It was the first issue Ron Nirenberg took on when he entered office as mayor nearly two years ago. President Trump had pulled the United States out of the Paris accord and its commitment to address the dangers of climate change. Nirenberg led City Council in nearly unanimously voting to join other major U.S. cities in tackling the challenge on their own.
Now at the end of his first term, Nirenberg has put the brakes on the effort, postponing a scheduled vote on an ambitious plan called SA Climate Ready, characterized as a “road map” designed to bring San Antonio to carbon neutrality by 2050.
The decision brought relief to Richard Perez, CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, who reflected the strong resistance from San Antonio’s oil and gas sector and other businesses.
It brought anger from Greg Harman of the Sierra Club, who worries that the delay amounts to caving on the plan.
It brought predictable political rhetoric from mayoral candidate Greg Brockhouse, the District 6 councilman, who characterized it as an attempt by Nirenberg to avoid a business backlash before next month’s election.
But the reaction that most interests me came from Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7). Many would expect Sandoval to be pressing hard for aggressive environmental regulations. Her passion for the environment is well-honed.
After graduating (in the same class as Julián and Joaquín Castro) from Jefferson High School, she earned a bachelor’s in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She knows how chemical compounds react in the atmosphere, their roles in producing both pollution and atmospheric warming.
After a Fulbright fellowship took her to Mexico City for a year, she returned to San Antonio and worked at VIA. But she wanted to learn more about dealing with environmental issues, so she headed off to Stanford University to get a master’s in environmental and civil engineering.
It occurred to her that there is a link between environmental threats and the nation’s health, so she then went to Harvard for a master’s in public health.
This is a woman who not only has a passion for the environment, but also for getting educated about issues that concern her. So how did she respond to the strong blowback to the city’s plan on climate change from the business community and, in particular, the energy sector? She took responsibility for it.
“I would fault us, or me, for not having gone out to Valero and NuStar at the beginning of this process and saying, ‘Let’s sit down and talk,’” she told the San Antonio Express-News. “‘You’re a big employer in San Antonio, but we are going to have to do something about climate. And let’s talk about how we’re going to do that together.’”
To understand why that didn’t happen, you need to know how San Antonio has come to address long-term issues of general concern to the community. It started with Target 90, a community-wide planning process instituted by Mayor Henry Cisneros back in the 1980s. It’s been used several times since, most ambitiously in recent years as SA 2020, an initiative by Mayor Julián Castro.
The process for developing the climate plan was similar, involving scores of public meetings guided by a steering committee and staffed by the city’s Office of Sustainability. One public meeting in February drew about 150 people to the downtown’s Central Library.
But such freeform meetings tend to draw passionate citizens rather than business executives. And in San Antonio that tended to mean mainly climate activists and a few climate-change deniers. Notably absent were business leaders. City staff can boast thousands of public comments, but not from energy executives.
When it comes to issues such as climate change, where significant business leaders are likely at odds with much of the voting public (land development policies also come to mind), perhaps the process needs to be augmented by another political model – the legislative committee.
This is the kitchen where state laws are baked. Committees have powerful chairs who, at their best, make sure that all key interests are heard. It’s where compromises are made that are the essence of democracy.
Anyone can sign up to testify, but powerful constituencies are actively brought in. And they come, partly because they know they can’t just stay away, lie behind the log, and pop up on the House or Senate floor at the last minute.
San Antonio’s City Council has such committees, but the process is traditionally driven by City staff. The committees hear from and guide the staff, but they don’t often directly hear directly from all the key stakeholders and play an active role in drawing up the appropriate ordinances.
Guess who chairs the city’s Community Health and Equity Committee, whose responsibilities include “the protection and enhancement of the natural environment,” according to the city’s website? Yes, Ana Sandoval.
Sandoval agreed that the council committee could be a good place to get the key interest groups to the table, but she is concerned that energy sector leaders may see her as such an environmentalist that she won’t give them a fair hearing. This would be foolish for two reasons.
The first is that Sandoval is not anti-business. While in Mexico she took specialized courses leading to a certificate in binational business from the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, the top business university in the nation.
Second, she used to work at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, a regulatory agency that brokered the concerns of citizens and businesses. She knows that cost-benefit assessments are important.
Sandoval is very aware that you can’t govern a large and growing city like San Antonio while ignoring concerns of the business sector. But the business sector needs to be aware of something else: The city’s voters are very concerned about environmental issues.
One among many clues: In 2016 one of the presidential candidates vociferously contended that climate change was “a hoax.” He lost Bexar County by 13 points. And the city votes more Democratic than the county.
One more reason business leaders should take this opportunity to see if they can work with Sandoval, without expecting her to ignore the citizens’ concerns: She may well be mayor one day.