Point Austin: Saved by Billionaires?

The fight against climate change gathers allies high and low

Point Austin

When I spoke to Public Citizen's Tom Smith last year about the dim prospects of action on climate change in TrumpWorld, Smitty was defiantly optimistic. "It's in places like Austin where we're beginning to take a look at resiliency, down to the kinds of trees we plant, and looking at changes that are likely to come in the climate.

"What we'll see, I think, is sort of the rise of city-states, where communities like Austin and San Antonio ... become much more resilient, much more concerned about water and other resources – banding together to create smaller economic structures."

That sort of embattled, localized optimism was in evidence again Tuesday evening, during and after a screening (at the Contemporary) of From the Ashes, a documentary on the future of coal, the energy source most responsible for global warming. The film (a RadicalMedia production underwritten by Bloomberg Philanthropies) examines coal production historically, geographically, economically, and politically, and concludes that while the industry is foundering, it will take a concerted effort to manage any transition to clean, renewable fuels.

Smitty might have added Georgetown to the Austin/San Antonio axis. Mayor Dale Ross has a cameo in From the Ashes, representing one of 25 cities that have now committed to 100% renewable energy, Georgetown successfully. The cherubic mayor was on hand for a post-screening panel, slightly outshining Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who introduced the film in part by trumpeting his city's own accomplishments and goals – "55% renewable energy by 2025" remains laudable, but pales a bit before the much smaller Georgetown's great leap forward. Ross' explanation is insistently pragmatic: "Let's ignore the silly arguments in Wash­ing­ton over climate change. This was a business decision, to manage the risks of cost and the risks of regulation."

The mayor's one concession to environmentalism was a cheerful shrug: "Let's stop putting things in the air."

Coal's War on Us

The film (www.fromtheashesfilm.com) features Ross' pragmatism, the activism of various folks affected by coal's devastation by extraction and pollution, and the dire predicament of the working people caught in the middle of the industrial changes. Also on the panel, moderated by Laura Huff­man of the Nature Conservancy, were the film's producer Sidney Beaumont, biologist Cherelle Blazer of the Dallas-area Sierra Club, and Misti O'Quinn, a Dallas woman whose family has been directly injured by the heavy burden of lignite pollution from Northeast Texas coal plants. Two of her three children have asthma from birth; Blazer (with family members also suffering from asthma) noted that the illness is nearly three times more prevalent in the Dallas area than in Texas at large.

The thrust of the film and post-screening discussion was that the end of coal is both inevitable and embattled. Ross blithely predicted that by 2045, 80% of U.S. energy would be from renewable sources, although even he acknowledged that there remains insufficient political will to enable that transition. O'Quinn told the audience, "You are powerful, you can make a difference – you need to stand and fight for something better."

Necessary Alliances

The dinosaur of coal – most recently endangered by the lowering cost of competing resources – is hardly without political allies, as the film acknowledges via a range of public officials, from West Virginia, Montana, and elsewhere, right on up to willful ignoramus Donald Trump, who promises to bring back "1,000 years" of coal. But increasingly, the dead-enders are outnumbered by pragmatic businessmen with actual knowledge of the science (beginning with the disaster-beleaguered insurance industry). Nevertheless, as the film notes, the center of gravity on global warming is shifting away from the U.S., down to cities like Austin and Georgetown, and even to China, where authoritarianism occasionally strikes a truce with scientific rationalism.

In that context, the unlikely alliance among Bloomberg Philanthropies (Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope have just co-authored a book, Climate of Hope, on global warming), the pretentiously named but eclectic production firm RadicalMedia, and the Murdoch-owned National Geo­graph­ic makes a little more sense (the Nation­al Geographic channel will air From the Ashes on June 25). Rupert Murdoch might deny global warming, but his sons have been generally committed only to what's good for business – and like the sun, global warming heats believers and unbelievers alike, along with their business ventures.

If we are to be saved from our headlong destruction of the planet – an open question, very much in the balance – the effort will require rational billionaires as well as grassroots activists, and indeed public officials like the mayors of Austin and George­town, not blinded by ideology. Trump may well undermine the Paris Agreement – but as Smitty pointed out, the C40 agreement among cities is stronger, and in Texas, renewables have already outrun coal in economic consequence. Going forward, he told an audience of Sierrans, we will rely on "people like us, who have that vision, and have made that difference." Concluded Blazer: "It is in your hands."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

From the Ashes, Tom Smith, Dale Ross, Steve Adler, Laura Huffman, Cherelle Blazer, Misti O'Quinn, Donald Trump, Michael Bloomberg, Carl Pope

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