CityAdapt Blog – How “Cool Roofs” Won in Los Angeles

On December 17th, 2013, Los Angeles became the first large city to pass a “cool roof” ordinance mandating that all new and renovated homes use roofing material that naturally reflects sunlight. Heat-reducing cool roofs are an important climate adaptation tool for urban areas where the built environment is dense; they can reduce surface temperatures by more than 50°F and cool building interiors as well. Moreover, these changes have critical public health impacts including reducing heat-related injuries and deaths.

Climate Resolve, a local Los Angeles nonprofit organization, led the effort to pass the cool roof ordinance. This was no small feat in a city of almost 3.9 million people. In addition to their advocacy and education work, they hosted the 2013 “Hot City, Cool Roofs” Conference and captured the attention of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Later that year, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed the law. For this interview, I sat down with David Fink, Director of Campaigns for Climate Resolve, to discuss their successful journey to pass the ordinance and the lessons for other Mediterranean cities.

 Q: Tell me about Climate Resolve’s approach to climate change in Los Angeles.

 A:  Climate Resolve’s goal is to bring climate change to the local level. There are lots of great environmental groups working on issues from state, federal, global perspectives and this work is vitally important. At the same time, the average person does not have a strong connection to climate change because the connection isn’t made as to the impact on his or her daily life. Also, many prominent environmentalists talk about the negative impacts that climate change will have. For example, they highlight the increasing parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Although this is significant, there is a misunderstanding that, if people know how bad things will get as the climate changes, they will be more proactive about the issue. The truth is that when people are repeatedly presented with negative messages they shut off. They stop paying attention. It’s too overwhelming. This is why Climate Resolve aims to make climate change a local issue by talking about local and regional impacts and solutions. On a basic level, we want people to understand how their neighborhoods can be affected by the changing climate and how they can be a part of the solution.

Q: How did Climate Resolve get involved with the cool roofs issue?

A:  We have worked with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and climate scientist Dr. Alex Hall to explore mid-century warming in the Los Angeles region. Through this collaboration, we learned that temperatures will increase between 5º and 7º F and the number of extreme heat days will rise noticeably. Also, the urban heat island effect adds an additional 4º to 5º F of warming.

Cool roofs are a promising solution because they alter paved surfaces in order to offset the urban heat island effect and combat warming. Cool roofs present a way to redirect the course of climate change in the city while engaging people, especially people who haven’t had the opportunity to take action on the issue previously.

Briefly, some of the benefits of cool roofs are the immediate return on investment by allowing people save as much as 20% on energy bills. They also reduce the urban heat island effect and can save lives. For example, Dr. Laurence S. Kalkstein of the University of Miami and colleagues recently published a study that found that increasing urban surface reflectivity has the potential to reduce the number of deaths during heat events by an average of 6%.

Q: Who did you collaborate with on the cool roofs ordinance?

 A:   In January of 2013, we met with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was on board right away. In March of 2013, the City of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety got a directive from Mayor Villaraigosa to begin drafting new regulations requiring cool roofs throughout the city. We also worked with the Los Angeles City Council to approve the new building code regulations.

We collaborated with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to expand an existing incentive for people replacing their roofs and for new buildings. The incentive is in the form of a rebate to offset the cost premium since some cool roofing materials can be more expensive than their counterparts. LADWP will revisit this policy at the end of the next year because the idea is to phase it out as cool roofing materials become the standard.

Cara Horowitz of the UCLA Law School was one of our main partners. Her policy brief titled “Bright Roofs, Big City” provided important research on this issue, which was instrumental in getting this ordinance passed.

Since the cool roof ordinance was successful in Los Angeles, other cities in Southern California have passed similar ordinances. Specifically, we worked with the city of Pasadena, while the cities of Chula Vista and Hermosa Beach. The cities of Long Beach and Santa Monica are interested in taking action as well.

Q: What recommendations do you have for other Mediterranean-climate cities trying to pass a cool roof ordinance?

 A: The research that Dr. Hall conducted on future impacts of climate change, specifically for the Los Angeles region, was very compelling. I recommend that cities partner with researchers studying the impacts on their regions. As we experienced with Mayor Villaraigosa, this type of information is critical for policymakers to hear. It is also important to present tools and methods for addressing climate change with a body of research to support your claims. All of this preparation will allow policymakers to see the value of adaptation.

At the same time, it is challenging to measure the effects of climate change and its solutions on a small area. It is important to involve entire cities and regions rather than just neighborhoods. For example, it would be difficult to show how cool roofs are reducing the urban heat island effect over just a few city blocks.

Q: Were there any challenges along the way?

 A: We sat down at the table with roofing contractors who expressed concern that other contractors not following the law, by not getting permits for their work, would have a competitive advantage. To head off this potential problem we met with the supply houses for roofing materials. There are only a few that supply to Southern California and we are working with them to move out their old inventory that doesn’t comply with the new law. The result of this change is that these supply houses won’t be able to offer materials that compete with cool roofs.

In order to make these changes with the supply houses, we worked with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, Dr. Ban-Weiss at USC, the Cool Roof Rating Council as well as product manufacturers to learn more about cool roofing materials.

Q: What types of policy and advocacy tools did you use throughout this process?

 A: We engaged in a lot of advocacy. We personally met with almost every single City Council office to discuss the benefits of a cool roof ordinance and how each community would benefit. When we went to these meetings, we brought research demonstrating that Los Angeles is getting warmer due to climate change and discussed cool roofs as a passive technology that is already available with no reason to wait.

It really helped the cause that we had the Mayor on board and that he issued a top-down directive. At the same time, we also invested a lot of time meeting with city council members and community activists.

 Overall, it’s important to create policies with local solutions to local impacts and community buy-in. The bottom line is that people have to be able to understand what’s happening in their backyard.

About the Interviewee:  David Fink began in 2003 working as an organizer and then consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, working on a range of issues from health care reform to ending discriminatory banking and insurance practices. After leaving there he spent the next eighteen months helping run campaigns in Ohio, Oregon and California, including raising the minimum wage in Ohio. After returning to Los Angeles, David worked as communications and legislative deputy to a Los Angeles City Councilmember. He then went to work for Global Green USA as the policy and legislative affairs associate before working independently as a policy consultant.