Stuart Birnbaum presents his group's ideas at SA Climate Ready Town Hall at UTSA Downtown.
Stuart Birnbaum presents his group's ideas at SA Climate Ready Town Hall at UTSA Downtown. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

San Antonio officials held their first get-down-to-business community meeting on climate change, with hopes that they can expand the effort far beyond the roughly 100 people who showed up Saturday.

The so-called Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, also known as SA Climate Ready, is San Antonio’s attempt to do its part to meet the goals of the Paris Accord, an international agreement to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions causing rapid global warming.

The City is leading the plan with technical assistance from researchers, faculty, and students at the University of Texas at San Antonio. CPS Energy is providing $500,000 in funding to UTSA.

The stakes for their work are high. As the meeting began at UTSA’s downtown campus, City Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick talked about extreme weather already hitting San Antonio.

That includes heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires, and the spin-off effects of storms like Hurricane Harvey, which last summer led to a gas shortage in San Antonio and an influx of people fleeing flooding and storm damage on the Texas Gulf Coast.

“Climate change is global, but the impacts as well as the ability to manage it are on the local level,” Melnick said.

After a buffet of breakfast tacos and fruit, attendees sat around 10 tables with about 10 chairs each and talked for two 30-minute sessions. They focused on two broad questions: What is your vision for a climate-ready San Antonio, and what are your priorities in making it a reality?

Each group generated specific ideas that involved improving public transit, increasing access to healthy food, educating residents about the causes and effects of climate change, discouraging suburban sprawl, and upping the share of wind and solar power in CPS Energy’s generation mix.

Many people agreed that this meeting alone, and even future ones organized exactly the same way, are not enough to make this plan work.

The partners should be “going into neighborhoods of folks – especially those who have been traditionally disengaged – door-to-door in a promotora style,” said Anna Alicia Romero, speaking for one of the tables.

Many of those who came are already serving as volunteers on a 21-member steering committee and five advisory boards meant that will guide the official process. Melnick called them “climate champions,” – people who are already engaged in the issue and ready to do something about it.

“It’s what we expect for this first meeting,” Melnick said. “Now, it’s taking this out to the community.”

Not everyone came as part of a group. Northeast Side resident David Coffman was one of the unaffiliated attendees who said he came because of his interest in global warming, sustainability, and his grandchildren’s future.

“I think in a lot of ways San Antonio is a leader, in water particularly, and in energy as well through our public utilities,” Coffman said. “But there’s a lot more to do.”

Outside the official process, a group of environmental, social justice, and labor groups calling themselves Climate Action SA are meeting weekly to work on this problem from a different angle, focusing especially on the poor, working class, and people of color.

Greg Harman, a member of the coalition and organizer for the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, said the city has “an interest in inclusion and bringing historically marginalized and economically oppressed people into the conversation,” but the language used to discuss climate change can be overly technical and alienating to people who aren’t used to it.

“The community partners need to be equal partners in the process, and we’re not there yet,” Harman said. “It’s a trust-building exercise.”

Not yet visible in the climate planning process is the scientific and technical work that researchers with UTSA are doing.

Step one for dealing with the causes of climate is an updated inventory of greenhouse gas emissions to show where San Antonio’s emissions are coming from. City officials have said that inventory will focus on breaking down emissions by sector.

To adapt to the effects of a warming world, San Antonio will also need a clearer picture of what its climate will be like decades from now.

UTSA researchers are using models and weather data to predict what San Antonio’s future climate will be like through 2100, Melnick said. Their work is now in peer-review.

If all goes as planned, the action plan should be done by December and the adaptation plan by March 2019. The plans are supposed to guide San Antonio through 2050.

“We really need to think about short-term, medium-term and long-term,” CPS Energy Chief Operating Officer Cris Eugster said.

Melnick said the next step is taking the “vision and priorities” from this meeting and others like it and putting it in one place, such as, and adjusting it if necessary.

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Brendan Gibbons

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