How Cool Is Austin?
With a deep, collective breath, the city rolls out a world-class but as yet unproven climate-protection plan
"It's a moral challenge for us as human beings to step up."
Mayor Will Wynn is blunt when he talks about the global climate change crisis and the new Austin Climate Protection Plan. Embodied in a resolution adopted unanimously by City Council in February, the plan states no less lofty a goal than to "make Austin the leading city in the nation" in the fight against global warming. The mayor asserts that he, the council, and the city manager are fully engaged and "very serious collectively" about reducing Austin's greenhouse-gas emissions. Such leadership is critical at the city level, the council resolution states, because "the federal government has failed to enact meaningful responses to reverse the threat of global warming."
In his office last week, Wynn spoke at length about the Climate Protection Plan, with an infectious passion that made it evident the 45-year-old mayor has found his bliss. "I am so optimistic and energized and motivated!" said Wynn. "Shame on us, as a city and as a community, if we don't step up as a model for saving the planet."
It's not every day a mayor gets to be Superman and save the world. But is Austin's new plan really that good? And is it achievable?
"My overall take is that Austin's ambitious plan really is among the best in the nation, along with Seattle, Portland, and Santa Monica," said Glen Brand, in the Portland, Maine, office of the Sierra Club's Global Warming & Energy Program.
"I think it's the single most comprehensive global warming plan of any city in the U.S.," said Jim Marston, director of the energy program for Environmental Defense in Austin. "It's put a spring in my step!"
"This goes beyond what any city in America has done for outlining a vision and aggressive goals," echoed his colleague Colin Rowan. "Is it achievable? Well, even if we miss the most aggressive goals a bit, we'll have improved things far more than we would have if we didn't set the bar this high."
A few local activists immediately questioned the launch and details of the plan. But Rowan explained, "It's important to understand that [Mayor Wynn] has outlined a broad vision. He didn't mandate the specifics. It's not yet a course of action ... but he really did his homework. Over the next year, the vision will be translated into how it will actually be executed and how it will be possible." Rowan cautioned that to succeed, "The city and mayor are really going to have to remain incredibly involved in this. It has to be a defining project for Mayor Wynn.
"People skeptical of government would assume that when a mayor makes an announcement of this scale, he's got all the details nailed down," Rowan noted. "But that's not what the mayor was doing. He was showing them the North Star: Here's where we want to go. Now we have to figure out how to get there."
A Mayor's Awakening
Will Wynn's calling to take personal action in the global warming crisis is a model of the gradual awakening that he hopes the ACPP can inspire in all Austinites. As a council member and in his first term as mayor, Wynn found himself working increasingly on issues involving Austin Energy, the city-owned electric utility. The more he learned about energy sustainability, he says, the more his passion and interest grew, although initially he regarded global warming as just one in the "grab bag" of environmental issues. One personal turning point was watching the international debate surrounding the Kyoto Protocol; "I was appalled we didn't sign the treaty," he says. Another was his increasing involvement with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, with Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels becoming a friend and mentor. "He was way ahead in awareness and activism," notes Wynn. (Nickels' U.S. Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement has been signed by 393 mayors, including Wynn, who together represent more than 57 million Americans. Nickels is spearheading a national effort for U.S. cities to commit to the Kyoto Protocol's standard of reducing emissions by 7% from 1990 levels, by 2012.)
Based on his experience with Austin Energy, Wynn saw an opportunity for the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Energy Committee to become more progressive, so he stepped up as its chair. Then in 2006, Wynn was strongly inspired by Al Gore and the book/movie An Inconvenient Truth: "I saw how powerful Gore's message has become." Wynn recently went through training by Gore at the Climate Project to deliver the educational slide show depicted in that film. He hopes to deliver the presentation on climate change to as many as 10,000 Austinites this year starting with every city department manager and assistant manager.
Of concern to some community members is the ACPP's lack of a citywide standard for reducing total greenhouse-gas emissions, e.g., the Kyoto Protocol. "People ask me, 'Why didn't you commit to Kyoto?'" said Roger Duncan, Austin Energy's sustainability czar, as he lamented our lack of a billion-dollar mass-transit system. "We'd have to get about 50 percent of people out of their automobiles. How do you do that in the next few years?" Duncan explained, "We could have just picked a number and thrown it out there, but we have to do the detailed planning first, or it won't mean anything."
Other environmental activists, like Donna Hoffman at the local Sierra Club chapter, see an immediate need to formalize an ACPP citizen advisory team. But City Manager Toby Futrell cautions, "The mayor had a big, bold idea. Thank God! Someone has to get it started nationally, and I'd like Austin to do that. What I'd ask is for everyone to please be a little patient; please give us a little time to try and frame an action plan. It's going to take every person in the community to help. This is so big, it's going to take every person and brain cell in Austin. So just let us get our arms around the vehicles and mechanisms for how to do this first."