Analysis San Antonio

Climate Justice Requires a Lot More Than Another Plan


Your City Supports Climate Action? Define Action.

Greg Harman and Marisol Cortez

If there was any question as to what “America First” meant when it came to the subject of climate change, the world got its thumb-in-the-eye answer on June 1 when Trump announced plans to extricate the United States from the hard-won Paris Accord, a voluntary agreement in which 200 nations committed to solve the global climate crisis together. The afternoon of that announcement, concerned San Antonians started making calls. “Is there a protest tonight?” “Is anyone going downtown?” As with people all over the world, residents of the nation’s seventh largest city were in distress.

Trump had already paved over years of indigenous resistance at Standing Rock and flipped the switch on Energy Transfer Partner’s Dakota Access pipeline, revived the the previously defeated Keystone XL, and appointed a raft of climate deniers to key posts across the new administration. But this announcement was the signal the nation needed to rally. Cities across the country went into rapid response. To Trump’s message that he represented “Pittsburgh not Paris,” the people of Pittsburgh shot back, hoisting signs that read “Pittsburgh AND Paris.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto announced on June 2 that his city would continue to honor the vision of the Paris Agreement and announced plans to move to 100% renewable energy by 2035. Like wildfire, mayors across the nation followed suit. In Texas, the mayors of Dallas, Austin, and Houston took action and joined the movement, which to date has gained support from more than 300 U.S. cities.

In San Antonio, two mayoral candidates caught in a tight runoff election—incumbent Ivy Taylor and challenger and then-councilmember Ron Nirenberg–were reluctant to sign on. But on the day that the Sierra Club helped launch what became a three-week campaign to get the city on board, Nirenberg shifted his stance—news that was read to the gathering outside city council chambers by long-time Alamo Sierra Club volunteer Russell Seal. In a matter of 48 hours, the movement for climate justice in San Antonio had rallied more than two dozen organizations representing local labor, justice, business, environmental, and indigenous groups. Representatives of the faith community soon followed.

We rallied around two demands:

1. that the San Antonio mayor join the mayors of Houston, Dallas, and Austin—and nearly 300 of their colleagues from around the country—in committing to adopt, honor, and uphold the the goals enshrined in the Paris Agreement, a pledge by nearly 200 nations to work together to avert climate catastrophe.

2. that our mayor and city council commit to fund and help develop a community-led Climate Action Plan that works with our residents, advancing their interests—particularly those who face the greatest threats from rising temperatures and extreme weather—to put our city on a path to 100% renewable power ASAP.

New Mayor Nirenberg bravely placed the resolution up for a full vote on the new council’s first agenda. The resolution was supported by Treviño (D1), Shaw (D2), Viagran (D3), Saldaña (D4), Gonzales (D5), Sandoval (D7), and Courage (D9). District 10’s Clayton Perry voted to table the item until August, saying that in all his campaigning, no one had approached him with any climate-related concerns. District 6’s Brockhouse immediately seconded Perry’s motion, but the effort was overruled. After objecting to what he described as a lack of consultation on the matter, Brockhouse fell in line behind the rest of the body. District 8’s Peláez was not present for the vote.

The resolution, which required exactly eight affirmative votes, calls broadly on the city to cut its greenhouse gas emissions and “[join] other U.S. cities in the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda network in adopting and supporting the goals of the Paris Agreement.” It further commits San Antonio “to exploring the potential benefits and costs of adopting policies and programs that promote the long-term goal of greenhouse gas emissions reduction while maximizing economic and social co-benefits of such action.”

Here’s horrible camera phone video of the debate for those not troubled by motion sickness:

When victory came on Thursday, June 22, 2017, our coalition had grown to include 40 organizations representing an impressively diverse constellation of interests, with many organizations allied that have not traditionally organized together. That in itself is a huge win.

Similar votes have been popping up around the country and among conferences of mayors domestically and internationally.

Last I checked in with Medium, they were reporting that 350 U.S. mayors had signed statements in support of the Paris goals.

In Miami, the United States Conference of Mayors passed resolutions urging Trump and Congress to get back on board with international climate commitments by “fully committing themselves to Paris Climate Accord, the Clean Power Plan, the Clean Energy Incentive Program, and other efforts that will provide cities the tools they need to combat climate change.”

U.S. mayors from Austin, D.C., Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Portland even managed to find their way to Brussels late last month to join colleagues from around the world to press the case of climate action and demonstrate the resolve of the world’s largest cities.

Here is their call to the G20 leaders who gathered in Germany soon after, where Trump found himself profoundly isolated and impotent:

In our cities, we are already implementing the policies and projects needed to deliver on the ambition of the Paris Agreement. As mayors, we are committing to bold emission reductions plans, tackling air pollution and investing in sustainable infrastructure that makes our cities resilient to the effects of climate change. We are taking these measures because creating smart cities offers unprecedented opportunities. Research by New Climate Economy revealed that creating compact and connected cities, built around mass public transport would save more than $3 trillion in infrastructure investments over the next 15 years. These cities will also be more economically dynamic, healthier, equitable and have lower emissions.

We must all work together to save our planet. As cities roll out fleets of electric busses and our citizens choose to leave their polluting cars for electric vehicles, nations must speed up the process of ensuring 100% of electricity is produced from renewable sources. As mayors and businesses bring forward plans for sustainable infrastructure in our cities, national governments should ensure that financing is available for cities from international climate funds and development banks. As autonomous vehicles arrive in our cities, we must work together to create a regulatory system that ensures this shift will help cut emissions rather than add to them.

So what comes next?

Ideally, the San Antonio City Council will quickly embark on the construction of an “action plan” intended to prepare the city for increasingly erratic and violent weather and related challenges. In fact, on June 27, the day Mayor Ron Nirenberg formally signed a resolution supporting  the Paris Climate Agreement, San Antonio’s public utility CPS Energy announced a commitment of $500,000 toward development of a climate action plan, in partnership with the University of Texas San Antonio. As outlined in a press release issued by the City for the occasion:

The University of Texas at San Antonio will work closely with the City of San Antonio and CPS Energy to investigate ways to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With $500,000 in funding provided by CPS Energy, projects will be able to support research in technologies, best practices and processes that can be adopted by City and its partners to improve air quality and support the development and implementation of a climate action plan.

San Antonio is a latecomer to climate action. The City of Chicago created their climate action plan in 2008, with public education and engagement front and center. San Antonio, on the other hand, intimidated by the irrational politicization of climate science, only began talking about “sustainability” around that time. Avoiding naming global warming and climate change, the city’s approach was to embrace development plans that focused instead on air quality, stormwater management, traffic-easing mass transit, and expansion of green space.

More recently, the city has produced a “resiliency” plan, though acquiring funding for its recommendations has been another matter. As noted by many of the organizations attending June’s climate actions, the city may have built climate considerations centrally into its resiliency plans, but to date these plans have received no actual funding toward their implementation.

To that extent, the commitment of funding by CPS Energy toward the development of a climate action plan changes the game as much as Mayor Nirenberg’s formal endorsement of the Paris Climate Agreement. But as we know from countless struggles to place justice at the center of climate action and environmental protection, how the city pursues a climate plan and who get to sit at that table is as important as the existence of the plan itself. A truly successful climate action plan, in partnering primarily with UTSA,  will open up the university beyond technocratic forms of research, to include a diverse, interdisciplinary range of knowledge that links the environmental sciences with sociology, political science, history, ethnic studies, gender studies, even literature and media studies–fields accustomed to asking critical questions and which can situate climate impacts within the deep historical analysis required to fully redress environmental crisis.

Just as importantly, a truly successful climate action plan will be “inter-institutional,” opening up research and planning itself beyond the university to include wider community input from those who will be most impacted, such that these voices can play a central part in conceptualizing and framing both problems and solutions.

Without a planning strategy that crosses lines of disciplinary knowledge and institutional power, the city risks a repeat of the Decade of Downtown, a planning process that, in the name of many sustainability goals, led to the displacement of 300 low-income residents –due in part to its failure to anticipate the need for policies that protect long-time residents’ right to remain.

As the city finally announces its willingness to advance an explicit climate project, we expect–and yes, demand–that it place human security at its core. This will, and rightly should, place the project frequently at odds with the interests of the development class. It will stretch the personal and professional ambitions of our elected leaders. And it will cause some confusion and messiness within and among the traditional environmental and justice organizations.

Weathering climate change at home. Creating opportunity. Opening new “bottom-up” power flows. Transforming San Antonio into a global inspiration and climate justice player. All of this will require tapping the oceans of creativity of the historically marginalized, the indigenous communities who know what adaptation means.

One of the reasons that global warming and climate change have been hard to accept for roughly half of Texans is simply the geographic fact that this region is an already violently unpredictable climatic zone. Due to that fact, those with multi-generational memory are the beneficiaries of hundreds of years of adaptive knowledge. It is incumbent to draw that out. It may take a lot (a lot) of talking. It will take even more listening. It will take the humility to meet one another as both students and teachers.

This is just our perspective on the matter. Thankfully, there are many, many other perspectives floating around. And it is offered with deep respect to the people of San Antonio and the elected leaders who answer to them, including our new mayor, who was brave enough to expend real political capital by placing climate action on the new council’s very first agenda. It is filed with gratitude for all those organizations who came out in support of the campaign for climate justice in San Anto last month and those who came with no organizational prompting whatsoever.

Con Mucho Respeto:

TX20 & TX21 Indivisible

Moms Clean Air Force

Kalpulli Ameyaltonal Tejaztlan

Public Citizen, Texas

Society of Native Nations


350 SA

LULAC Concilio Zapatista

Southwest Workers Union

Sierra Club (Alamo and Lone Star Chapter)

Fuerza Unida

Headwaters at Incarnate Word

Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word

Esperanza Peace and Justice Center

Stone in the Stream/Roca en el Rio


Environmental Defense Fund

Environment Texas

Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance

Vecinos de Mission Trails


American Indian Movement, C-TX

Pro-Immigrant Coalition/Coalicion Pro-Inmigrante

Texas Drought Project

Texas Organizing Project

Carrizo-Comecrudo Nation

Move San Antonio

Bexar County Green Party

Martinez Street Women’s Center

Domesticas Unidas

Carnalismo Brown Berets

Pax Christi

Missionary Catechists of Divine Providence

American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions

Bexar County Young Democrats

Citizens Climate Lobby

Willie Velasquez Institute

Energía Mía

U.S. Green Building Council, South Texas Region


This shorter version of this article was previously published by the Lone Star Sierra Club.