The Local Politics of Climate Protection

An interview with Will Wynn

The Local Politics of Climate Protection
Photo by John Anderson

Mayor Will Wynn launched the Austin Climate Protection Plan. We visited with him recently about his experiences, satisfactions, and frustrations with the implementation of the plan to date and what he anticipates for year two. What follows is the substance of that conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

Austin Chronicle: What city of Austin accomplishments from year one of the ACPP do you see as most significant, and why?

Will Wynn: I'm most proud of the overall awareness that has been raised, broadly, about global warming and energy consumption. A year later, the campaign seems to be working – starting with my colleagues, with line employees that I've interacted with sporadically, and then broadly in the community. Austin started at a more progressive place than many places, but I absolutely, positively see and feel that there has been a remarkable rising of the awareness – among individual citizens, organizations, business leaders.

AC: What personal efforts are you most proud of?

WW: When I tell people my home electricity bill is $28 again this month, that's had more of an impact than anything. It's a nice house, a $900,000 house, and we don't fool around in the dark – it's perfectly lit and perfectly comfortable! I'm also driving a fifth what I used to, maybe less. So those are the two main changes we can all make – drive less, use less electricity.

Both of those, by the way, put more money in your pocket. I say, keep your money. Don't give it to Austin Energy; don't give it to big gas and oil companies; don't give it to gasoline taxes. That resonates!

AC: In an op-ed published in the February 2007 Statesman, you wrote: "Over the next year, we'll study and develop policies for transportation, land use, waste management, landscapes and natural areas. We'll work with technical advisors, community groups, major employers, small businesses and surrounding communities. Together, we'll find new ways to reduce our region's carbon footprint." But after a year, those policies are not yet incorporated into the plan. While you and council have worked on many of these issues, you've rarely spoken of them as part of the Austin Climate Protection Plan. Why?

WW: As progressive as Austin is, I was careful not to tie everything into climate protection, even though it clearly plays a big role. The most blatant example: Transportation is far and away the biggest challenge for us as a community and a metro economy [in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions]. But as I kicked off the Transit Working Group and the call for urban passenger rail, I have never said, "Global warming is why we should be doing this." Even today, I think I would lose a third of my support for urban passenger rail if I say we're doing it for global warming.

AC: Why do you believe that's true? A survey just released by the ACPP office found that "89% of the residents surveyed, higher than national averages, believe that Austin residents will be affected by global warming/climate change."

WW: The number of skeptics has reduced dramatically. But they still might be about 50 percent of the guys and gals I deal with. People will pull me aside and say, "Mayor, we're all with you here on transit, but do me a favor and don't bring up global warming." They just don't want to have to be seen as on the global warming bandwagon.

But the good news is, we're doing all this stuff. Water conservation, open space, zero waste, land use, and transportation. So meanwhile, I'm satisfied knowing we're making dramatic inroads on the fundamental components of a comprehensive climate protection plan – frankly, without having to play the global warming card.

I take a lot of strength from it, and pride in it, that all this work that I – and a lot of other people – have done will get pulled under this umbrella. It's all going to knit together into a very effective set of policies.

AC: The resolution establishing the Climate Protection Plan as council policy stated: "The city councildirects the city managerto develop and implement, and to report to the city council annually upon the implementation and progress of, such policies, procedures, timelines and targets as are necessary to make Austin the leading city in the nation in the effort to reduce and reverse the negative impacts of global warming." Yet more than a year later, council has yet to receive its first annual report.

WW: My sense of the council is that they are aware of how hard Ester [Matthews, ACPP director] and her small staff now are working to get the information to us. So I think, like me, they're willing to be patient. There's going to be a formal presentation to us from staff, sooner rather than later. If the "first year" that we consider is July '07 to July '08, then that's understandable – so be it.

AC: Under our system of government, what powers do you have to ensure that the ACPP is fully implemented? [The City Charter prohibits the coun­cil from direct action in administrative matters.]

WW: The one power I have is persuasion, for good or bad. So, for the most part, I've been trying to do that out in the community, with my slide show [for which the mayor was trained by Al Gore at the Climate Project]. And then, with the city manager's blessing and help, talking with city staff. Right now I'm talking to Marc [Ott, new city manager] with one eye on the council – to make sure the council's still there and that I can speak for them with regards to implementation.

AC: To date, the city has engaged in little or no communication, internally or externally, about its climate protection successes. No comprehensive summary was made publicly available [until requested for this article] of implementation progress in the first year. How can that communication – and thus the power of our city's leadership – be strengthened?

WW: That will become my focus going forward, in working with city management. In hindsight, I can't tell you how firmly I believed that the real challenge was going to be the rank and file [of city employees]. So my focus was on addressing that and then asking the city manager what was going on in this or that department.

But now, beginning about a month ago, my questions are: Where's the website? What's the communication plan? Why does only about half of your Public Information Office seem to be even moderately knowledgeable about the plan?

This year, my personal role in questioning will be on the communications side. Hopefully year two – and not at the expense of real progress down in the trenches – will be about communication, communication, communication.

AC: Did the transition in city managers affect implementation of the ACPP?

WW: It was encouraging and efficient for Toby [Futrell, former city manager] to be as energetic as she was. She "bought in" from the get-go. But, perfectly predictably, we lost momentum the last four months or so of her tenure. But we also had a very successful budget year for the Climate Protection Plan; I think we got $1.25 million into the '07-'08 city budget.

And it was a key component of all of our interviews with the city manager semifinalists and finalists, by the way. I believe Marc Ott completely when he tells me how energetic he is to build on our existing reputation and momentum and help us get to the next level. So in that regard, I don't have any concerns about the Climate Protection Plan's implementation going forward.

AC: How do we get other key departments like Neighborhood Planning, Watershed Protection, and Fleet [city vehicles] up to Austin Energy sophistication levels?

WW: Ultimately, Ester and her staff have to be this centralized resource to all of our department directors. Part of the schematic plan was to build this. But I think that facilitating more interdepartmental communication is perfectly aligned with what Marc Ott wants to achieve. The Climate Protection Plan is a perfect opportunity for Marc to step in and, with his management style, work though creating that synergy – delivering on the promise of this great human capital we have.

AC: Why didn't council act to ensure that the climate protection initiative was appropriately staffed and funded right away?

WW: At the outset, I knew there was going to be a cost involved – and I assumed it was going to be seven figures. At the launch in February '07, this was still relative news to my council colleagues. But the department directors were already crafting their internal department budgets, on a real structured timeline, that ultimately work their way up to the city manager and council.

I fast-tracked having the public presentation and the announcement, and the next week hosted having an item from council to catch that budget cycle. For some council members who were less versed in this – frankly, they were still hearing from people saying global warming was just the next Ice Age. So the council resolution had no fiscal note with it. It was a directive to the manager to figure out: How do we fund this thing?

And lo and behold, when the final budget was approved, there was $1.25 million in it for that plan. The vote on that was the second week in September – and I humped it out in the community from February until September. I gave a huge number of my shows out in the community during that period because, broadly speaking, we weren't yet there as a community. We weren't ready to cut another department or program in order to put $1.25 million into stopping global warming.

Frankly, I was anticipating some push-back that never materialized. I was pleasantly surprised that we got through that first year. Now I think we've reached that tipping point nationally, locally, and I think even largely in the business community now.

AC: So is that in itself a major accomplishment for the plan's first year – that it survived?

WW: One of the things I'm most pleased with is that we even got there – that there wasn't significant push-back. Either politically, scientifically, or from a budgetary standpoint. Don't forget that during this year we had our state leaders saying: "Global warming isn't happening. And if it is happening, human activity had nothing to do with it."

Newsweek last month featured us in an article, "The CO2 State." [Feb. 28 Newsweek Web Exclusive]. It talks about Texans in general – we use more AC per capita, and so on. It talks about all the Republican governors who are leading their statewide climate protection efforts. Five of the eight leading state plans are all led by Republicans. But it notes that, "In the absence of any leadership from the state capitol to address carbon emissions, the city of Austin has taken the reins. [Our Cli­mate Protection Plan] is seen by environmentalists as the country's most aggressive municipal initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gases."

AC: Can Austin help turn Texas around?

WW: We can, and we should. No article should come out in the national press that doesn't mention what Austin is doing. I do want more people nationally and internationally to know what we're doing here – in the belly of the beast.

AC: What is your current expectation for the date by which council will receive staff recommendations for the three things called for in year one? 1) A communitywide GHG inventory, 2) establishedtargets for emission reductions, and 3) a comprehensive plan for meeting those targets.

WW: I don't want to be arbitrary about a date, although I do believe in deadlines. The prediction is for a long, hot, dry summer – so one day when it's 114 degrees, we can decide what to do about it.

I would like the synergy of having it this summer, as we kick off our budget deliberations as well. I'd like the ability to justify what will be next year's investment. I'd like to see: Here's what we accomplished in year one, and here's what will be the strategic plan in year two. So I'd like to see that in June.

I hate to look like I'm rationalizing. But perhaps it's not entirely bad that we're launching it now, as awareness continues to rise.

AC: What can you do as mayor, in the time you've left, to use what Austin is doing to benefit the greater cause of climate protection?

WW: I hope to be very satisfied in 15 months, as I leave office, that there will be a continued march toward a generation-long plan. Independent of who are my successors and the next series of city managers, I'd like to know there's going to be this institutionalized commitment. And I think there's going to be a hell of a lot of municipal pride, about where we are and what we've accomplished.

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Will Wynn, Austin Climate Protection Plan

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