Analysis San Antonio

Why SA Council Members Voted for Climate Action

Mary Agnes Rodriguez represents at historic climate justice rally last summer during the city's mayor runoff election. Image: Vanessa Ramos
San Antonio artist Mary Agnes Rodriguez at historic climate justice rally in 2017 during the city’s mayor runoff election. Image: Vanessa Ramos

While the vote was near-unanimous (9-1), San Antonio’s City Council members staked out unique positions in justifying their votes.

Greg Harman

When San Antonio City Council members voted to adopt the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP) on October 17 they did so for many different reasons. Some spoke about climate change’s threat to the long-term economic health of the city. Others referenced poor air quality from fossil fuels, a key driver of global warming. Some praised the promise of equity in the local climate response.

Sadly, few spoke in terms of the City’s responsibility to the global community. Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Councilmember Manny Paleaz (D8) made the connection, with Palaez, who had previously pledged his vote to Valero Energy, made a remarkable turnabout, giving on the day of the vote a thoughtful accounting of intersecting global crises like the Sixth Mass Extinction.

Equally remarkable for other reasons, Councilmember Shirley Gonzales (D5) chose the moment to shame those in the audience supporting climate action but who (hypocritically, she suggests) drove to the meeting in gas-powered cars. Also among her supposed hypocrites were those calling for an end to fossil fuels who have also dared to fight zoning changes that would result in greater density, urban density being a key part of an effective climate response.

Note to Gonzalez: Poorly executed redevelopment in the name of climate action has a name: “climate gentrification.” *

The lone voice in opposition sidestepped consideration of the monumental hazards of climate change entirely while objecting to the absence of cost estimates. He did, however, (much like former councilmember failed mayoral aspirant Greg Brockhouse (D Nothing) before him) speak in favor of trees as a response to urban heat island.

Understanding the logics that allowed for overwhelmingly support for a plan with deadlines but no prescriptions can help predict where votes will potentially diverge when the medicine starts being measured in sector-by-sector and neighborhood-by-neighborhood doses.

CPS Energy coal plant was a topic for several. Councilmember John Courage (D9), for example, called for City-owned CPS Energy to commit to closing JK Spruce’s two coal units in 2025 and 2030. D2’s Jada Andrews-Sullivan’s comments weren’t specifically about coal, but they did embrace the CAAP clean-energy commitment as a response to the public-health crisis that coal has created. Mayor Ron Nirenberg, meanwhile, called upon CPS Energy to commit to greater transparency in its now required march to net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050.

But it was Councilmember Sandoval (D7), a driving force behind the vote’s success, who spoke to an unresolved issue at CPS Energy that will require sustained attention by the public, the electeds, and City staff.

‘There’s a debate that made itself clear over the last two years about whether [CPS Energy] is its own business and we just reap the profits or whether its an organization that represents the values of the city and what the council adopts’

To be determined.

See video of each council member’s comments below. Or skip to the bottom to watch the Pubic Comments portion of the meeting, view a presentation on the CAAP by San Antonio Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick, or see the entire proceedings as it unfolded.

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Vote Results: San Antonio Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.

In no simpler terms, here and around the world we are in the midst of a climate emergency.
— Mayor Ron Nirenberg

District One

I’d like to explore more collaborative ways where we can take what we already do and just tweak them.
— District One: Roberto Treviño

District Two

When you look at our children nowadays, most of the time it’s spent in the house because it’s just too hot to allow them to go out and play football where you have ozone days where you cannot breathe.
— District Two: Jada Andrews-Sullivan

District Three

With the UDC updates for 2020, and this plan, and with our regional centers, I believe the synergy is coming together—all of the synergy is coming together at the right time where we need to move.
— District Three: Rebecca Viagran

District Four

I’d love to see a committee created where this is both activists and business folks from every ZIP code working together.
— District Four: Adriana Rocha Garcia

District Five

There are many people in the audience today that have … been very supportive of the plan but at the same time we know have been driving perhaps 50 miles to get here.
— District Five: Shirley Gonzales

District Six

Organizations like we’ve heard today, the West San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, VIA, and CPS have publicly supported this plan, which, I have to make the comment, is no small feat.
— District Six: Melissa Cabello Havrda

District Seven

There’s a debate that made itself clear over the last two years about whether [CPS Energy] is its own business and we just reap the profits or whether its an organization that represents the values of the city and what the council adopts.
— District Seven: Ana Sandoval

District Eight

… the climate crisis, wildlife extinction, water quality and pollution … My kids demand I treat these as the defining issues of our lives and I’m not going to let them down.
— District Eight: Manny Pelaez

District Nine

I don’t think we’re going to be waiting until 2060 or 2050 or 2040 to shut down our coal power plants. … I hope CPS Energy will find a way to shut the older Spruce plant by 2025.
— District Nine: John Courage

District Ten

I can’t expect my neighbors and your neighbors to write a blank check for this.
— District Ten: Clayton Perry

Citizens to be Heard

Presentation by Doug Melnick, San Antonio Chief Sustainability Officer

Full Session


Since posting this, I have been asked why I am being so hard on Councilmember Gonzales. Wasn’t she advancing good environmental values? a friend suggested. I would encourage folks to listen to Gonzales’s comments and then consider my response on Facebook. But in short:

The primary drivers of the climate crisis are structural injustices—organized violence against the earth and all her families, including our fellow human beings. What is needed, therefore, are structural changes—not the shaming of folks for driving (in this case, to lobby our elected leaders to change these key structural drivers of the climate crisis) and those fighting zoning changes in their neighborhoods while our city suffering from rampant displacement tied to gentrification and inadequate/non-existent protections. It is also wrong to assert that if we want climate solutions we must accept all policies presented as “green,” like rezoning property for greater “densification.” We are told by Gonzales to submit even as these rezonings are shown to be punishing poor folks and displacing families. It is not hypocritical to fight for climate justice while still enmeshed in the petroleum-drenched culture we were born into. And it is incumbent on us all to fight for justice-based solutions to the climate crisis that protect first and foremost those who are least responsible for the crisis but most vulnerable to its violence. Perhaps I’m particularly irritated, now that I think of it, because the broader environmental community has historically been willing to turn a blink eye to many individual and collective harms inflicted in the pursuit of larger policy aims. This is the environmentalism that must be retired ASAP—certainly before we start putting the CAAP into action in San Anto.

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