVERSome people find such hope and inspiration from our Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the leadership he has shown in signing our landmark Global Warming Solutions bill, AB32, into law in 2006.

The Greenius wishes the Govenator walked the walk as well as he talks the talk.  When you’re flying back and forth from Sacramento to Santa Monica in your private jet on a nightly basis and using the same jet to spend your available leisure time in Idaho you are no Climate Action Hero.

You will find no reason yet for such hope at the local level.  We have no dynamic leader in our region who has either inspired or mobilized our citizens to the degree necessary for the severity of our situation.  We don’t yet have local elected officials who have strongly endorsed and promoted the aggressive climate change agenda of President Obama or acknowledged the reality of the science as his cabinet and advisers have.

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But, it’s not Heidi Aten’s job to be that leader.  Since May of 2008 Heidi’s job has been to help the South Bay cities through the action plan process, which starts with each city joining ICLEI, which is the local governments for Sustainability. ICLEI provides the specialized software that allows cities to quantify their emissions, as well as providing climate change resources and best practices for cities.  “Ick-Lee” is the way the insiders refer to it.

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Using the ICLEI software which is tailored to the specific needs of cities, each municipality is able to determine its carbon footprint through a bit of forensic accounting.  Heidi explained that she helps the cities collect information on all its sources of greenhouse gasses (GHG).  The software has tabs for:

  • Buildings and Facilities
  • Vehicle Fleet
  • Street Lights and Traffic Signals
  • Water and Sewer
  • Employee Commute
  • Waste

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But it’s not just current data Heidi and the cities are looking for.  In order to get emissions 7% below 1990 levels we have to know what the 1990 levels were and that’s not something you can just look up and find the line item listing for.  You’ve got to recreate the emissions scene from that time period.  That starts with gathering consumption data from electricity, gas and vehicle fleet records and digging through the cities 1990 utilities bills.

But surprisingly only limited records exist for 1990, so the true baseline for the emissions inventories will actually be 2005.  If you’re confused, join the crowd.

And keep in mind, this isn’t about reducing the level of emissions already in the atmosphere, I’m sorry to say that isn’t possible in our lifetime.  This action plan process is about cutting back the amount of greenhouse gas we continue to emit below 1990 levels – and doing that by 2012.

Once these emissions inventories are completed, Heidi then helps the South Bay cities develop their specific Climate Action Plan based on their carbon footprint.  The action plan is made up of the three “P”s – policies, programs and projects that the city will take to meet its GHG emissions targets.  The action plan contains all the measures and actions already accomplished as well as proposed measures.

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Some cities, like Torrance where I live, engage only city staff, elected officials and appointed city commissioners to do the work.  Other cities, like Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach engage members of their communities – students, experts, activists, and business leaders in addition to city officials – to partner in the process of goal-setting and deciding what goes into the plan.  Guess which method the Creative Greenius thinks is better?

When I asked Heidi if she thought the sense of urgency was high enough within the South Bay cities she works with, she told me that it differs from city to city.  She cited Manhattan Beach as the obvious example of a city where the citizens are excited and enthusiastically moving forward but admitted that other cities in the South Bay strike a different balance because of the complexity of their assets.

Although she personally puts the urgency level for climate action to be taken quickly at 8 on a scale of 10, Heidi also acknowledged that for some, the issue of climate change’s threat and our response to it still aren’t decided. She knows that some folks in the South Bay feel that climate change is a natural process that humans are not responsible for accelerating.  Personally I think those folks should be given all the respect and consideration of people who believe they are here visiting us from another planet or dimension in time.

But Aten doesn’t approach this issue from the science side so much as she approaches it from the legislative side.  Originally in the industrial design industry, she changed career paths and went back to school to study policy administration with a focus on the environment.  So for Heidi, AB32 and the other climate related laws that California and its counties and cities have passed (like Title 24) are the driving force behind her work.

The Greenuis says they are also clearly the driving force behind the COG’s Green Task Force and the proactive participation of all the South Bay cities in funding Heidi’s position and working with her on their climate action plans.  Up till now everything’s been voluntary and preemptive, but soon state mandates will be coming and hard targets will have to be met under penalty of law.  If you ask me, the average person will be caught completely by surprise.

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Despite my concerns, Heidi believes that the cities she’s working with are each very committed to reducing their emissions and that the issue is truly important to them.  Just as it is to her.  Beyond the South Bay, she is hopeful that California will serve as a leader by example and will start a domino effect across the country.  And she expressed excitement and optimism about the probability the Obama Administration will recommit to engage in the UN Framework on climate change.

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I was delighted when she told me that she feels connected through her work to the upcoming UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen (December 7-18 2009) and that the South Bay cities she’s working with play a vital part of the same process.

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She also sees a synergy between the emissions inventories she’s helping to conduct and the free energy audits the SBESC facilitates for homes and businesses in the south Bay.  Just as the cities need to reduce their carbon footprints so does each individual in those cities.  And Heidi is convinced that if there is enough education of the public the viral nature of it will spread well beyond California.  I admire her positive spirit and her resolve.

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I only wish I shared Heidi’s optimistic viewpoint, and perhaps if I focused more on the legislative side as she does, as opposed to the science side as I do, then I would.

And maybe if the local media was covering this story in any acceptable way I’d have more reason to hope that that the citizens of the South Bay might become aware and involved.  But the local media has been asleep at the switch and they’ve opted to play a stenographer’s role instead of a reporting role.

No one from the local newspapers or any of the electronic media have yet interviewed Heidi Aten or written in any detail about the work she’s doing.  Maybe they don’t have the bandwidth to cover that kind of news anymore.  Maybe they just don’t care enough or understand the sense of urgency.  Maybe they’ve fired all their environmental reporters and they’re leaving the job to me.

joe-greeniusSo be it.  That’s the world we’re left with today.

I have the bandwidth and I have the resources.

I care enough and I understand the sense of urgency.

And I’m already doing the job the dying legacy media has bailed on.  This post is hands down better written and more informative than anything the Daily Breeze has published in years on the subject.  That’s not brag.  That’s just fact.

I haven’t done enough, but I’ll do more.  And I’ll do it for free.

If one woman can try to coordinate the entire South Bay’s emissions inventory, then one man can try to cover the entire South Bay’s climate change story.

The Creative Greenius is that man.  I’m fired up, ready to go.

I can’t wait for the change, so I’m being the change.  Why not join me and be the change too?

Can we still make a difference though the hour is late, the light is fading and the moment is at hand?

Yes.  We.  Can.

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3 thoughts on “Heidi On The Hot Seat

  1. The “Daily Breeze” should have Creative Greenius as an RSS feed at the top of their site, along with every other newspaper along the coastline, including The Malibu Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Daily News. Maybe if you keep tying it into how much $$$ the beleaguered cities could save if their citizens (and local governments) pursued green practices then they’d get it.

  2. Thanks Dave, Thanks Melonie.

    Mel – first someone would have to explain to the Daily Breeze what an RSS feed is, then we’d have to fund a tax payer loan/grant for the paper to press the orange button.

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