Austin is Proving that Cities in Conservative States Can Lead on Climate Change
AUSTIN, TEXAS — This month, the capital of Texas threw its support behind the Green New Deal resolution, a bold proposal that aims to tackle both climate change and social inequities in one fell swoop. In supporting the resolution, lawmakers and advocates hope Austin can lead the way for other cities in Republican-controlled states to chart their own path.
Turning the symbolism of supporting the Green New Deal into concrete action will take significant work, however, even as the city advances new policies to mitigate and prepare for the impacts of climate change. And unlike cities in states largely controlled by Democrats, Austin is embracing the Green New Deal in a deeply conservative state dominated by the fossil fuel industry.
“As we’ve seen throughout the country, sometimes things can start from the local level,” Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Sierra Club’s Texas chapter, told ThinkProgress. “Having a city express support is important. But to get beyond the symbolism, we’d have to decide, how do you actually come up with a plan?”
The city’s endorsement of the federal resolution, introduced by Council Member Leslie Pool, was part of two environmental proposals unanimously approved by the city council earlier this month. The other, proposed by Council Member Alison Alter, creates a comprehensive electric vehicle (EV) plan that will be part of the city’s forthcoming climate plan update. Local environmental advocates said the real victory lies in that proposal, along with the main instruction from Pool’s resolution, which calls for crafting a climate resilience plan and hiring a chief resilience officer.“The Council recognizes we are already experiencing the adverse consequences of climate change, understands the urgency of creating a blueprint to prepare for and respond to the shocks and stressors of catastrophic climate events, and supports the general tenets of the Green New Deal,” the resolution states.
More than 75% of greenhouse gas emissions from Austin and surrounding Travis County come from transportation and electricity production. Austin is also growing, quickly, with its population expected to double in the next two decades. But that hasn’t stopped local climate ambitions.
Austin has long embraced eco-friendly action and city officials and activists say the decision to back the Green New Deal is no different. The Texas capital already has a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, in addition to transitioning local utility Austin Energy to 55% renewables by 2025. It is also one of the C40 network of megacities around the world working to implement the goals of the Paris climate agreement.
A climate resilience plan would go beyond these initiatives by directing City Manager Spencer Cronk to research similar efforts in other cities and give recommendations by August 22. Officials said electric vehicle expansion would likely be part of any final plan, along with potentially ramping up renewable energy targets for Austin Energy.
Austin’s support for the Green New Deal resolution comes as cities and states take the lead on climate action with increasing urgency. The federal resolution calls for a rapid nationwide mobilization to achieve net-zero emissions while ensuring mass job creation. Social justice principles like education access and universal health care are also emphasized in the sweeping proposal.
With the Republican-controlled Senate and White House unlikely to get on board with any ambitious climate action, however, officials at the local level have opted to move forward with climate action themselves. Cities like New York and Los Angeles have used the Green New Deal’s brand to market their own efforts, as have some states.
Pool, who introduced Austin’s resolution, described Austin as one of many cities eager to push for climate action nationally.
“Several other cities across the country support the Green New Deal for the same reasons we do – because it recognizes the value of connecting climate resilience with economic opportunity,” she said in a statement shared with ThinkProgress. “That’s a win-win-win for everybody. We know that these big, aspirational efforts take time to build momentum. Our work here locally is an important prod to that larger, broader effort.”
Activists hoping for policies that match the scale of the federal Green New Deal, however, may have to temper their expectations.
While some advocates have marketed the pending resilience plan as a Green New Deal for Austin, others have been less bold. Members of Pool’s staff told ThinkProgress that a local Green New Deal would be a “great idea” but that the resilience plan remains the focus for lawmakers at the moment.
And in Republican-controlled Texas, state interference is never out of the question. Efforts to challenge subsidies for renewable energy failed to pass the biennial session of the Texas legislature this year, but the state has a history of interfering in city-level climate policies, as does the Texas Supreme Court. The judicial body ruled against plastic bag bans in 2018, impacting both Austin and the city of Laredo.
“Let’s be honest, the state of Texas is the leading producer of oil and gas and has a lot of jobs and infrastructure relating to fossil fuels,” said Sierra Club’s Reed, adding that it is likely “not possible to do a statewide Green New Deal resolution” in Texas.
Some environmentalists are also critical of rhetoric versus reality in cities like Austin. Advocates have pushed back, for example, on a proposal to expand the I-35 highway, arguing that it flies in the face of things like local support for the Green New Deal. Such an expansion would allow for more cars on the road, likely generating significantly more emissions.
The Green New Deal’s social elements also pose a challenge for policymakers. Texas is the most uninsured state in the country and even Austin’s efforts to enshrine paid sick leave have met with resistance from the state legislature. Environmental proponents like Reed also pointed to the intersection of climate impacts and social injustices — recovery from Hurricane Harvey, for instance, has hit low-income communities and people of color hardest.
Accounting for those discrepancies is critical for proponents of the Green New Deal. But Austin’s efforts and growing momentum in other Texas cities indicates climate action could have a far wider reach than it has historically, something that heartens advocates.
Luke Metzger, executive director of the nonprofit Environment Texas, told ThinkProgress that the city’s climate push represents an important new phase in Austin’s efforts, calling the EV plan in particular “an important addition” to the city’s climate ambitions. He also indicated that statewide climate momentum is building.
“It’s possible other Texas cities might endorse the Green New Deal,” Metzger said, pointing to Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio in particular, with all three cities currently developing their own climate plans.
Of those, San Antonio’s plan is the farthest along, but the city has faced an uphill battle. Metzger said oil companies based in San Antonio have resisted the plan, including Valero. The proposal has also become an issue in the mayoral race. Mayor Ron Nirenberg has strongly supported climate action in San Antonio, but he is headed into a run-off against Council Member Greg Brockhouse, who has threatened to squash the climate plan.
But Reed remains optimistic. “I think we’re at that tipping point,” he said of the growing momentum for climate action in the state. “I think we are on track.”
E.A. (Ev) Crunden covers climate policy and environmental issues at ThinkProgress.