Perhaps no image, pledge or action symbolizes the city of Austin’s take on global climate change better than that of Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr.
In 2015, Kerr spoke bluntly on climate change in a White House video starring fire chiefs from around the nation. She linked a changing Central Texas environment to several years of intense drought and a subsequent yo-yoing between disasters.
The region “is a huge area for wildfires, then it’s floods, then we have wildfires, then we have floods,” Kerr said, calling on all Austin residents “to do their part.”
That is a more somber chord than city leaders struck a decade ago, when they adopted Austin’s groundbreaking Climate Protection Plan to great fanfare. Then-Mayor Will Wynn framed the plan as an extension of Austin’s soul, a way to demonstrate to the nation how a city could reduce the greenhouse gases that the vast majority of climate scientists say are warming the planet and causing increasingly severe weather.
Ten years later, the Climate Protection Plan has evolved, along with the broader climate change discussions.
Austin has one of the most ambitious municipal climate plans in the nation, experts say — particularly considering that the city sits in the heart of Texas, where state leaders wary of climate science have not passed the kind of mandates and incentives that have compelled cities to cut their reliance on fossil fuels, as California and other more liberal states have.
Austin’s take on climate science also stands in contrast to views expressed by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, the influential Texas Republican whose district includes parts of Austin, and President Donald Trump. In 2012, Trump posted on Twitter that the “concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” He mocked the concept again in 2015 and, despite saying after the election that he has an “open mind” on climate science, vowed to eliminate predecessor Barack Obama’s climate change policies, which are in line with Austin’s.
The city is on pace to meet its ambitious goals, such as reducing the communitywide greenhouse gas emissions to 11.3 million metric tons of carbon equivalent, according to city analyses. But many civic activists say the plan’s real significance is not in tailpipe emissions, recycling or national recognition — it’s how the plan influences the entire municipal operation.
“It serves as a policy backdrop for everything that gets done,” said Andrew Dobbs, program director at Texas Campaign for the Environment. “There’s nothing less affordable than the disaster facing us if we don’t change our ways.”
An all-in accounting of the climate plan’s benefits, costs and subtle influence on city policy hasn’t been done, nor is it likely to be possible.
“The challenge with climate change-related actions is that there isn’t a clean boundary for calculating a direct or immediate benefit from any single ton of greenhouse gas emissions being avoided or reduced,” said Amy Petri, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Sustainability. “This is the fundamental economic challenge with climate change.”
Critics have derided the climate plan as an unnecessary vanity project. Objections arose in 2011, when city leaders decided that the municipal government should power itself entirely with renewable energy. The change moved the city government closer to its carbon emission goals. But it also added $8.6 million to the budget that year because renewables were more expensive than Austin Energy’s standard mix of coal, natural gas and nuclear energy.
In the early days, city climate talks focused mainly on electricity: how much to rely on coal, which emits significant amounts of greenhouse gases, and how much to rely on renewables such as wind and solar, at the time more expensive.
But Austin has been effective in pursuing its carbon goals, said Bruce Melton, the climate change chairman of the Austin Sierra Club. He noted, though, that Austin has benefited from developments that city leaders did not originally envision. For instance, the city shrank its carbon footprint as the cost of natural gas dropped sharply and gas began supplanting coal.
The next steps in carbon reduction might not be as easy, even with the price of renewables plummeting, Melton said.
Amid talks of carbon reduction, the City Hall vernacular has also shifted to terms such as “adaptation” and “resilience.” Evidence suggests Austin is getting hotter and more prone to the drought-to-deluge pendulum that has always been a threat but appears to be getting worse, according to an extensive analysis done in 2014 by Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.
The Austin Fire Department is now developing long-term strategies with an eye toward that pendulum. In 2012, the department established a $1.6 million wildfire prevention division, a move that had been under consideration for years and was finally made after Labor Day 2011, when nine major wildfires, including the Bastrop Complex fire — the worst in Texas history — burned across Central Texas.
Regardless of whether human-made climate change played a role in those fires, the city has to prepare as if that sort of catastrophic event could happen again, city officials say.
A similar line of thinking led Austin to limit lawn watering to once a week, said Daryl Slusher, an assistant director of the Austin Water Utility.
That decision came in response to the five-year drought that ended in 2015, the hardest drought on record and one that threatened the region’s water supply.
Slusher said Austinites seem to have realized they live in a new situation. He is fond of one climate statistic in particular. Austin, he said, has added about 180,000 people since 2006 but uses less water now than it did a decade ago.