Photos by Alive!, Metro, CycLAvia, LADOT, Wikipedia and CEMO
Climate Relief, for All
New Climate Emergency Office mobilizes City resources to combat the growing crisis, equitably.
The City’s response to the growing climate crisis – and the way the crisis unfairly affects underserved areas – is heating up, so to speak. LA’s new Climate Emergency Mobility Office (CEMO) is on its feet and hard at work addressing these growing needs. Alive! first reported on the CEMO office in May 2021 after its creation in January that year.
Marta Segura, longtime environmental justice advocate and nonprofit adviser, leads the division, and a guidance commission has been formed. Marta has also been named the City’s Chief Heat Officer.
Los Angeles’ first-ever Climate Emergency Mobilization Office (CEMO) inside Public Works is responsible for coordinating the actions of the Mayor’s Office, City Council and community leaders to meet the commitments of L.A.’s Green New Deal.
“The climate crisis isn’t a distant question, but an everyday reality for families, households, businesses, workers and frontline communities across Los Angeles — and our Climate Emergency Mobilization Office will be a source of solutions for this generational challenge,” Mayor Garcetti said. “With a proven leader like Marta taking the reins, our City will stay focused on the core promises of our vision: greater equity, lower emissions, a thriving economy, and a zero-carbon, green-energy future.”
Championed by Council-member Paul Koretz and the Leap LA coalition, CEMO will work hand-in-hand with the Climate Emergency Commission, a group consisting of representatives from frontline communities and various climate, labor, and business leaders.
Marta Segura oversees the functions and policy recommendations of the office by working with community groups on behalf of the Mayor’s Office and City Council; prioritizing environmental justice and input from those most impacted by the climate emergency in policy and program implementation; building community and civic engagement to increase input from disadvantaged neighborhoods; and collaborating with advocates and local leaders on a strategic plan to mobilize city actions on climate and air quality, among other responsibilities as the office continues to expand.
The department is organized into four work areas – policy development, CEM Commission, the heat working group, and education and engagement. The Climate Commission’s first meeting is set for this month, July 19. “Our goal is to support and mobilize Angelenos to shape equitable climate policy and create a more comprehensive and effective response to climate emergencies in LA in collaboration with various departments and bureaus.” Marta says. Read our interview with her in this section.
About Marta Segura
CEMO Executive Director and LA Chief Heat Officer Marta Segura has spent decades designing programs and social change campaigns for underserved L.A. communities, with her powerful combination of environmental advocacy and passion for social justice. She founded the organization Segura Strategies 4 Good to focus her work on closing the social and health gaps in Los Angeles. She previously served as a member of the LA City Planning Commission and as District Director for then-City Council President Eric Garcetti. Over the course of her career, Marta has served as a Program Officer at the California Endowment and as Associate Director of Communities for a Better Environment, one of California’s original statewide environmental justice organizations. She also holds a master’s degree in public health from UCLA.
On June 9, Club CEO Robert Larios and Alive! Editor John Burnes interviewed Marta Segura, Director of the Climate Emergency Mobilization Office and recently designated Chief Heat Officer for the City of LA. She has more than four years of City service, but has over 30 as an Environmental Health advocate and Social Impact Strategist, in the Nonprofit and Philanthropic sector and an MPH from UCLA’s School of Public Health. The interview took place via Zoom.
‘A Turning Point’
Q: Thanks for joining us today, Marta. And before we get too far, congratulations on your new designation – Chief Heat Officer. That happened just last week.
Marta Segura: That’s right that is very recent, but I am honored to take on that role. It’s good to talk to you too.
Q: Things are really evolving with the City’s response to climate emergencies.
Marta: This is a turning point for the City of LA with regards to how we address climate risks like extreme heat with equity as a through line.
Q: Right. First, I know you’ve been around the City for many years. Tell us, how long have you worked f or the City?
Marta: I’ve worked mostly in the nonprofit and academic sectors. In 2009 I was hired as a District Director for the Council President, Eric Garcetti. I was there from 2009 to the end of 2012. In 2013 I was appointed as a Planning Commissioner for the City of Los Angeles. I’ve been the Director of the Climate Emergency Mobilization Office for 1.5 years now, and three years as District Director, that’s over four years. But I have been in this line of work for over 30 years of my adult life.
Q: Talk about your career for a second. What career path led you to where you are today?
Marta: What led me to focus on environmental health and justice stems from when I was a senior in high school, our community was being sprayed by the pesticide malathion. Neighborhoods were sprayed with pesticides in Los Angeles and in different parts of California because the state wanted to eradicate the Mediterranean fruit fly, and the California agriculture was even more important then, than it is today. They didn’t know the health impacts of the pesticide; as a senior in high school I talked to toxicologists, doctors and people at my school. They all told me the same thing, that the health impacts of malathion were unknown. It wasn’t until maybe 10 years ago that they actually completed extensive studies, and now they know that it’s a neurological toxin and can cause cancer and all sorts of other horrible things. That incident angered me and got me curious about how decisions are made and how and when the public is engaged, particularly about environmental health impacts.
My first major was environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara, where I think I was the first Latina in that major, and then that led me to a master’s degree in environmental health sciences at UCLA’s School of Public Health. I realized I didn’t really want to work in a corporate setting, even though I worked for Hughes Environmental Systems for a year after graduate school. I went back to academia and the nonprofit sector determined to have a bigger societal impact. I originally focused on building safe, healthy thriving communities, and connecting that with the environmental science and the public health perspective.
Then, I worked for the California Endowment, I really became interested in which communities and organizations receive grants from the philanthropic sector, and why they receive the money. It was very clear to me that communities in historically disinvested areas and mostly small nonprofit organizations weren’t receiving funding. Being a part of the nonprofit sector, the business sector and the government sector at certain points, gave me the inside and the outside view of how policy was made. I worked for Communities for a Better Environment where I really found my niche working for environmental justice. I also worked for the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust when it first started, which brought a new model for building parks and open space for low income areas to L.A. County and the City of Los Angeles, and it really increased the number of open spaces like no other effort before. The common thread for all of my career is engaging the communities to build healthier and thriving neighborhoods and people.
‘It’s very rewarding to see change happening before our eyes and to see people responding to your vision.’
— Marta Segura, Chief Heat Officer
Equitable Climate Policy
Q: Can you describe for us what the Climate Emergency Mobilization Office is all about, and its elements?
Marta: Yes. The Climate Emergency Mobilization Office was spearheaded by Councilmember Paul Koretz within the LA City Council, and also by a coalition of organizations outside of the City, the LEAP LA Coalition. These organizations built a coalition to request that the City create an innovative governance model, or decision-making model, where communities were more involved in shaping equitable climate policy to address the City’s climate emergencies. This was about five years ago, but these organizations had been asking government to create something like this for decades. Councilmember Koretz had the courage to listen, and had the courage to implement what the community was asking for. It took him, I think, three years to get the votes to formalize the legislation that created this Office. It came into fruition in February 2021 and that’s when I was hired.
The main goal is to influence how the City shapes equitable climate policy through an innovative community mobilizing and stakeholder engagement process to address our climate emergencies. The Climate Emergency Mobilization (CEM) Commission has members from the most vulnerable communities of Los Angeles; labor and tribal organizations; as well as climate experts and youths. The community is really reflected in the CEM Commission so that we can get their input. The CEM commission hears their recommendations and then conveys that to the Council and the Mayor so that they can shape this more equitable climate policy. That’s the role of our CEM Commission.
The Office collaborates internally with other departments and bureaus to mitigate climate hazards and bring about climate policy that serves all of Los Angeles. We had a Climate Equity LA series with nine virtual sessions where we brought some phenomenal both experts and community speakers, and we received input from the community through surveys, focus groups and small group breakout sessions. We’re collecting that data now, and we’re shaping it into a report that will go to the CEM Commission and the Council.
I’ve already been working collaboratively with other departments like Emergency Management, City Planning and the Board of Public Works to create a climate adaptation plan based on our forthcoming City’s climate vulnerability assessment, which we will be starting this year. This Chief Heat Officer role will require not just a heat action plan, but an awareness building campaign to reduce the hospitalizations and deaths created by extreme heat in Los Angeles, mostly in the most vulnerable neighborhoods of LA. Heat is going to become a more prevalent issue for Los Angeles and California because now we have five times the number of heat waves we once did, and they last from July through November.” We even have heatwaves in the middle of Winter now. We need a comprehensive and collaborative approach in the City of L.A. to make address the systems, services, infrastructure and educational campaigns we need to mitigate the heat and the urban heat islands, caused by excessive pavement, and the lack of vegetation and tree canopy. We are working closely with our Bureaus that plant trees to ensure we are planting trees that provide shade and can be maintained by the City of LA. Trees will cool our city and make us more resilient. I want to point out that thanks to the Vision of Mayor Garcetti and Councilmember Krekorian, we are now addressing extreme heat with the focus it deserves.
Q: It sounds like there is an awful lot to do as your department gets on its feet. What’s first?
Marta: I look at it from a public health lens, and then an equity lens. Heat is the primary climate hazard for the City of Los Angeles; heat is one of the primary areas of focus because it disproportionately affects the frontline communities that are already pollution burdened. More than 50 percent of L.A. is those vulnerable communities. That’s a priority for our office to ensure that when infrastructure dollars come in, that they’re equitably distributed. It’s a really integrated approach, and we are doing multiple things all at once with different bureaus and departments. Obviously I can’t do this on my own. I don’t want that to be the perception. I think the beauty of this role is that it lifts the issue, and it focuses all of the bureaus and departments on that issue in a way that also engages community and shapes policy. The real power of this office is in the engagement of the community and collaboration with those bureaus and departments and working together to shift the paradigm and focus on investing in the areas that have been most neglected. And we don’t do this out of charity or even because they are being most harmed, we are focusing on these communities and investing here because otherwise we will never solve the climate crisis puzzle. It’s the only way.
Q: What is your staffing so far?
Marta: The Climate Emergency Mobilization Office this year hired three staff. It’s going to be doubling in this next fiscal year to eight. Some of us will be working specifically on the heat action working group, and others will be working on the Climate Emergency Mobilization Commission and still others on the community assemblies and Climate Equity LA Series. All of us will work to reduce climate emergencies. I’ll oversee all of that; I hope to have a Deputy Director to take on more of the operational day-to-day tasks so I can work on the programmatic goals of the Office.
Q: How do you work with other departments? Do you have official oversight, or is it more of a collaboration?
Marta: The report that I mentioned, that we will present to the CEM Commission, will give us some guidance and help each of us shape our overarching goals. We collaborate based on the larger strategic plans and directives that we will present to the Council, and then Council will present back to all of us.
I also find a lot of pride in having good relationships with these leaders from these bureaus and working directly with them on day-to-day issues. We will implement the plan together, and we have a good working relationship; we’re proactively creating and improving programs together. I don’t have oversight over them; that’s not how I see it. These departments have amazing leaders of their own. How can I build a bridge to support their work further and faster? So far everybody has been super welcoming of that support and that collaboration.
Q: That’s not only within Public Works but others, too.
Marta: Yes, like Planning and Emergency Management. I also want to work with the Department on Disability because they are some of the most vulnerable communities out there. Also, the Deputy Mayor of Homelessness and I had a conversation last week about how we can address inclement weather for the homeless to save lives. We also want to work on saving lives of the homeless while we’re developing this strategy together.
The LA Civil and Human Rights and Equity Dept. is a partner. They show us how the climate emergency is also a civil rights issue, not just infrastructure or policy issue. The historical cycle of disinvestment in these communities made them more vulnerable because now they don’t have sufficient tree canopy, or open space, they don’t have the same rate of doctors per capital that others do. It’s not just a public health perspective, but a social equity perspective. I think Mayor Garcetti and our City leaders have been leading on that to ensure we get these investments.
It really is all hands on deck.
Q: How important is this to the mayor and to the City of LA?
Marta: It’s incredibly important to our mayor because he’s been one of the most advanced leaders as a mayor for the City of Los Angeles on environment and climate. He came out with the Green New Deal and with the City’s first Chief Sustainability Office. Many changes have occurred under this mayor that will help operationalize and institutionalize these changes in the future, no matter what mayor comes aboard He has led in not only creating this Office and the general plan amendments and the sustainability plan, et cetera, but he has been a leader globally. All politics is local, but all change is local too, and when you create change from the bottom up, from the cities up to the national level, it has much more of an impact. That’s one of his legacies.
Q: Was there a turning point for Councilmember Koretz that really galvanized the City Council to create the Climate Emergency Mobilization Commission and then the Office?
Marta: I think the turning point was when we realized that the climate crisis was going to get exponentially worse, and LA in particular was vulnerable to extreme heat and flooding and we needed all hands on deck. If LA didn’t choose to be a leader, then the whole world and the nation wouldn’t follow or adopt models that could turn this climate crisis around with Equity as a focal point. I think the turning point was about five years ago when Councilmember Koretz listened to the coalitions in support of this effort, those who were calling for the City to address the Climate Emergency, he never turned back until he passed the legislation.
Q: For nonscientists, how bad is the climate change?
Marta: We have multiple climate dangers now. We have five times the extreme heat and an ongoing and severe drought in California. We also have wild fires in many parts of California. We have rising sea levels, and in addition to that we have these regional fires that exacerbate the dangers of extreme heat which stagnates the air pollution. We’re dealing with multiple climate hazards in Los Angeles now; working on mitigating any one of them is a challenge, but mitigating all of them is going to require even more coordination among agencies and departments in the region and the State. We are trying to get FEMA to recognize extreme heat incidents as disasters for example. Especially when you’re talking about folks with disabilities, the aged, those with health morbidities, those living among excessive pollution near refineries and other pollution generators, and the communities that disproportionately suffer from those deaths and hospitalizations. It’s one of the most serious issues we have – not just for public health but for national security. If we continue to have these wildfires combined with extreme heat year to year, season to season, we’re not going to have the ability to combat it. We want to get ahead of it.
Q: What challenges do you face now?
Marta: We face the challenge of a lack of funding. Even though we are anticipating more federal dollars and state dollars to come to the City of Los Angeles, it can’t come fast enough. We need to start piloting programs that will reduce our heat, and then to expand it to all of the City. EV charging stations will help the climate, but if we don’t have enough of them placed in low income areas, that’s going to create more economic disparities instead of fewer. Making housing electrification retrofits affordable so that everyone can thrive and move forward is critical. Adapting to Climate change is a humanitarian issue and there is now way around it.
Q: What will success look like?
Marta: Success will look like all of our bureaus and departments working together in synchrony to achieve these climate goals established both in LA’s Green New Deal, and in our future heat action plan and our future climate adaption plan … and then being able to draw down some of the dollars from the state and the federal government to implement and operationalize those plans collaboratively with the community. I think the community would also say that they want to make sure that there are more jobs created for all Angelenos, especially for those who have been most affected by the economic downturn during the pandemic. It also means more Tree Canopy and open space in all communities. We’re counting on this Green Economy to have a revitalize the city with the jobs that all of these retrofits, infrastructure and health and safety monitoring will create. We also will see the elimination of oil drilling in Los Angeles; we want to make sure the abandoned wells don’t contaminate our groundwater, our soil or our air. We need to work on all fronts to realize the benefits of this transformation.
I want to ask people to watch out for our “#HeatRelief4LA” campaign. We’re going to be working synergistically with the Emergency Management Department, the LAFD and so many others to make sure that people are aware of how to protect themselves against the heat storms that are coming in July and August. Please watch out for that information. Sign up for Notify LA alerts as well so that people can be notified proactively when these heat storms are coming and what to do.
It’s going to be fascinating to watch this office grow and develop, but I think it’s going to be even more fascinating to see what the next mayor does, to see their commitment to these initiatives and this office. I look forward to working with whoever that next mayor is.
Q: Is it good to be leading a small, nimble Office while working with bigger departments?
Marta: I think being a smaller, nimble office is a benefit. I have direct communication with the Council, the Mayor’s Office and with the Board of Public Works. Huge departments don’t always have that same flexibility or direct communication. It’s a really interesting position I find myself in, being an advocate for bigger departments and their work, while leading a smaller office.
Q: Working in a place like the City of L.A. must be a good place to affect change. You can literally affect it from the very top all the way down to the street level.
Marta: It is. It’s a turning point. We seem to be in alignment – the community wants this change, the Council wants this change, and the Mayor wants this change. I have found a lot of synergy amongst those bodies, and it makes it a lot easier for me, even though my job is still super challenging.
Q: What do you love about what you do?
Marta: I was born for this work. I really love this work because it’s so focused on community engagement, building healthy, thriving communities while making and operationalizing policy, and working with phenomenal City leaders who also see this as an opportune time for that change. I’m a people person with a science background who wants to see policy change in environmental health and justice, and I was made for this job. I really enjoy it.
It’s very rewarding to see change happening before our eyes and to see people responding to your vision and this blueprint of engaging community members in the decision-making process. I’ve been working on this for 30 years both as an advocate and in academia, and this is really the first time when I see all of these different elements coming together so synergistically. It brings it full circle for me because, like I said, as a senior in high school I felt disempowered not knowing why they were spraying malathion and why they were hurting my community. Now as a City leader I actually have some influence to ensure that we’re not creating false solutions or unintended consequences. I’m really thinking about the solutions that we propose from a multifaceted perspective to protect our public, our planet and our climate.
Q: Marta, thank you very much for your time and speaking to Club Members.
Marta: Thank you both. I really appreciate talking to you and look forward to continuing to work with you both.
BEHIND THE SCENEAlive! editor John Burnes photographs LA’s Chief Heat Officer Marta Segura, four years of City service, Club Member, on a sidewalk off West Florence Avenue in South LA.