San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Diane Sánchez, left, speaks to a crowd about the City's climate plan, while City Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick watches.
San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Diane Sánchez speaks to a crowd about the City's climate plan, while City Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick watches. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Diane Sánchez grew up in South Texas, but she’s lived all over the country in cities like Denver, Miami, and Oakland, California.

Her experiences with extreme weather – from California wildfires to Texas heat to relentless sea level rise in South Florida – convinced her that climate change is “probably the most significant threat today, not only for San Antonio but for the world,” she said.

Sánchez’s remark came at a Monday meeting at San Antonio Water System headquarters among staff, boards, and members of the Hispanic Chamber and three other businesses and economic development groups: the West San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, the South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, and San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE).

“It’s important to us for our citizens to know and understand that this is real and that the communication and the dialogue has started,” SAGE CEO Tuesdaé Knight said. “It’s good for us to be able to impart that knowledge onto our community to say this is something that San Antonio’s taking at true face value.”

Attendees heard a presentation on the City’s controversial Climate Action and Adaptation Plan from City Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick. The plan calls for San Antonio to be carbon-neutral by 2050. That means that, by then, San Antonio would be taking in more of the greenhouse gases tied to rapid global warming than the city emits.

Doing so would require CPS Energy, the city’s municipally owned electric and gas utility, to abandon coal and natural gas. It would also require a complete transition away from fossil-fuel-powered vehicles on local roads.

Ideas like this have soured some local business leaders to the plan as a whole. Over the past few months, the CEOs of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the San Antonio Manufacturers Association have focused on the plan’s lack of detailed costs, the effect of potential new regulations on local residents and businesses, and its lack of emphasis on the environmental commitments businesses have already made.

Sanchez’s response to the call for climate action was markedly different than the leadership of other local business groups, indicating San Antonio businesses might have a broader spectrum of views on climate action than meets the eye.

“The question is, what are we as a business community and the community at large going to do about [climate change]?” Sanchez said at the meeting.  “The need for climate action in San Antonio and the world is urgent. … I think we’re aware of that based on the fact that we’re all here today. But I think we need to realize that doing nothing is not an option.”

At the meeting, several attendees asked Melnick familiar questions about the plan’s specifics. What are the specific dollar amounts associated with its proposals? If approved, how long would the plan take to implement?

Melnick, who called the plan “high-level,” didn’t have specific answers to these questions. He mostly focused on the process.

“Basically, it’ll be strategy-specific,” he said about the implementation costs. “I think the answer is going to be on a case-by-case basis, but that those fiscal impacts need to be determined prior to bringing anything to Council for consideration.”

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) speaks to members of local chambers of commerce about the City's climate plan.
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) speaks to members of local chambers of commerce about the City’s climate plan. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), who has experience working on climate and air quality issues, said, “It’s extremely rare for this kind of plan to have a [detailed cost analysis] because it has such a long range, to 2050.”

“This plan is a commitment to explore the strategies that are proposed here and when we do explore them, that we find a way that works,” Sandoval said. “Each individual one of those strategies is going to get its day with a stakeholder group or its rulemaking process.”

Knight said that even though the plan contains language about eliminating fossil fuels by 2050, she doesn’t “think anything is concrete.”

“I know that it’s being taken to City Council and it’s spurring the discussion,” Knight said. “I didn’t see anything that was terrifying me, as of yet, but I still want to dig a little bit deeper in.”

Kristi Villanueva, CEO of the West San Antonio Chamber, has “lived it for the last year,” serving on the climate plan’s Steering Committee. She was the only chamber of commerce leader to serve among the roughly 90 volunteers who met regularly as the City, CPS Energy, Navigant Consulting, and the University of Texas at San Antonio led the plan’s development.

Overall, Villanueva said it was clear the plan was “written by a contracted company” adding that some of the plan was “not in our voice.” However, she called its section on mitigating climate change “very realistic for [San Antonio].”

“But we need to drill down a little more so it’s easier to adapt to,” she said. “Sometimes we have to take it in smaller chunks.”

Sánchez said San Antonio faces two big questions related to the plan: What investments does the city need to make to ensure it is carbon-neutral by 2050? And what is the cost of doing nothing or delaying climate action?

“We do not have all the answers, but we do know that time is of the essence,” Sánchez said. “The way forward is to evaluate the available solutions that are the most effective, efficient, and equitable to all of our community.”

The Hispanic Chamber is planning another “engagement session” after the plan’s final draft comes out but before it goes to City Council for a vote, said Jeannette Garcia, its communications manager.

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