When San Antonio officials decided to tackle the global crisis of climate change last fall by adopting the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, no one knew the world was about to face another devastating event.

The City of San Antonio has planned to go completely carbon-neutral by 2050, but after the coronavirus pandemic, priorities under its Climate Action and Adaptation Plan have been forced to shift, officials said during the first San Antonio Climate Ready Forum on Friday. Rising to the top of the list is the priority of equity, said Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick. 

“Our plans had to be readjusted,” Melnick said. “Nobody would have expected this. … COVID-19 really throws a curveball.”

To address climate change, the City of San Antonio must also address inequity and systemic racism, Melnick said during the forum’s town hall. With San Antonio still leading as the country’s poorest major metropolitan area, climate change could cause major issues locally if inequities aren’t addressed, Melnick said.

“Climate change doesn’t impact everybody equally,” he said. “Communities of color and other vulnerable populations are the most impacted – but they contribute the least to the causes of climate change, and we know [what] those impacts can be in terms of health outcomes, fuel costs, food insecurity, and increased susceptibility to the impacts of extreme weather and flooding. So when we drive towards this carbon-neutrality goal, we need to understand the implications of our decisions and actions.”

In 2021, the Office of Sustainability will work with its two new advisory committees – the Technical and Community Advisory Committee and the Climate Equity Advisory Committee – to develop policies and programs to reduce city emissions, and adapt to more intense heat waves, longer droughts, and more severe flooding. First on the list is to figure out how to reduce the energy used in the construction and transportation sectors, Melnick said. 

These groups will help guide the Office of Sustainability as it aims to prioritize public engagement, business engagement, and institutionalizing the climate plan within the City organization itself, he said.

The 24-member Technical and Community Advisory Committee and the 11-member Climate Equity Advisory Committee formed earlier this year and launched last month, said Julia Murphy, deputy chief sustainability officer. Murphy added the committee will be meeting quarterly.

“We’re really excited to hear what they have to say and how they inform the process,” she said.

These advisory committees are going to help the City connect more with affected neighborhoods, said Climate Program Manager Minerva “Mina” Defee. Defee said not only will the members offer their individual expertise, but they’re also attuned to the communities’ needs, which will allow them to bring back “valuable insights that can be incorporated into” the City’s work.

“That’s one of the many reasons why equity weighed so heavily when we chose the committee members,” Defee said. 

The City will also be striving to engage with underserved communities through communications and education initiatives, she said.

The City will also work with grassroots organizations to conduct direct civic engagement, Defee said.

“Within that context we want to specifically target engaging neighborhoods and communities that are traditionally seen as either underserved or hard to reach, which oftentimes crosses over into including those that will be the most impacted by climate change as we all know,” she said.

Plans had been to go into these areas in person and talk to residents throughout this year, but that goal has been moved to next year because of the pandemic, Defee said.

Climate equity is not just about mitigation or adaptation, but also reversing the systemic racism experienced in San Antonio, Melnick said.

“Equity is at the core of this, and we need to make sure that before we make any decisions or do anything that we understand what it’s going to mean for our most vulnerable populations,” he said.

Correction: This article has been updated to include the correct number of members on the advisory committees.

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett is the general assignment reporter for the San Antonio Report.