Mary Agnes Rodriguez attends the Climate Action Rally at Municipal Plaza on June 12, 2019.
Mary Agnes Rodriguez attends a Climate Action Rally at Main Plaza. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

As the dust settles on a fierce mayoral election, controversy over San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan is again heating up.

Environmental groups and other climate plan supporters held a rally on Main Plaza in support of the plan Wednesday night before City Council’s public comment period. Many had thrown their weight behind the re-election of Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who has made climate action one of his signature policy priorities.

“We’re excited to see, on this side of the election, that we’ve got a mayor back in office who’s said, ‘Yes, we’re going to get it done,’” said Greg Harman, a San Antonio-based clean energy organizer with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter.

At the same time, free-market think tank the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) held a panel discussion at the San Antonio Public Library, where its staff portrayed it as an economic disaster for San Antonio.

“Do y’all know how much the plan costs?” said panelist Rafael “Rafa” Bejar, a director of outreach at TPPF. “Because if you do, please tell me.”

The City-led Climate Action and Adaptation Plan is a road map of how to make good on a resolution that council members passed in June 2017 committing San Antonio to the goals of the Paris Agreement, an international accord meant to stave off the worst effects of rapid global warming.

Though it includes no mandates itself and would require local government and other entities to implement all its measures piece by piece, a draft version calls for a massive shift in energy and transportation for the city to be carbon-neutral by 2050. To do so, San Antonio would need to shift all energy and transportation sources away from fossil fuels.

The plan has faced fierce opposition from some local corporations and business groups, including Valero, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, and the San Antonio Manufacturers Association. Most of the complaints have centered around the plan’s implementation costs.

“I think [the City] has heard some overwhelming feedback about problems from very large employers that are here in San Antonio that would be forced to leave and would be forced to get their electricity elsewhere because of the conditions it would create for their working environment and growing jobs,” said Jason Isaac, a Republican former Texas House member and a senior manager at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Rafa Bejar, Director of Outreach of the Texas Public Policy Foundation presents at the San Antonio's Climate Change Gamble at the Central Library on June 12, 2019.
Members of the Texas Public Policy Foundation make a presentation during their event titled “San Antonio’s Climate Change Gamble” at the Central Library. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

Support for local climate action also comes from social justice groups, who joined environmentalists at Main Plaza. They included Move Texas, the Southwest Workers Union, the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, and the Texas Organizing Project. Their numbers were larger than in past rallies, with more high school- and college-age students participating.

“We are running out of time, and we need to fix this as soon as possible,” said Brenda Aguilar, a member of the Southwest Workers Union’s Youth Leadership Organization. “We’re being selfish by just focusing on what we need in the moment and not focusing on the future.”

The tug-of-war between the two sides followed a mayoral race that would likely have decided the climate plan’s fate. Nirenberg has repeatedly said that City Council should adopt the plan. His challenger, Councilman Greg Brockhouse (D6), said he would have scrapped the plan and replaced it with a tree-planting initiative and other measures.

City officials originally said a final version of the plan was supposed to go before City Council in mid-April, though now are saying they won’t release a final draft until at least the end of June. A City Council vote has been pushed back to sometime this fall.

Efforts also have stalled to accept financial support from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg for additional climate-related staff positions at the City.

At an event that featured a press conference with Bloomberg and Nirenberg, officials announced that San Antonio had been among the cities to win Bloomberg Philanthropies’ American Cities Climate Challenge.  The distinction came with $2.5 million worth of technical support in the form of two temporary staffers from the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

City Council was originally supposed to vote in May on an agreement with the group, but that vote also has been delayed.

Environmentalists say the private sector was invited to help build the plan from the start. Volunteers in the climate talks included people from the West San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, engineering firms, the Real Estate Council of San Antonio, solar companies, and the San Antonio Manufacturers Association, although its CEO quit one of the committees early in the process.

Graciela Sanchez, director of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, participated in the formation of the climate plan and said the City has tried excessively to accommodate “maybe not the business community, but the corporate community.”

“I’m angry,” Sanchez continued. “I’m angry at City Hall for not being courageous. We need courageous leaders at City Hall. We need courageous business leaders.”

Gracelia Sanchez of the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center address the Climate Action Rally on June 12, 2019.
Graciela Sanchez of the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center speaks during the Climate Action Rally. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / San Antonio Report

Isaac said the TPPF’s polling shows that “overwhelmingly, the people in San Antonio do not know anything about this plan.”

Asked by an audience member whether human-caused global warming actually exists, Isaac said, “There is a lot of evidence out there that shows that we do contribute to changing the climate and that [carbon dioxide] is a warming, heating gas.”

“Whether it’s catastrophic climate change, that I think is what’s debatable, and you’re starting to see at the federal level more discussion about creating a commission to debate and have open dialogue regarding that,” Isaac continued.

In the most recent National Climate Assessment, scientists from 12 federal agencies warned that rising global temperatures threaten Texas with more severe hurricanes that bring higher volumes of rain, such as Hurricane Harvey, which caused widespread devastation in 2017. Warming also threatens to reduce the overall amount of water in the critical water supplies of Edwards Aquifer and the Rio Grande, the report states.

The debate likely will intensify in the coming months, with both sides planning more events.

On Saturday, the coalition in support of the climate action is holding a town hall event with members the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization backing the Green New Deal, at the Guadalupe Theater.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation will hold three more panels on San Antonio’s climate plan in July, August, and September, policy analyst Brent Bennett said. Locations have not been decided yet.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.