Is a climate movement rooting in Alamo City?

Greg Harman

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About 50 San Antonio residents, including a gaggle of concerned high school and middle school students, gathered amidst the holiday décor at Milam Park Saturday night to show their solidarity with those pushing for tough international agreements on greenhouse gas reductions in Copenhagen this week.

It's the second such gathering I've attended in San Antonio in recent months. There was no talk of “green jobs” or stopping the expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear complex, popular topics for protesters over the past year. There was only a solitary, unified message for the world's governments to switch off of our CO2 pollution.

After decades of water organizing, drought awareness, and, more recently, anti-nuclear actions, the city's environmental and social justice communities may finally be birthing a climate movement similar to those found in cities all over the globe recognizing the destabilizing impact our current energy policies are having on the planet.

And from this perspective, the door to participation opens to those that also support nuclear power, or are at least undecided on the point, as more than a few environmentalists are.

Event organizer Mobi Warren, a local fifth grade teacher at SAISD, said she was recently “struck” by the immensity of climate change. “It's really just been in the last year that I said the single most important issue of our time is the climate and so I decided to kick up my involvement.”

She organizes through the group, founded by noted environmental author and activist Bill McKibben, and considers the October 24 gathering of poets at Michell Lake Audubon Center as her “first baby step.”

As I surveyed established environmental activists across the community, some suggested San Antonio has had a climate movement for years, but one operating behind the scenes and achieving objectives without pushing for a public statement on climate from the city. Others I talked to suggested we're a long ways yet from realizing the full ramifications of climate justice.

The city's (to my knowledge) first fulltime organizer dedicated to climate justice has only staffed her post for a couple months. Marisol Cortez, climate justice organizer for the Southwest Workers' Union (which also has two staffers at the Copenhagen climate gathering blogging back on this site), says in the most basic sense there is a movement here, since there is a “structure of feeling” shared across the city.

“I feel like there is that happening. As to whether it's organized in a way that is the most powerful or the most effective it could be, I think maybe not,” Cortez said. “I think it's totally viable â?¦ I feel like what's missing is more communication between people that are organizing things separately and more shared understanding about what exactly we're trying to achieve and how to do it.”

A few years ago, Climate Change got its first significant recognition in San Antonio when Mayor Phil Hardberger, after months of badgering by local environmentalists, signed on to an accord led by Seattle Mayor Greg Nichols.

It's known as the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and it came with some specific commitments. One, member cities must “strive to meet or beat” the greenhouse reduction goals set by the Kyoto Protocol. Two, member cities should lobby their respective states and Congress to pass a carbon-reduction plan, including a carbon market to help equalize the cost of traditional carbon-rich fuels with developing, renewable energies.

While Hardberger gifted the city a sustainability plan, Mission Verde, during his final months in office, there has been no plan worked out to reduce our greenhouse footprint. On the lobbying front, strangely our current mayor is able to sit at U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu's left hand and talk green jobs with President Obama while our City-owned utility has spent at least $90,000 lobbying against Obama's desired cap-and-trade.

That divide is obviously not a pressing issue, as CPS staffers briefed the Board of Trustees on their coal-utility memberships and lobbying activity at yesterday's meeting and not a single question from the Board was uttered.

While San Antonio-area governments are working to tabulate their total greenhouse emissions, they are not developing a policy to reduce those emissions. Not exactly.

“`Hardberger` didn't really want to get involved in the climate change aspect of it,” said Laurence Doxey, director of the City's Office of Environmental Policy. “Although, behind the scenes `it's` what's really driving everybody to a new energy economy, along with the security concerns.”

“The reasons for us changing were not expressed as solely, â??We need to do this to keep the planet from going up in smoke,'” Doxey said. “It's achieving the same goals. The things you need to do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are the things the Mission Verde plan is talking about doing.”

While Verde still needs to be adopted by the Council, Doxey said there hasn't been a huge press for a greenhouse plan at the city level.

“We haven't really seen the response from those who think, â??Yeah, this is happening and we really need to do something.' I haven't sensed it in any way. They've been pretty happy there's a Mission Verde going and it meets the intent of having carbon reduction.”

That may change, as the likes of Warren and Chavez continue to organize actions.

Warren blamed the apparent low interest on the topic on “confusion” about the science. It's a confusion that is perpetuated far more in the media than in the scientific journals.

Locally, Express-News columnist Jonathan Gurwitz found the lure of suggested conspiracy in the recent hacked emails from a UK climate research center too great to resist. Instead of considering the science first and offering insight into the obvious human failures at play, he dove straight into a FOX News hyperventilation alleging the science of human-driven global warming, first proposed more than 100 years ago at the advent of industrialization, is suddenly hoax material. The rationale? A couple scientists caught up in a stream of unflattering emails.

Anyone involved in the climate discussion (or those trying to write intelligently about it) should first read the basics of the science (News U has a new program for journos, Mr. Gurwitz. It's free!). The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has a good climate literacy handbook for non-scientists, and watchdog analysis of the hacked emails is also available through trusted

As a final note on this point, I would turn to statements from the world's top scientists, including the director of one of the more conservative of scientific bodies in the U.S., the American Meteorological Society, who writes on the topic:

The beauty of science is that it depends on independent verification and replication as part of the process of confirming research results. This process, which is tied intrinsically to the procedures leading to publication of research results in the peer-reviewed literature, allows the scientific community to confirm some results while rejecting others. It also, in a sense, lessens the impact of any one set of research results, especially as the body of research on any topic grows. ...

For climate change research, the body of research in the literature is very large and the dependence on any one set of research results to the comprehensive understanding of the climate system is very, very small. Even if some of the charges of improper behavior in this particular case turn out to be true â?? which is not yet clearly the case â?? the impact on the science of climate change would be very limited.

Credible and considered media representation of science â?? especially climate science, which is such a lightening rod for politically motivated attack â?? is critical to the formation of sane policies to protect the most vulnerable of South Texas and the world.

That's the direction groups like SWU and Esperanza want to take the conversation.

“Just thinking of climate change can mean a lot of different things to people,” said Genevieve Rodriguez, who has helped lead the anti-nuclear and free-speech campaigns for Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.

“Unless we have a holistic view on this that includes attacking our consumption, that includes changing the way we think we have to live, also changing who is deciding what happens with our energy â?¦ To say all we need are small campaigns to do all that is not accurate. We need a climate justice, climate change movement. We need a movement in changing the way we look at our resources.”

Back at the Milam Park gathering, a small group approaches me to ask what all the candles are for. A young woman giggles nervously on the edge of the gathering as I explain what motivated all of us to come out on a chilly San Antonio night.

One says he thought maybe it was a memorial service of some sort after he spotted my Madonna veladora in the midst of more than 50 white candles.

Is it a memorial? Perhaps the Copenhagen conference will decide. Especially considering the politics hurting chances for a binding international resolution on greenhouse-gas reductions, the latest projections for containing warming to easily survivable levels aren't good.

The sooner San Antonio makes its commitment to reductions official the better.