With election season ramping up, and a vote on a proposed climate plan delayed by six months, detractors seem to be gaining influence with City Council.
Weeks after Donald Trump announced his intention to pull the U.S. out of the 2015 Paris accord, a nonbinding international agreement intended to put a check on global warming, San Antonio stepped into the ring.
After years of failing to address climate change head-on, the City Council, led by newly elected Mayor Ron Nirenberg, announced in June 2017 that our city would adopt the agreement’s goals and aspirations.
It was a moral victory capping weeks of strong community support.
There was but one lone voice of opposition. Council member Clayton Perry sought to push back the vote to consult his constituents and personally research the issue.
“I want to be educated,” Perry said. “I have a lot of questions about climate change. And I think it’s important to do that research.”
Even conservative Councilman Greg Brockhouse, now challenging Nirenberg for the mayor’s seat, supported climate action at the time.
“I’m going to jump on board … and push this the best I can,” he said.
Nearly two years later, with a draft plan on the table ready to transmute council ambition into action, it’s Nirenberg tapping the brakes. His recent decision to push back a vote on the plan until this fall has put the draft Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, or CAAP, in jeopardy as the campaign against it grows.
If the venture fails, we’ll have willful misunderstanding, misdirection, fearmongering, conspiratorial climate denialism — and potentially Nirenberg’s timidity — to blame.
Brockhouse has abandoned his earlier fealty. Calling himself the “biggest pro-business council member there is,” he now assails the CAAP as a multibillion-dollar albatross that will bring hardship to everyday San Antonians.
Council member Manny Pelaez, absent on the 2017 vote, challenges what he calls a plan devoid of substance and fiscal analysis, while referencing the opposition of companies in his district, such as Valero Energy.
If Perry has used these intervening 18 months to educate himself on climate change, it doesn’t show. In a February email to a prominent plan critic, he called the CAAP “half baked,” with supporters “following blindly down the Paris Accord Path.” Fellow councilmembers, he said, appeared to be “complicit with what’s going on.” Meanwhile, recently installed Councilman Art Hall has his own questions to resolve about the “natural cycles of warming and cooling of the earth” before he can support the CAAP.
A slim council majority appears to still back their promised climate action and the consensus science on global warming on which it is based. However, this majority has become more tenuous as council detractors have amplified misinformation alongside, or in service of, influential business voices in the city.
In a March 11 email released this month to Deceleration via a Texas Public Information Act request, Pelaez tells Valero Board Chairman, President and CEO Joe Gorder and Executive Vice President and General Counsel Jason Fraser that “the CAAP does not have my support … until I hear that Valero, NuStar, Toyota, HEB, Frost, Ancira, etc. can support it.”
After nearly a year’s worth of monthly open meetings — involving nearly 90 volunteers on six committees drawn from across the city’s sectors — the mayor’s limited consensus-building work is in meltdown. And many who chose not to engage at any point in the process are now feigning 11th-hour surprise at the final product.
The San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, Valero Energy and the San Antonio Manufacturers Association, or SAMA, are all actively seeking to smother the CAAP.
SAMA CEO (and one-time CAAP steering committee member) Rey Chavez advances denialist counterarguments based on findings scavenged from the fringes of the internet. San Antonio Chamber members engage in whisper campaigns suggesting Valero and NuStar would abandon San Antonio if it commits to eliminating the city’s climate pollution — even though their distant pipelines and refineries are well outside municipal control. Valero’s public policy director has lent this disinformation campaign the authority of specificity, claiming CAAP will cost $14 billion within 10 years.
San Antonio Chamber of Commerce CEO Richard Perez warns of the threat to oil and gas jobs, while saying nothing of global warming’s certain economic harms to tourism, the military, recreation, construction and outdoor labor. Now he’s raising money to conduct his own fiscal study of CAAP.
In truth, CAAP doesn’t do much of anything on its own. Its cost is zero. It doesn’t ban cars, as Brockhouse as intimated. It doesn’t mandate green roofs or shade bus stops. It doesn’t even shut down our last remaining coal plant — the largest climate polluter in the region — though it certainly should. The only thing it does is commit the city to eliminating its climate pollution by 2050.
Sadly, CAAP leadership, Navigant Consulting and the Office of Sustainability, primarily, are also to blame for exposing the plan to mischaracterization. The CAAP’s long list of proposed potential mitigation measures is littered with dollar signs and absent any similar estimate of potential savings — apart from check marks on categories like “quality jobs” and ambiguous “heath impacts.”
This messaging failure is a lost opportunity seized upon by critics such as Brockhouse and Pelaez.
“I want to be very clear to the public,” Brockhouse said the day before the CAAP’s January public release, the cost of the plan “is in the billions and somebody has to pay for that.”
He offered this assessment minutes after Assistant City Manager Rod Sanchez finished correcting similar comments by Pelaez.
The CAAP’s many policy recommendations are merely tools for this and future councils to consider in the community’s effort to reach the 2050 goal.
“Every point of the way, as we bring policies out to council for consideration, we’re going to have those tough conversations,” Sanchez said. “The difference is we’re going to have a plan that says this is what we aspire to as council considers those policies.”
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval reminded the pair that “there is absolutely no ordinance inside of this plan.”
“Adopting the whole thing is an ordinance,” she said, “but (the details) would be figured out in their own individual stakeholder development processes.”
The primary questions our council should be asking now is the same one it it appeared to answer in 2017: Is the planet in crisis, and does San Antonio have an obligation to act?
When it comes to costs, what San Antonio cannot afford is to allow the disingenuous manipulation of facts to keep us from taking action on climate change.
Nirenberg and City Council must toughen up, put corporate fearmongering in its place and fulfill their 2017 promise.
Shame on those working to keep us from meeting San Antonio’s obligations to our residents and the vulnerable communities impacted by climate change across the world — particularly when those actions are based in fear of or outsized affection for the power brokers who keep us from tackling real climate action, as Brockhouse once promised, as best as we can.
Greg Harman is member of the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan steering committee, a community organizer with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, and founder and co-editor of Deceleration.news, an online journal of climate justice. This column was previously published in the San Antonio Express-News.