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As experts warn the climate crisis could bring the next test for Orange County officials’ public health response, residents are increasingly questioning what they have done to prepare.

International organizations point to cities as some of the biggest drivers of climate change and its looming health threats.

Cities consume 78% of the world’s energy and produce 60% of greenhouse gas emissions — all while taking up 2% of the earth’s surface, according to the United Nations

[Read: From Covid to Climate: Experts Warn OC is Walking Unprepared into Next Public Health Crisis]

To this point, some Orange County city officials say they have taken steps toward addressing climate change issues, making changes in their cities like altering thresholds for opening cooling centers, planting more trees, considering adoption of climate plans and turning toward renewable energy sources.

Combating Rising Temperatures: Cooling Centers and Tree-Planting

Establishing cooling centers is just one way that some cities have addressed rising temperatures, especially when it comes to some of the most vulnerable groups of people like the elderly and homeless.

During a period of intense summer heatwaves and rolling blackouts last year, Buena Park officials lowered the temperature threshold that triggers the city’s opening of its public cooling centers where people with no air conditioning at home can find relief. 

The city’s move also triggered regional questions over the availability of cooling centers throughout Orange County, as well as their accessibility and ways to make them more enticing for residents.

[Read: Local Officials Rethink Public Access to Cooling Centers Amid Heatwaves, Climate Change]

“Our policy is typically when we see the weather in the mid-90s or above, we open those cooling centers for our residents,” Buena Park City Manager Aaron France said. “That’s something that we religiously do around here just to make sure those who don’t have access to climate control in their home have a place to go.”

France also described the city’s emphasis on alternative forms of transportation, including a city employee ride-share program. Officials have also issued approximately 1,200 solar permits during the past five years and are looking into integrating more electric vehicles into the city fleet.

Tree-planting is another way to help keep temperatures low.

In Garden Grove, council members recently moved forward with a long-term, strategic plan for planting more trees to cool the city and sequester carbon. 

“I think climate change and rising temperatures should be a very high concern not only to Garden Grove, but to many cities in California. With the rise in temperatures, we are very concerned about increases in fire. We don’t have the expertise to examine what a city like us could be able to do to make a difference, but we can certainly take small, baby steps.”

Garden Grove Council member Phat Bui

Bui also said that the city has no further preparation plan for climate change other than tree planting.

Similarly, Cypress officials spent $70,000 for a tree planting program that replaced 175 trees in the city earlier this year. The City Council awarded a contract to G Team Landscape Construction in February, and the operation ended in June.

Santa Ana Council member Thai Viet Phan said her city has also invested in the concept, spending $2.6 million per year on its tree programs, including the purchase, planting, and maintenance of all city-owned trees. 

For the past 20 years, she said, the city has been part of the Tree City USA Program, a nationwide movement that encourages cities to plant more trees.

“We do try to work on planting more trees because we are an urban environment and to help address any concerns regarding the heat island effect,” Phan said. “I want to find more ways to expand and build parks and green spaces in the city.”

Cities Mull Updated Climate Action Plans

Phan also said that a resolution is coming back to the council later in July to discuss how to address various aspects of climate change and the transition to clean energy. The resolution will also include updating the city’s 2015 climate action plan.

“I look at that resolution as a road map to different areas that we have to address as a council, whether it’s regarding energy use and production, open space, land use, as well as an equitable transition to green energy in the city,” Phan said.

But the proposal has generated political discord.

It comes after council member Jessie Lopez brought the original resolution forward in May, drafting it with a variety of local community groups and activist organizations. 

The resolution drew objections from other council members over its broad scope and emissions reductions goals that they argued were too unrealistic, and, at times, not within their control. 

Council member David Penaloza at one point wondered aloud whether Lopez brought it forward for “political theater.”

Lopez rejected the notion saying she worked painstakingly on the proposal with members of the community. Phan came to Lopez’s defense, and, with the support of the council majority, the plan was cleared for further revision and potential future council approval.

In Irvine, the City Council unanimously directed city staff to develop a climate change action plan in 2019. 

Mayor Farrah Khan, who originally brought forward the discussion, said city officials are still in the planning phase and developing goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and conserve energy and water usage. Khan said that the council will revisit the climate change discussion later this year.

“That’s the key portion: finding where we set our goals and the ways we can take concrete action that will result in us being a better steward for our earth.”

Irvine Mayor Farrah Khan

In the meantime, Irvine city officials have emphasized the importance of community education and involvement regarding water conservation and responsible energy use.

“It’s going to start off with a lot of educational community events bringing people together,” Khan said. “Most recently we did a food waste reduction event and it was really well attended. There is interest from the community to help them in finding solutions.” 

Renewable Energy Sources as an Option

Some cities are opting to move away from investor-owned utilities to transition to green energy.

Huntington Beach, Irvine, Buena Park and Fullerton have joined the Community Choice Energy program, a public electric utility service that emphasizes affordable renewable energy options.

“I think we all have to recognize how much of an existential threat climate change is and we have to do something about it right now. There is an immediacy that we have to work toward, but it’s going to require remarkable investment from both the federal and state governments.”

Fred Jung, a Fullerton City Council member and the vice chair of the Orange County Power Authority

Fullerton officials have also approved an investment-grade audit into the energy uses of its city-owned buildings to ensure no structure is wasting energy. 

“We’re trying to be hyper-efficient as a municipality,” Jung said. “We have a contractor going through the city right now making sure that we have the right light bulbs that save energy; that we have the right insulation so that it saves energy; so that our windows save energy. I’m excited to see what kind of energy savings it brings and what kind of cost saving it brings to our taxpayers.”

Laguna Beach is also considering joining the Community Choice Energy program. The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday for staff to keep researching the option and the council will revisit the topic later this year.

Coastal Threats

Coastal cities also face unique hazards arising from the climate crisis.

In the cities of Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach, risks of flooding and cliff erosion threaten coastal homes and businesses. Seaside cliffs often lack structural integrity, experts say, resulting in collapses or mass wasting events like rock slides. 

As stronger storms and waves assault California cliffs due to rising sea levels, climate experts like Kathleen Treseder, a biology professor at the University of California, Irvine, estimate Southern California coasts will lose 100 to 150 feet of land from the ocean within the next 100 years.

Huntington Beach’s local hazard mitigation plan assesses threats and plans for coastal erosion, sea level rise and other emergency situations. Newport Beach has a similar assessment document

Earlier this month, the Huntington Beach City Council voted 5-1 for staff to begin creating the Huntington Beach Sustainability Master Plan, a cumulative document to clearly display all city initiatives regarding climate change, equity, inclusion and community health.

Council member Natalie Moser submitted the item for discussion suggesting the need to increase transparency and make it easier for residents to view city action.

“What are our efforts in regards to climate? Do we have various plans? Where is everything? I look on our city website as a resident and it’s hard to find everything. I would love for everything to be in one place so everyone can see what we are doing.”

Huntington Beach Council member Natalie Moser

Other climate change efforts in Huntington Beach include solar power projects, energy efficient streetlights and various coastal initiatives to address rising sea levels.

Catherine Jun, an assistant to the city manager in Huntington Beach, described a partnership with the University of California, Irvine, to survey energy use in the Oak View neighborhood, an area where primarily lower-income households live in multi-family housing developments. 

Jun said that the city hopes to use the survey results to identify the highest impacted areas to provide energy and cost savings for residents and property owners and work with the neighborhood to implement renewable energy sources that will reduce its carbon footprint.

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In some Orange County cities, officials rank other issues higher than climate change.

When asked about the climate crisis and his city’s preparedness, Anaheim Council member Trevor O’Neil, for example, steered the conversation toward economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The governor’s overreaching and unnecessary shutdowns have caused tens of thousands of job losses in Anaheim, hundreds of businesses closures, and massive tax losses to the city of over $500,000 per day,” O’Neil said. “Our economic recovery is of paramount importance and what I am focused on at this time.”

Activist Jose Trinidad Castaneda has been warning cities about climate change. Addressing City Council members in Santa Ana — one of central county’s most densely-populated areas — at a meeting in May, he called climate change “an existential threat.”

“The summer has begun, temperatures will continue to rise … so what will you do?” asked Castaneda.

Although city officials are limited in their capabilities to address nationwide rising temperatures, activists argue cities have more resources they can harness to prepare for climate change.

“The kind of urgent and unprecedented changes that we need are affordable and feasible. All we need is the political will to implement them. Your city is where you have the most power.”

Ayn Craciun, a policy advocate with the Climate Action Campaign, a climate advocacy group in Orange County, told members of the Laguna Beach Democratic Club at a meeting in June

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC News Intern. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

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