Dallas City Council member Omar Narvaez holds up a copy of the Dallas climate plan at the virtual vote on Wednesday. Photo by Julie Thibodeaux.
May 29, 2020
This week, the Dallas City Council took a step to address a worldwide environmental crisis at the local level by passing the city’s first ever climate action plan.
The Dallas Comprehensive Environmental and Climate Action Plan, or CECAP for short, was approved on Wednesday by Mayor Eric Johnson and all 14 council members, who attended remotely via video call due to coronavirus precautions. Pride, congratulations to the plan's leaders and a sense of enthusiasm prevailed as the virtual session closed.
"This momentous action takes a balanced approach, sets ambitious goals and accounts for economic needs," said Mayor Johnson at the press conference following the vote. "It lays out 97 actions that Dallas and its partners can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the effects of climate change, and provide a healthier, prosperous life in every part of our city."
Goals include transportation, energy efficiency measures, better land use and water quality protection, renewable energy and access to sustainable food. (See CECAP goals.)
The plan’s passage puts Dallas in the company of Austin, San Antonio and Houston, which unveiled its climate plan on Earth Day, as well as many of the 446 cities signed to the U.S. Mayors Climate Agreement. The CECAP aspires to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in accord with the international Paris Agreement. That means getting to net-zero emissions over 2015 levels by 2050, to escape the worst effects of global climate disruption - such as Dallas's swarm of 10 tornadoes last October.
"This momentous action takes a balanced approach, sets ambitious goals and accounts for economic needs. It lays out 97 actions that Dallas and its partners can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce the effects of climate change, and provide a healthier, prosperous life in every part of our city." - Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson
WORK IN PROGRESS
"Aspires" is a key word. Dallas' plan, as launched, doesn't account for the full reductions necessary, the city's development team acknowledged. However, half of the actions are begun, as well as steps to add more.
The predominant public response at the virtual council session was qualified approval. At least 40 residents who spoke before the vote via audio call emphasized this present shortfall.
"We need bolder action, faster," was a common thread. Speakers' tones ranged from "Good job, let's start here and move forward" to one comment, "I cannot in good conscious endorse something that doesn’t promise meaningful enforcement or policy action for 10 years, on one of the most important crises we face," from Corey Troiani. Troiani is the DFW director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, which opposed the plan.
Several called forcefully for establishment of the planned Environmental Commission, and its renaming as Environmental Health Commission, emphasizing the need to lift the health burden of pollution that encumbers many neighborhoods. The permanent environmental commission would be formed of community members and business representatives, charged to review CECAP progress and report to the council.
"The plan creates a path to make the commission," stated James McGuire, director of the Environmental Quality and Sustainability department, the plan's developers. "Environmental health is a part of 46 of the 97 actions."
City commissions must be created by ordinance, about a year-long process.
In the run-up to the vote, Dallas Sierra Club, Public Citizen and others had emphasized that approval of an official climate action plan opens the door to grants and other funding from sources such as Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Rockefeller Foundation-funded C40 Cities and others.
Representatives of 14 environmental and community groups and League of Women Voters, from all parts of the city, as well as unaffiliated residents, gave audio comment to council while social distancing in their homes.
Molly Rooke, speaking for Dallas Sierra Club and 350Dallas, the local chapter of the international climate action group 350.org, said, its up to environmentalists to keep the City on track.
"We, and others, will help the City explore and put in place additional actions and emerging opportunities to reach these goals...to move forward quickly and equitably."
During the council members' comments period, many indicated strong support for environmental health efforts, if not the name change.
"We each have areas in our own districts with environmental concerns," said councilmember Casey Thomas of District 3. "This is a big day for Dallas, for our environment, for the air quality. We have begun the process of a comprehensive plan. One thing we know about comprehensive plans... it's fluid, it's changing. We have to be flexible to make those changes, but we can't let the great be the enemy of the good...We've got to have a plan that we can amend."
Tennell Atkins of District 8 noted, "In my district, we have the McCommas Landfill, [federal Superfund site] Lane Plating and Shingle Mountain." That notorious pile of toxin-leaching asphalt that abuts several homeowners' properties has lingered for three years in default of decisive city or state action. "People live with the pollution every day. We've got to clean it up."
Councilmember Paula Blackmon of District 9, a public heath nurse, spoke in kind, adding that flooding and stormwater are also environmental health challenges.
"With equity always at the forefront of my priorities, environmental justice, environmental health are something I am passionate about," said District 7's Adam Bazaldua.
He applauded "how much of a fighter [Commission] Chairman Narvaez is...the way he has handled concrete batch plants in his district."
"I'm fully confident, going forward, that to the concerns of several outspoken individuals concerning environmental health being a component of the commission...it will continue to be a priority, with that champion driving the train."
COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION NEEDED
More than 900 public comments were received by the city's environmental department, which held 108 community meetings to explain the plan.
Twenty to 30 letters favorable to CECAP came to the City from business, including the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, Real Estate Council, Metrotex and Dallas Builders Association, city staff reported. At the same time, two letters of opposition came from vested energy interests, including the oil and gas industry group.
Two years of Green Source DFW reporting on preparations for CECAP support the necessity for public participation and business buy-in. Dallas city operations generate only about 2 percent of emissions of Dallas’ 1.2 million population. Environmental Quality staff with responsibility that impacts the plan - for water conservation, zero waste and urban ag - amount to only 18 people, plus six on climate, stated Susan Alvarez, assistant director for the Office of Environmental Quality and Sustainabilty. The outreach staff numbers only five.
With a $100 million city budget shortfall anticipated, according to one source, the need for partnerships that bring funding was cited in several conversations with both Environmental Quality and Sustainability staff and environmental advocates.
Some council recognized the need for participation.
"I want to thank all those who helped and say, we know we will have to have volunteers and Sierra Club and other groups to help accomplish the plan," said Carolyn King Arnold, District 4 councilmember .
In a post-vote interview, local climate activist Rooke gave her views about the way forward with all hands on deck, public information and more GHG number-crunching to pilot more action, faster.
"I would like for those who advocated for its passage to look carefully at the CECAP and see what they can do. ...Let's help. They have limited staff. We have the interest. Let's help. Let's do it. Let's do our part."
This would give groups that urged additional actions their best chance to get them adopted and executed.
Asked what action areas were critical to her, Rooke said, "My first big focus would be education." Not of elementary school or grad students, an initiative mentioned at Tuesday's CECAP Town Hall, but of the public and necessary partners, for immediate action.
"It won't be possible to meet the emission reductions without residents' efforts."
"We need to bring along more of the community. You know, there was a question at one point, will we be telling people that they can't choose between natural gas and electricity? Will they not have that option? So I think that education does have a very important role to play. I just want to make sure that we really get aggressive about that... "
It's [also about] getting the builders and others who will need to be making changes right now voluntarily doing more. because they can, not because they're being told to. Because it's good for the environment, because maybe they can promote their green buildings as something that can help as a marketing niche."
"At the same time, let's also be planning for other actions that we can put in to accelerate our emission reductions, because we're going to have to. We're gonna have to get those emissions down to meet the goals at 2030."
Secondly, Rooke said, knowledge of the GHG-reduction value of specific actions is vital.
"We need to understand the greenhouse gas reductions and data modeling behind actions planned, taking a detailed look...with knowledge of how they were calculated. So that interested supporters can speak up for other actions and their resultant reductions to get them done."
"And in addition...to look at the actions that are in there and see how big the reductions could be if we expand or accelerate them."
"I heard some of the comments that were pushing for more, as not being very different from others that said, let's get started, and let's do more...Some people who had anger in their voice, their goals are really not different...We all want the same thing."
DRIVEN TO MAKE CHANGE
The virtual public gathering for the vote cut across boundaries of neighborhood, income and ethnicity. It was the most diverse gathering before council that many observers could remember, some with decades of involvement.
And uniquely, the two foremost leaders of the climate action plan's implementation, Councilmember Omar Narvaez and Mayor Johnson have lived amid pollution, some of it the product of GHG-emitting industry. Five other councilmembers shared that background or similar conditions in their districts.
District 6's Narvaez, who chairs the Environment and Sustainability committee that shepherded the completed climate plan to a vote, grew up in West Dallas, with its lead smelter and concrete batch plants.
Mayor Johnson began his childhood in West Dallas.
"When I was 10, we moved," he shared at city council, "but I would take the Boys and Girls Club bus to West Dallas after school...I grew up partly in the shadow of the lead smelter. I had to take blood tests for lead my whole childhood."
"So I care about the environment, not because I read a book, or got a a degree or became an environmentalist. I care because I lived it."
His life experience, he said, will drive his outreach to partners, business and the public, that the Dallas climate action plan must have to succeed.
"People think they have to be an environmentalist to care about climate change," he added at the post-vote press conference. "They don't. All they have to be is a human being. If you want green space, clean water, clear air, good health, you care about climate change."
"I will communicate that. I will work to change the public perception."
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