One by one, the blindfolded children step up and extend their decorated broom handles. Their attacks on the coal plant piñata range from the tearfully timid to irredeemably power-mad. “Show us how much you hate coal!” a woman eggs them on. It’s Global Work Day at the Roots of Change Community Garden behind the Southwest Workers Union’s East Commerce Street offices and around the world this Sunday groups are getting together to take simple steps to reduce the impact of climate change on the planet. Sumo wrestlers are bicycling to work in Japan and families across fire-ravaged Russia are replanting thousands of lost trees, according to 350.org, the group behind the event.
Here in San Antonio, several dozen students, organizers, teachers, and concerned residents are prepping garden beds and discussing ways to inject a carbon awareness into local politics. As volunteers tilled the soil on what was a few years ago a hangout for intravenous drug users, three UTSA music education majors played chamber music in the shade.
Fifth-grade teacher and 350.org organizer Mobi Warrren chose the SWU location to drive home the importance of growing local food as a way of cutting fossil fuel use. But the gardens also speak to the ability to regenerate community. “I think we’re gonna face some tough times in the next few decades, and if we can’t create some kind of sustainable system close to where we live, I think survival is going to be a big issue,” says Warren. “South Texas is probably going to be a difficult place anyway with drought.”
Diana Lopez, environmental justice organizer with SWU, tells the many students at the garden that just four years ago the now verdant surroundings — founded after a short-lived victory over a diesel storage company seeking to set up shop in the Eastside — were a vast “negative space.” “Four years ago I didn’t know what any of these plants were. I didn’t know how tomatoes grew. I didn’t know anything.”
But if Lopez and the gathering climate movement is a work in progress, San Antonio’s response to escalating carbon realities is as well.
Only a decade ago words like “sustainability” and “renewable” were foreign concepts here, said Laurence Doxey, director of the Office of Environmental Policy, a department created during the Hardberger Administration as the first city sustainability plan, known as Mission Verde, was being drafted. “I think the city in general has really embraced `sustainability` to a degree that was almost invisible 10 years ago,” Doxey told the Current. “It was lonely voices there at that point in time. Now I think there’s a pretty good chorus going on.”
That doesn’t mean eco-villainy was been eradicated. For instance, both city-owned CPS Energy and hometown petroleum refiner Valero have been actively lobbying against federal cap-and-trade legislation in Washington, D.C. Without the world’s premier greenhouse-gas polluter (the U.S. was only recently surpassed by China) on track to cut emissions, any international agreements remain unlikely. Valero’s rising prominence (thanks in no small part to military fuel contracts) has enabled it to go a step further, spending $4 million recently in the hopes of rolling back a California law aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in that state.
Unlike cities like Chicago, New York, and nearby Austin, however, San Antonio’s “green” plan isn’t a climate-minded one. Verde pays little mind to reducing greenhouse gases. Instead, it focuses on the economic potential of renewable energy technologies, weatherization projects, and alternative transportation efforts. The more palatable emphasis has allowed establishment types to regularly fill high-dollar luncheons organized by the increasingly influential Clean Technology Forum, a growing group that started out as a circle of wealthy residents hoping to learn how to make money investing in the many low-carbon start-ups starting to sell stock and court investors. But Hardberger had to take some actions behind the scenes to fulfill his pledge as one of hundreds of U.S. mayor’s pledging to meet or exceed the terms of the failed Kyoto Protocol by reducing their cities’ greenhouse emissions. In November of 2008, an inventory of city greenhouse gas generation was published. It shows that the vast majority of climate-altering gases are created in the generation of electricity. No surprises there, thanks to our growing stable of coal plants (Spruce Two, which came online earlier this year, is the city’s fourth coal plant). But it also showed government buildings were the leading consumer of that electricity, a fact energy-efficiency programs are now seeking to address.
What hasn’t followed Hardberger’s 2007 start has been a city-wide target for reduction or an action plan to get us there. Yet, blogs like PowerSmack.org have begun to offer glowing reviews of San Antonio’s progress in energy efficiency and renewable energy — rating the Alamo City ahead of Austin in four of five categories.
In a “Green Power Smackdown,” authors Robin Rather and Mike Sloan point out San Antonio now has 884 megawatts of renewables on tap, compared with Austin’s 452 megawatts. Ironically, it was Austin’s City Council that adopted a climate plan in 2007, announcing its intention to make Austin Energy “the leading utility in the nation for greenhouse gas reductions.”
Despite San Antonio’s progress, it’s more difficult to have serious discussion about global warming here. That may pose problems as the pressure to continue the low-carbon strategies advocated by consultant Jeremy Rifkin and embraced by CPS build. With the most recent scientific reports suggesting we are headed toward the worst-case projections envisioned by the International Panel on Climate Change, more difficult choices lay ahead. They are choices that will require the city to take action in ways that may hurt local pocketbooks in the short term as we attempt to lessen climatic wrath of more than 6-degree temperature rises and the onset of “permanent drought” in the decades to come. 350.org has adopted the position of NASA scientist and activist Jim Hansen that the “safe” level of greenhouse gas equivalent in the atmosphere is no more than 350 parts per million. However, thanks to the impact of fossil-fuels-based industrialization over the last century, both CO2 and global temperatures have been on the rise. Current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are about 390 parts per million.
Mona Kandeler, a retired schoolteacher and Global Work Day volunteer, has become a force for environmental awareness in her church, Travis Park United Methodist Church, where her husband, Fred, recently served as interim minister. “When I talk to people about the simple things, some of them listen to that, she says after the piñata finally surrenders its peanuts, chocolates, and native seeds. “But when you ask them to think about it on a political level to really force change to happen, I find it very difficult.
Churches freely pass the plate to collect money for flood-ravaged Pakistan, for instance, and parishioners respond generously. But they are much less likely to be willing to change how they live, even when told the product of their lifestyle is the intensifying floods and forest fires at the root of so many recent disasters, Fred Kandeler adds.
The state of conflict exists in local policy, too. As CPS Energy finishes out the carbon spewing Spruce Two, it is also watching a 14-megawatt, 150-acre solar farm take shape on the Southside. Duke Energy also will be testing 8 different solar technologies at the location, said Cris Eugster, CPS’s chief sustainability officer.
Last week, CPS announced it had penned deals for 30 more megawatts worth of solar at three more sites. While the locations of the three plants are still to be determined, Eugster promised they will be feeding into our grid directly and won’t be diluted over miles of transmission lines. And as CPS staffers have begun touring research centers where possible carbon solutions are being developed, including a prototype operation in California that one day may be able to absorb the coal plant’s CO2 and turn it into harmless limestone-like building material, a pro-coal lobby established under former CEO Milton Lee continues to fight cap-and-trade legislation in Congress. However, in the months ahead CPS will be working on an official climate response with the help of Les Shepard, director of UTSA’s Institute for Conventional, Alternative and Renewable Energy.
Eugster isn’t sweating the recent loss of 27-megawatt installation planned for Marfa. “If it is far off and remote, it doesn’t become part of the fabric of that community,” he said.
It’s that “fabric” that Eugster, Doxey, and the 350.org attendees all want to invigorate. Ideally, a San Antonio mind shift would be one that embraces lifestyle choices that take the economic and human impacts of climate change into account, an understanding that climate change isn’t strictly an “environmental” issue but a challenge for all levels of society. If a few hundred thousand migrants and an economic recession can bring out the most xenophobic elements in our national politics, how will we respond when large-scale crop failures across Mexico caused by rising temperatures and drought inspire five million or more Mexicans to seek relief in the U.S., as one recent Princeton paper suggested could happen?
It’s hard on a beautiful fall day to deliver a message of climatic doom. Just ask any of the major media that failed to attend the piñata busting. But even Doxey expects that as both average temperatures and petroleum-based energy prices continue to rise, San Antonio will see a flip of its emphases. “I think we’ll get some good traction out of it in these earlier days when the sensitivity on climate is still kind of muted,” he said. “Once we see some more events `with` the finger really pointing at climate change, that’s going to be `when` the shift will happen.”
Of course, the Great Melt is already happening. Only, in large part, the negative consequences are being felt most acutely elsewhere: the Arctic thaw; wildfires in Russia and Australia; sea-level rise in India and Oceania. “For a species that has the ability to reason (laugh) and do abstract thinking, we are still much more responsive to immediate stimulus,” Doxey said.
For those who gathered at the Roots of Change over the weekend, waiting for the local crisis that tips the scales is not an option. Sane climate response requires someone like Doxey or Mayor Julián Castro to take political risks, Warren said. You’re not supposed to really talk about climate change. You’re not really supposed to let people know these things might be related to global warming. It’s supposed to be about green jobs. And I think that’s a huge mistake. I think people really deserve to know the truth. I think we’ve got to do that. •