(from left) UTSA Dean of Engineering JoAnn Browning, San Antonio Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick, City of San Antonio Public Affairs Representative Ashley Alvarez, and Assistant City Manager Roderick Sanchez are interviewed about the climate action plan.
(from left) UTSA Dean of Engineering JoAnn Browning, San Antonio Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick, City of San Antonio Public Affairs Representative Ashley Alvarez, and Assistant City Manager Roderick Sanchez are interviewed about the climate action plan in February 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio’s effort to do its part to slow global warming and adapt to a hotter world will begin with face-to-face conversation.

The City, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and CPS Energy, all partners in the so-called Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, will host a town hall meeting Saturday at UTSA’s downtown campus to begin building a response to a rapidly changing climate.

The event is the latest in a planning process that is still coming together, with much back-and-forth behind the scenes among the three partners and a coalition of local environmental and social justice groups.

Saturday’s event is meant for the public. Held in UTSA’s Buena Vista building at 501 W. Cesar Chavez Blvd. from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m., it will feature two half-hour small group discussions, a free breakfast, a “kids activity room” and Spanish language translation.

“Everyone who comes can be at a table,” said Doug Melnick, the City’s chief sustainability officer.

The idea is to get attendees talking about how they picture a climate-ready San Antonio and what the plan’s priorities should be, said Melnick and Assistant City Manager Rod Sanchez.

“We believe this engagement, the input process, is probably the most important part of a plan,” Sanchez said.

The process officially began with a kickoff in December featuring Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. Hayhoe told the crowd that San Antonio’s average temperatures have been rising, leading to more hot days, fewer cold spells, and more extreme and variable droughts and floods.

The plan is a result of San Antonio’s pledge to help maintain the goals of the Paris Accord, an international agreement meant to curb global warming by agreeing to voluntary cutbacks in greenhouse gas emissions. Signing onto the Paris Accord goals last June was the first action of a newly elected Mayor Ron Nirenberg and a City Council full of newcomers.

Since the kickoff, these three local public institutions have been grappling with how to address the most serious environmental problem of the age.

One major shift is on the UTSA side. Associate Professor of Architecture Hazem Rashed-Ali will no longer be leading UTSA’s portion of the plan.

“He’s not going to be (principal investigator) anymore,” said JoAnn Browning, Dean of UTSA’s College of Engineering, said Tuesday.

Reached by phone last week, Rashed-Ali declined to comment on why he is no longer leading UTSA’s side of the climate plan. Browning said Rashed-Ali has been “overcommitted” with several university initiatives and an international architectural consortium.

“We’ve been trying to talk to him about his level of involvement,” she said.

John Murphy, Dean of UTSA’s College of Architecture, Construction and Planning, has replaced Rashed-Ali, Browning said. Murphy did not respond to a phone message seeking comment late Tuesday.

“He’s got project management experience, he’s very familiar with all the faculty,” Browning said. “Such a big effort we have, and there’s a lot of pieces to pull together.”

Under the plan’s framework approved by City Council, UTSA researchers will do much of the technical work with oversight by city and CPS officials. Some specifics include an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, specific climate predictions tailored for San Antonio, and an official public engagement strategy.

CPS Energy will provide $500,000 to UTSA’s Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute from a pot of $50 million set aside in 2010 to fund UTSA research.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg with CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams following the signing a resolution in support of the Paris Agreement.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg (center) shakes hands with CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams (right) after signing a resolution in support of the Paris Climate Agreement on June 27, 2017. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Such information will help set goals of how much San Antonio can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, Melnick said.

“The big challenge we’re going to have, and I think it’s similar to Phoenix and Denver, communities that have really large population growth, is how do you reduce emissions when your population is growing,” he said.

Officials like Melnick will get guidance from a small army of advisors – 96, to be precise. Since December, officials have been assembling a 21-person steering committee and five 15-member advisory committees focusing on specific subjects.

Those lists have been finalized, but the city did not release them Tuesday when asked by the Rivard Report. That’s because members have not yet been notified via letter, Nirenberg spokesman Bruce Davidson confirmed.

Melnick said they include a diverse cross-section of the community as well as members of local government entities like VIA Metropolitan Transit and the San Antonio River Authority.

“It’s going to be quite a lively group,” Melnick said. “You’ve got clear environmental justice folks on one side and development groups on the other side. I think they’re all very reasonable people…people that can work together.”

Saturday’s event has also seen some changes. The original plan was for a panel discussion that included Senior Vice President of Pape-Dawson Engineers Cara Tackett; UTSA Anthropology Assistant Professor Patrick Gallagher; Sandi Wolff, Council Chair for Economic Development for the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and wife of Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff; and Kaiba White, energy policy and outreach specialist for Austin-based progressive think tank Public Citizen.

Carol Fisher, board member and former technical director for the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, said she was going to be on the panel, though city officials did not confirm that.

Fisher said she prefers the current plan for Saturday’s event.

“I’m glad the panel got disbanded because the climate coalition asked for an event that was about engaging the community, and the city did a course correction,” she said in an email. “I’m hopeful and waiting patiently for things to unfold.”

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