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Opinion

What the Devil won't tell you

Tucson's 10-year climate change agenda will spend 3 years just coming up with a plan

So the United Nations released its newest climate study which basically says “we’re totally screwed unless humans immediately act to stop flooding the atmosphere with greenhouse gasses.”

In other news, Russia invaded Ukraine. And while the world wants to support the trampled country from death and destruction, it’s also desperate not to let oil prices get too high because cheap fossil fuels are the world's top priority.

Sigh... methinks the message isn't getting through....

Allow me to be politically correct and tell it like it is: We should want higher gas prices to ignite a market switchover to non-carbon energy. That’s a good thing – not a bad thing.

Well, that would be the case if the U.S. were well on its way to a national effort to de-carbonize by emphasizing energy technology. 

That's not happening. One of Arizona's senators helped kill President Joe Biden's climate action plan for reasons we still don't completely understand. 

During the past 32 years, Congress and presidents are oh-for-three in addressing climate catastrophe. A BTU tax failed in 1993. Cap and trade passed the House and died in the U.S. Senate in 2009. And last year, U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema joined West Virginia’s Joe Manchin in torpedoing climate change legislation.

States can step up, except the Republican Party has made it a bedrock first principle of theirs that climate change can’t exist because if it did exist, someone would have to do something about it and they are the party that is adamant should do nothing to address social ills. The GOP controls most state governments.

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But blaming Republicans is just a small part of the story. 

The Left has squandered time and opportunity to force the issue. They haven’t been able to to figure out how to make mass starvation, cities swallowed by seas or maybe just the end of organized civilization out to be sexy enough for public attention. They’ve also been busy fighting the real enemy: Imperfect friends.

If anything is going to happen now, it's going to happen at the local level and in a bunch of localities. A whole bunch of street-level victories can accomplish a single big national win — or can pave the way to a national plan. 

In Tucson, this is a local issue. Our not-so-temperate town is the 7th fastest warming city in America. Our community’s growth depends on water. Our water survival depends on the Colorado River. The Colorado River depends on snowmelt in the Rocky Mountains. But there’s the problem of a lingering drought that continues because of changes to our climate.

When Lake Mead drops below 1,050 feet, water will no longer reach the penstocks that a flow through the dam to fill the Colorado River downstream. At that point, rationing may start. The water level is now 1,066 feet. In 2000, it was at 2,000 feet. Do the math.

So, where are we locally?

I got good news and bad news. The good news is the city of Tucson has committed to carbon neutrality by 2030. The bad news is that they are spending the first three years of the decade-long agenda just coming up with a plan, with pretty limited action in the mean time.

Consultants and sharpened pencils

The City Council decided in December 2019 to come up with a  climate action plan. Ten months later, the council declared a climate emergency. In January, the council hired consulting company Buro Happold to come up with a plan by the end of the year.

I'm not sure how long it took them to sharpen and arrange their No. 2 pencils.

A press release announcing the consultant's contract read like this: 

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Under (Mayor Regina) Romero's leadership, the City of Tucson declared a climate emergency in 2020, leading the way in equitable climate action and sustainability efforts in the Southwest. In the past two years, Mayor and Council have operationalized climate action across City programs and departments.

Three years to come up with plan. Two years to hire a consultant. We've known about the climate crisis for about 40 years.

This from the press release Mayor Regina Romero sent out boasting about hiring the consultant.

Buro Happold will center equity to ensure Tucson's frontline communities play an active part in shaping the planning process. The Mayor's Office conducted more than a dozen climate listening sessions that took place in 2021 and produced over 1,300 climate-related community concerns and recommendations. The firm will also draw insights from the City of Tucson's climate action community survey, which gathered data from close to 4,000 participants from February-May 2021.

Are you getting the sense, we’re all gonna die?

 If FDR had come from the Tucson City Council, the New Deal would have passed six days after the Normandy landing.

Get going!

Here’s a hammer. There’s a nail. Oh, look! A wall. Pound nail into wall with hammer. This has been lost on the City Council for decades. 

You have a city fleet. Come up with a five-year plan to convert the fleet to electric vehicles. Done.

You have the power to conduct plans reviews on projects in the city? Require they be built to electric efficiency standards. Need to know what they are? Ask Tucson Electric Power Co., and start with what they give you.

Now, work with TEP to identify high-energy users in low-income census tracks and retrofit those homes to meet the energy standards. Pay for it with a sales tax. The council could use the one it is proposing to fix roads. They can get the road money by sticking with the Regional Transportation Authority.

The city has the power of eminent domain. There are vacant lots all over town. Grab some of them, and use them to install charging stations for electronic vehicles.

The city has the power to plan how Tucson grows. So plan to grow up and not out with sprawling abandon update the general plan with a super-massive, high-density designation that swallows midtown.

This is just off the top of my head. It took me five minutes and none of them are that radical.

Frontline communities and equity? Long-term planning can address both but start moving in the short term.

If the teeth of climate change bite down, it will be frontline communities and people of color who will most feel the incisors because they always do.  

Caution, rebranding and over-planning have are all gripes of mine with the city going back years.. The city just doesn’t ever really do much to actually achieve outcomes. The Council members have a history of developing plans so they can answer the question “What have you done about (fill in the blank).

It’s why the problems facing Tucson today are the problems that were facing Tucson when I got here when rat-tails were a thing.

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In Buro Happold’s application for the contract they eventually won, they outlined their work with language like this:

The Team will also work with City staff to evaluate and select the appropriate climate action framework (or combination of frameworks) to set the organizational language for the plan, inform prioritization criteria, and guide the outline and content for the Tucson CAAP. This evaluation will include, but is not limited to,
the C40 Cities Urban Climate Action Impact Framework (to identify co-benefits of measures and have a consistent message around potential impacts) and the CNCA Long-Term Deep Carbon Reduction Planning guide (to recommend and select measures that will be successful in delivering significant GHG emissions
reductions). If needed, a similar process will be followed for the selection of a proper GHG inventory protocol to determine the scope boundaries and the emissions sources evaluated for each scope group (scopes 1, 2, and 3).

We are sooo… all gonna die.

Credit where it's due

Let's take a good news break.

There are reasons to come up with plans. When done right, they don’t just identify problems, they can get a high-resolution image of a challenge facing a community. That way, government can spend resources where they will do the most good and in a way that the community will understand. They also can approach problems from all sides. 

Buro Happold is a good choice. The consultant has a good reputation as a leader in local planning. So that’s a plus.

For all its buzzwording, the firm will do a deep dive on community attitudes and willingness to swallow climate measures. Finding the obstacles early is important and figuring how Tucson might have trouble adapting will help the council get ahead of the problems.

The consultant has helped other communities (like New York City) come up with plans so they understand where to find the deep pockets to pay for programs with other people's money.

One last thing that's impressive about Buro Happold: They estimated their budget at $396,702. It's not $396,701. It's $396,702. OK. then!

I would have guessed a $500,000 for this kind of plan, so the money isn't that out of line.

Also, the city hasn't been completely idle in the mean time. 

The Council has committed to a plan to plant 1 million trees to stave off the effects of heat and swallow some carbon dioxide. In two years, they've planted 40,000. Good work, but this is a 25-year pace. 

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It’s already changed the residential requirements to make new residential developments ready for electric vehicles and is in the process of doing the same with apartment complexes and commercial projects.

It’s developed “road maps” for both electric vehicle policy and for zero water waste. My eyes glaze and neck twitches at the term "road map" but they do have a couple.

They've hired staff, put together draft plans, done a whole lot of listening to the community, solicited more than 1,300 public comments, hired staff and most assuredly sharpened and rearranged their No. 2 pencils.

All this is fine and dandy, but there's work that could be done ahead of time. I would feel better about follow-up on whatever plan the consultant puts together if the city had showed an aggressive attitude out of the gate.

We know there are actions the council can take and could have taken years ago to address the problem at the local level and – maybe, just maybe – be a part of local momentum and cover for a successful national policy.

The city declared a climate emergency in 2020 and it will take them almost three years to decide what to do about it.

Evergreen bungling

If the city pulls off a change But here’s the thing: Going from zero to cruising speed in three years would make Romero one of the national leaders in climate action. Three years is nothing.

Consider Washington state.

It’s got a three-term governor in Jay Inslee, who torpedoed his own presidential bid by making his run entirely about climate change.

It had a big base of environmental activists.

And it started working on a climate bill that included a carbon tax in 2007. They got one, too. Inslee signed something like it into law in 2021.

Yep. The blue state of Washington took 14 years to get to climate action. 

We can complain about deniers until we are blue in the face but those of us who know the climate crisis is coming for us all tend toward self-immolation. In Washington, the climate warriors failed to get legislation passed in 2007, then forgot about the issue for a few years before putting a plan on the ballot in 2016 that half the social justice types thought wasn’t perfect enough and they helped kill it. Then, two years later, they put their own plan on the ballot two years later and that failed.

The left can be its own worst enemy on climate and has an abysmal record of getting stuff done at any level of government.

So in a country that generally agrees climate change is a big threat, our most pressing issue seems to be how to bring down gas prices so we can keep pumping cheap carbon dioxide into the air.

Yep. We’re all going to die.

Act locally

If there is a hope, right now it’s with local action. And we do have to credit Romero with taking this issue on and maybe I’m a little guilty of being critical of her not being as perfect on the issue as I would like.

Local action after the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 and Love Canal in 1978, lead to the Clean Water Act and Superfund Act. City governments can generate momentum that moves the federal government to action.

I’ve been putting together agenda advances for local government for a few months now and I can report the city of Tucson has no shortage of plans on problems Tucson faces. Maybe, just maybe, the city will follow those plans until this community is a high-wage, low-crime town with vibrant neighborhoods linked by a bunch of transit options.

My fear is that we are going to follow the plans until it’s time for a new plans because the catch phrases and buzz words change.

There must be a pill that you take once sworn into office on the Tucson City Council that makes you think think putting together a plan is the same thing as doing something.

Plans typically just put the daily workload into a framework and call that a strategy. They rarely include benchmarks, timetables or deadlines. No one wants to put their neck out for risk of failure.

That’s a shame. I’d rather learn from failure than stew in the effects of inaction that doesn’t teach anyone anything but rewards the tiniest of increments of progress.

I've had that Creedence Clearwater Revival Song going through my head:

"Five-year plans and new deals
Wrapped in golden chains And I wonder, still I wonder
Who'll stop the methane?"

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years, and as a communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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1 comment on this story

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197 comments
Mar 7, 2022, 3:23 pm
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Get rid of gravel “landscaping.” and for goodness sake, STOP using gas-powered leaf blowers. Two quick things to start the process here.

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The planet is heating up and Tucson is the 7th fastest warming city in the country with a water shortage peeking around the corner. How is the City Council acting locally?

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