Hannah Whisenant / Rivard Report
Since President Donald Trump announced last week that he will withdraw the United States from the historic Paris climate accord, hundreds of cities and more than 10 states have banded together to uphold environmental policies aimed at preventing global climate change.
San Antonio and Texas are not on those lists. A climate action plan has yet to be developed or funded by the City.
A coalition of more than 30 locally-based social and environmental rights organizations called for Mayor Ivy Taylor to "declare her support for the Paris Agreement and commit to a robust climate action plan and 100% renewable future" on Wednesday during a rally in Main Plaza.
More than 50 people gathered outside City Council chambers and took turns going inside to ask the mayor and district representatives for their support during the "citizens to be heard" portion of their meeting. None of the Council members nor the mayor came out to address the crowd. Councilwoman-elect Ana Sandoval (D7) did make an appearance.
The rally came two days before voters choose between Taylor and Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) in the June 10 runoff election. Organizers said their rally had more to do with national politics than local elections.
"I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris," Trump said last Thursday, backing out of a commitment 194 other nations have maintained. The agreement threatens the U.S. economy by imposing unfair environmental standards, Trump said. The U.S. joins only two other nations, Nicaragua and Syria, in rejection of the agreement.
"I can’t control Donald Trump – the timing of his ignorance or his idiocy,” organizer Greg Harman, clean energy organizer for the state chapter of the Sierra Club, told the Rivard Report. The Sierra Club and several other organization at the rally have endorsed Nirenberg. “The fact that things are happening as quickly as they are globally, I can’t help that. There’s a lot of people that said, 'Oh, we want to be cautious, we don’t want to be partisan.'
"The fact is she’s the mayor and we need action now," he added. "Whoever [is mayor] in a few weeks, that’s fine. That’s the least of my concern right now."
The two mayoral candidates were asked during a recent live debate if they would add their name to the growing list of more than 245 U.S. mayors that have signed a statement put out by the Mayors’ National Climate Action Agenda. Neither mayoral candidate said "yes" or "no" to signing such statements or issuing an official local resolution in support of the Paris accord during the live debate. Nirenberg, however, told the Rivard Report early Thursday morning after this article was published that he would sign.
Texas mayors Steve Adler of Austin, Michael Rawlings of Dallas, Sylvester Turner of Houston, John Thomaides of San Marcos, and Scott Saunders of Smithville have added their names to that list. Another initiative, "We Are Still In," has collected signatures from a total of "1,219 governors, mayors, businesses, investors, and colleges and universities from across the U.S."
"Yes, [the signature is] symbolic, and yes, it's true that the City is following this path that may, if approved, get us to sustainability," said Peter Bella, vice president of local policy think tank Imagine San Antonio and former natural resources director for the Alamo Area Council of Governments. "But in my mind it's about leadership, not to let it just happen without taking a position and a role."
Taylor told Texas Public Radio's David Martin Davies that San Antonio should "look into" officially supporting the Paris Agreement, but that it should "stay focused on what our goals are here at the local level and if there are ways to work here within our region.”
She cited several goals outlined in the City's comprehensive SA Tomorrow plan relating to green building initiatives, air and water quality, tree canopy, and reduction of solid waste. The plan outlines potential initiatives and pathways, but does not set specific benchmarks for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions or reliance on non-renewables. It does, however, call for the development of a climate action plan.
"During my time of service I have learned not to wait on Washington, D.C. to address the challenges that we have here locally in San Antonio," she said. "I commit that we will continue to work toward meeting the goals that we’ve set out in SA Tomorrow.”
The SA Tomorrow plan, initiated by Taylor in 2014 and approved by Council in August 2016, is entering the implementation phase. Nirenberg was chair of the now-defunct Comprehensive Planning Committee that guided the SA Tomorrow plan – which he ultimately had concerns about regarding the strength of the language used, particularly when it came to environmental regulations.
"The SA Tomorrow plan that Mayor Taylor has championed includes a blueprint to reduce air pollution," said Taylor campaign spokesman Greg Jefferson. "The plan will help us balance our growth and reduce traffic congestion, even as more than 1 million new residents move in over the next 25 years."
San Antonio has already taken proactive measures in terms of sustainability and developing renewables though City-owned utilities San Antonio Water Services and CPS Energy, Nirenberg said, and it needs to continue to be a leader.
"I look forward to continuing to work with other cities on this issue," Nirenberg told TPR. "But look, this is not about a signature on a piece of paper ... we need to make sure that we're driving a renewable, sustainable agenda."
For the sake of the country's economy, environment, and public health, the U.S. should remain an active partner in the Paris Agreement, Nirenberg told the Rivard Report on Wednesday. During this interview, he did not indicate that he would sign. "No matter the politics in Washington ... we need local sustainability, resilience, and climate preparedness policies that I have already been championing for the past five years."
Nirenberg was chair of the National League of Cities' Energy, Environment, and Natural Resources Committee, which crafted a letter signed by himself and dozens of city leaders that was sent to President Trump on March 28 in anticipation of his changes to the U.S.' climate policy.
"We urge you and your administration to partner with us to build cities that can withstand, and reverse, the physically and economically destructive effects of climate change," the letter states.
If any progress is to be made on the City's climate action plan, it will "require resources," the City's Chief Sustainability Officer Douglas Melnick told the Rivard Report. "Right now we're basically working on what a proposal will look like and having discussions about goal-setting .... but it's one [budget] priority among countless priorities."
With or without the federal government's support of the Paris Agreement, the local process is still there, Melnick said. And it will be up to Council – one with several new faces starting on June 21 – to fund it.
"If there is the support and the resources to develop this climate plan, a key part of it is going to decide what are our targets are," Melnick said. "The community needs to have a conversation around how aggressive we want to be.”
Nirenberg agreed that a climate action plan needs to be funded in the next budget cycle.
"I already advocated for that as the chair of Comprehensive Planning Committee," Nirenberg said.
Andrew Solano, who works in Taylor's office, told the Rivard Report on Wednesday that he and other City staffers are looking into different funding mechanisms for the climate action plan.
"The mayor has made the implementation of SA Tomorrow one of her budget priorities going forward," Jefferson stated in an email. "There's no need to panic and redo our sustainability plan because of what's happening in Washington."
But what's happening in Washington, D.C. will trickle down to affect local economies and the world's perception of the U.S., Harman said, because the symbolism of these lists can be just important as the policies that follow.
"Symbols are what drive world history. [The] Paris [Agreement] is incredibly important – it took decades for us to get there," he said. "As a signal to the world that we are going to work collaboratively together, work for equity and justice – it was massive. The symbol of Donald Trump leaving – that [was] devastating."