PODCAST: Climate Action Planning Members Speak

CAAP buildings committee members

Members of the Climate Action & Adaptation Plan’s Energy & Buildings Technical Working Group led by Navigant Consulting’s Danielle Vitoff (center), discuss energy-reduction strategies at an August meeting in 2018. Image: Greg Harman

With San Antonio’s first climate action plan approaching public release, contributing volunteers from local government, business, activism, and academia discuss their expectations of the San Antonio Climate Action & Adaptation Plan.

Greg Harman

Years ago, I interviewed a public health researcher, the first woman, I was told, to lead a major university team working on cancer research. It became obvious pretty quickly that she was suffering from the onset of dementia and that I would never use that interview. But we still spent some hours together as she recounted her years of research, some facts repeating and blurring into chorus, as a housekeeper shadowed us with a look of bemusement on her face.

Much of that conversation I’ve forgotten, but one thing stuck with me. She described how, as a young researcher, she was forbidden from uttering the world “cancer” while in the field. She saw plenty of tumors, mind you—boiling up through one old farmer’s face or emitting smells she capably described for me with clinical detail. But she refused to diagnose with the “C” word. It caused her patients too much anxiety, she said.

Screen Shot 2019-01-17 at 10.28.32 PMFor many struggling in local government to respond to our current climate crisis, “global warming” has been that starkly honest diagnosis they’ve been forbidden—or simply refused—to utter. Back when Republican presidential candidates were still willing to debate their policy positions about the understood human-caused warming of the planet, many local communities, including San Antonio, focused on gaining public support for a more nebulous “sustainability” to tackle things like recycling, ridesharing, denser downtown development, and the like.

When the Tea Party pistol whipped the national discourse, following the election of President Barack Obama, and tossed reasoned discussion into a dark ravine, there was a further retreat from climate reality. But some local planners and elected leaders continued to press behind the scenes to respond to the warming threat in less muted tones. Under the SA Tomorrow process, they even managing to contract out a global warming forecast (PDF) for San Antonio (using all the correct vocabulary) by noted climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe.

shutdown pinata party
Community members celebrate the shutdown of JT “Dirty” Deely coal plant in mid-December, 2018. A campaign by Climate Action SA continues to shutter the city’s remaining coal plant by 2025 as part of the burgeoning climate plan. Image: Greg Harman

But it took an ecocidal full-frontal assault on the planet from the highest level to finally ignite a climate movement in San Antonio and push “global warming” to the forefront of the City’s lexicon. On June 1, 2017, Donald Trump announced that he was pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, a non-binding international agreement in which all the world’s countries (barring Syria and Nicaragua) pledged to work together to keep the planet from going up in flames. Out came the banners and placards, as community organizations under the banner of Climate Action SA flooded Main Plaza outside the Council chambers.

In the midst of a mayoral run-off election, hundreds of San Antonians joined an international response insisting that local governments would take action on climate even if their federal governments would not.

Becoming an unexpected election issue for former mayor Ivy Taylor and current mayor Ron Nirenberg, climate proved an ethical face-off that Nirenberg won hands-down.

It became immediately clear that all the groundwork community organizers and volunteers laid was going to pay off at last. In fact, Nirenberg’s first action was to advance a resolution of support for the goals of the Paris Agreement and, with the support of the San Antonio City Council, commit to develop our city’s first climate plan.

Planners who had been idling behind the scenes gradually moved into action after the City-owned CPS Energy committed $500,000 to UTSA to fund necessary research in plan construction. While UTSA and its lead investigator was thrown over early in the process in favor of private consulting firm Navigant, a major shift that was never addressed directly, a flood of nominees from across the San Antonio community took up seats on a variety of topically defined committees—from Climate Equity and Energy & Buildings to Water & Natural Resources, Waste & Consumption, Transportation & Land Use, and a Steering Committee.

Though the process was messy, everyone was using the double “C” word— climate change—at last.

Unavoidably, the process has seen tension over questions of transparency and community outreach; how much of San Antonio’s climate emissions would be excluded from the Greenhouse Gas Inventory and why; and near-constant (and denied) efforts by committee members to get the finer-grained data of CPS Energy. But the primary point of stress likely played out in the Climate Equity committee, tasked with defining climate equity and, on the basis of that definition, developing a screening mechanism for the City to use when weighing policy implementation.

Following a string of poorly attended public forums about the plan late last year, the draft San Antonio Climate Action & Adaptation Plan is fast rolling toward the full glare of the city’s attention. It will be delivered to committee members at a public meeting on January 23, 2019, and to the public more widely on January 25, 2019.

A 30-day comment period follows that date, with a full City Council vote anticipated in April.

Takeaway impressions on the planning process run the gamut, as I found when I called up a dozen fellow committee members. It’s a diversity of sentiment sure to shift even more when the City hands roughly 90 volunteers from across six committees dedicated to various aspects of the plan development.

{See a complete list of committee members (PDF).}

While I have very particular positions regarding what I see as our obligation to rise to the moment to preserve a habitable climate for all families, an obligation that includes closing our remaining coal plant by 2025 at the latest, I wanted to take time to clear the table and invite others to speak their own truths on Deceleration‘s dime.

So I sought out diverse range of participants and provided them with only a few prompts, asking:

  • What about your background or life experiences made you interested in serving on the CAAP?
  • As you understand it, what does global warming mean for San Antonio?
  • What has your experience been with the CAAP? What are your expectations of it?

I found their responses revealing, worrying, encouraging, endearing, and (most importantly) motivating.

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LISTEN: Voices of San Antonio’s Climate Action

Hear from San Antonio volunteer committee members (and one consultant) about their experience helping create the San Antonio Climate Action & Adaptation Plan being released next week.

Complete interviews with each contributor are included below.

Anita Ledbetter, Build San Antonio Green
Kaiba White, Public Citizen
Lissa Martinez, Texas Master Naturalists
Graciela Sanchez, Esperanza Peace & Justice Center
Bill Barker, UTSA
Mitch Hagney, San Antonio Food Policy Council
Jeff Arndt, VIA Metropolitan Transit
Annalisa Peace, Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance
Sandra Montalbo, Overland Partners
Carlos Garcia, University of the Incarnate Word