Laurie Rager one of the 15 collectors scans the terrain below her feet for garbage. Photo by Scott Ball.
Laurie Rager picks through plastic waste along the San Antonio River during Basura Bash, an annual event where the community cleans up San Antonio waterways. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

SA Climate Ready, San Antonio’s long-term initiative to reduce carbon emissions and mitigate other negative consequences of climate change, has been a two-year exercise in frustration for just about everyone involved.

It’s been more than two years since then newly-elected Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council made their first action a nearly unanimous vote supporting the 2015 Paris Agreement, which the U.S. supported under President Obama and later rejected under President Trump.

Last week City Council reviewed a plan that all sides seem to find acceptable and that will come to a vote in October.

Some would say the much debated revised Draft Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, with no firm numbers that hold elected officials accountable, much like that 2017 vote, is now largely aspirational. The plan’s defenders believe it lays the groundwork for fundamental change. The overriding goal remains carbon neutrality by the 2050.

My guess is that very few people will actually read the 92-page plan. If we truly want to engage citizens locally in changing their lives to help save the planet, a sustained citywide public education and outreach program will be necessary. It should be seen as a years-long endeavor, evolving as we progress.

Why the need for such a plan? For starters, we need to take the politics out of science and get people to once again agree that science is fact-based and it matters. How many of us wouldn’t be alive today were it not for antibiotics and vaccines? The City’s public outreach plan should take on climate change deniers full force.

We can debate endlessly the reality of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, as a world, as a nation, as a city. Such arguments tend to divide people along political lines and create a false divide among so-called environmentalists and the business community. Many of us consider ourselves members of both communities. All but a very few of us want to act, and we want our elected leaders to act.

Texas schools are legally required to help 18-year-old students register to vote, and they should teach them the importance of voting in local elections, not just every four years to elect a president. Students who vote can push parents and grandparents to vote out science deniers and elect candidates who will address climate change.

Our schools should be educating students from the earliest age on individual and societal responsibility to protect and preserve the environment. Children are great at taking home what they learn in school and teaching their parents, whether the message is tobacco kills, or that we don’t need to bring home disposable plastic bags from every trip to the store.

All of us can reduce our plastic waste. How hard is it, really, to stop using disposable plastic bags at stores when you can walk in with a reusable bag instead? People have had years to adjust to this small but sensible opportunity to reduce consumer waste. Other cities mandate it. Do not wait for a prolonged fight over a city ordinance. Just do it.

Do you own a reusable water bottle? Almost every millennial leads by example and carries one. Many others of us, in turn, have adopted the habit of forgoing disposable plastic bottles. Edwards Aquifer water is as good as anything sold in a bottle.

These and other lifestyle changes won’t happen without a sustained campaign inspiring people to take responsibility for the future of our city and the generations who will inherit what we leave behind. 

Changing the subject to individual responsibility makes it easier to see our way forward. Supporting CPS Energy’s embrace of renewable energy sources will encourage trustees and senior executives to continue pushing for diversification away from fossil fuels. Solar, in particular, is becoming more affordable and competitive. Texas is a leader in wind-generated energy. Understanding the value of affordable natural gas reducing coal dependence is smart policy now.

Advanced Solar workers install solar panels on Allison Carrazco's roof.
Workers install solar panels on the roof of a residential home.

Every home, workplace, and building should be retooled with smart thermostats with Wi-Fi remote control so every home and business owner can opt in to CPS Energy’s demand response program. The kind of peak hour savings realized are real and make it that much easier for the utility not to fire up more coal power to meet demand. Many of us can afford such upgrades, and more expansive rebate programs can be launched for people who need assistance.

Many of us are rethinking our transportation activities. The push for the City to make San Antonio a city of safer streets will encourage people who want to walk that last mile, or ride a bicycle or scooter. A public education campaign extolling the value of riding VIA buses could increase ridership and take more cars and trucks off the road. Car pooling from the suburbs is not being pushed by city and county leaders when it should be pushed. New funding initiatives for San Antonio’s woefully-underfunded public transit system will lead to greater route frequency and deployment of more next-generation buses more attractive to consumers. It works in other cities. It can work here.

Some readers will point to industrial pollution, declining air quality, rising incidence of asthma, and respiratory ailments – and they would be right. I am not pretending that every problem has a solution that lies in the hands of individuals. I am saying there are actual steps all of us can take now that will yield real results. While we debate many of the big issues, small progress can be made every day if we are willing to take responsibility for ourselves.

Call it your personal climate action plan. No vote required.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.