Depending on the stakeholder, “climate action plan” could make some cringe, or start thinking of ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or glaze over with boredom, among other reactions. Business leaders tend to be the ones that cringe at climate action plans, as they often come with perceived industry-limiting goals.

San Antonio is taking some of its first steps toward developing its own climate action plan as part of a broader, more holistic approach to preserving la buena vida – the good life. The Resilient SA Action Plan would purposefully avoid the term “climate” in its title, in hopes of avoiding the cringe.

The City would join dozens of other local governing authorities in the United States, including Austin, El Paso, and Dallas, by implementing policies that mitigate, adapt, and respond to the impacts of climate change.

“People tend to shut down” when climate change is mentioned, Doug Melnick, the City’s Chief Sustainability Officer told a handful of City Council members Wednesday. The Resilient SA plan would take on climate change mitigation, but would also include ways to avoid and bounce back from social and economic challenges.

Chief Sustainability Officer Douglas Melnick
Chief Sustainability Officer Douglas Melnick

“We looked at Council’s interest in pursuing climate [in 2015],” Melnick said, “and we thought instead of isolating that, make it part of a bigger conversation. The climate action is the mitigation part, and the resilience part is really that adaptive part – how do we respond, what those actions are going to be.”

We’re using the term “would” because the development of such a plan is currently in its infancy. Melnick gave a brief presentation to the Council’s Transportation, Technology, and Utilities Committee and received the “OK” to continue preliminary work on the plan to present to the full City Council in May – likely after the May 6 election when at least four new members will have a seat on the dais.

It would be more than one year before this new Council would consider the plan. First it will have to muscle its way into the 2018 budget, where dozens of initiatives and projects and departments are vying for attention. Melnick estimates that the plan development could cost between $200,000 and $400,000 – and that’s not including implementation.

“Hiring someone to put together a plan means nothing if we don’t put the funding behind it to implement it,” said Councilman Ray Lopez (D6), who chairs the committee and brought the issue to the table. Lopez is one of four council members vacating their seat this May.

“A lot of the work has already been done [through SA Tomorrow’s Sustainability Plan],” Melnick said, but several budget line items would need to be satisfied to fully develop the resilience-specific plan, even before implementation.

Local climate modeling and analysis on specific areas such as urban heat island, impervious cover, and transportation vulnerability are needed to establish a where-are-we-now baseline – an inventory. Then the Resilient SA plan can lay out the where-we-want-to-be goals and strategies to achieve them – a specific road map to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. That kind of modeling and analysis isn’t free.

“The catch in [the plan] for me is we don’t have enough resources,” said Councilman Joe Krier (D9), another outgoing representative. “There ain’t enough money to go around.”

By developing deeper local and state partnerships, Melnick said, the City could leverage existing programs more strategically with an actual plan in place. Some neighborhoods may need more attention than others, and a plan would let the City allocate resources more efficiently.

Some existing “resilience” programs and resources include the Under 1 Roof program, Urban Forestry Program, low impact development guidelines and incentives, Tree Preservation Program, Forest Inventory and Analysis, Energy Efficiency Fund, and the 2015 Energy Code.

The Resilient SA plan would bundle these existing efforts with baseline studies and specific goals, Melnick said.

Many local environmental advocates support the plan, which they see as long overdue.

“We’re in diapers,” Peter Bella, vice president of local policy think tank Imagine San Antonio and former natural resources director for the Alamo Area Council of Governments, told the Rivard Report after Wednesday’s committee meeting.

Bella and other advocates want to include community members in both the planning and execution staged.

“What we’re interested in making sure is that there is community input, that there is transparency,” Bella said after the meeting. “We’re hoping for a voluntary steering committee that would be comprised in part by citizens … [because] we very much have skin in the game.”

If the words “climate change” and “greenhouse gas” appeared in an official City plan would be progress in itself, he said. However, Bella was glad that Melnick and his team have taken the broader “resilience” approach rather than labeling the effort as solely about climate change.

There will likely be enough internal resistance among City officials even with the conversation in context, he said, and he worries that term-limited politicians may get distracted from the long-term benefits of a broad, ambitious plan.

“There’s ‘creative tension’ between the necessity for the political processes … versus the seventh generation philosophy, which says: ‘In the very-long term, what’s to our best benefit?’”

While San Antonio and other cities look to enhance their resilience to changing climate, social, and economic conditions, the White House is taking aim at federal funding for climate change research and sustainability programs included in the Environmental Protection Agency.

That shouldn’t stop the conversation in San Antonio, Lopez said.

Councilman Ray Lopez (D6) looks over to his colleagues after questioning Police Chief William McManus.
Councilman Ray Lopez (D6). Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“It doesn’t matter what happens at the federal level, the issue of air [and water] quality has a much more local impact on our health and the environment,” he said.

If the White House slashes funding or interferes with climate funding, he added, “we’ll deal with it … but this is a quality of life issue.”

In March 2016, San Antonio was selected by the National League of Cities and the Wells Fargo Foundation to participate in the Leadership in Community Resilience Program. According to the NLC, the program connects “national experts with local leaders to provide technical assistance and professional development training to help create a holistic, resilience proactive framework that reduces risk, improves services, adapts to changing conditions and empowers citizens.”

As part of the program, the San Antonio Food Bank hosted the San Antonio Resilience Dialogue on Tuesday, April 11.

Dozens of community leaders and environmental advocates participated in the conversation.

“This event is continuing the conversation with the community,” Melnick said, “[and it gives us the opportunity to] look at other communities across the country – how they’ve gone about their processes – and [learn] from it.”

Some cities, for instance, are trying to figure out how to meet the commitments they’ve made, he said, because they didn’t have any baseline studies to found their goals on.

“[Resilient SA’s] approach is to get some of those answers first,” Melnick said.

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...