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Tucson's new climate plan gives City Council ... sigh ... a 'roadmap'

What the Devil won't tell you

Tucson's new climate plan gives City Council ... sigh ... a 'roadmap'

Despite wordiness, 'Resilient Together' document is a nice piece of work

  • 'Strong Arm' was a well-known local saguaro killed by climate change. It won't be the last as carbon emissions threaten Tucson's future. The city has a draft plan to do its part to address the global problem.
    Jack Wu/Cronkite News'Strong Arm' was a well-known local saguaro killed by climate change. It won't be the last as carbon emissions threaten Tucson's future. The city has a draft plan to do its part to address the global problem.

A while back, I wrote a head-shaking, finger-wagging piece about Tucson burning through years to come up with a climate change plan, when they could just start just taking action.

The City Council had a 10-year horizon to decarbonize its operations and was going to use three of them just coming up with a to-do list.

Well, now a final draft of the plan is out and the community can take a look at it.

It's called "Resilient Together" because of course it is. It was put together by local consultant Buro Happold, who apparently never saw buzzwords it couldn't combine. The plan never uses 5 words when 10 will do. It takes 36 pages to get to the "Introduction." Dear God, they use the term "roadmap." 

Substantively, though, "Resilient Together" is a nice piece of work.

I had four questions going in and they seem to be answered:

1. Would the city insist on solving all social ills as a prerequisite to tackling climate change?

2. Would the plan include tangible actions the City Council could turn into policy?

3. Would it be a plan to plan further with inclusive planning process designed to write more plans about plans so the Council could say it did stuff without actually doing anything of substance?

4. Is this the plan something that could have been written three years ago, based on what people already knew (and done today on in five seconds on ChatGPT?)

The answers are no, yes, you better believe it and absolutely.

I'm not going to go into why fighting climate change is important other than to post this link by Bill Nye simply having enough having to explain it. Parental warning ... explicit language. Time is kind of crucial here, kids.

The federal government has only taken action on the climate in the last year, and so long as a certain political party is in charge of anything, it will do all it can to assure zero climate action happens. The state will be absolutely no help. In fact, the state has taken action to bar local governments from preventing natural gas service.

The city also can't control or truly influence the business decisions over at Tucson Electric Power, as utilities fall under the Arizona Corporation Commission.

So local governments are where the climate action is, but local governments have limited tools. So those tools must be used well.

Climate change is hitting Tucson with rising temperatures, drought and wildfires. The desert doesn't begin with much in comfortable temperatures, durable flora or water. So this is definitely a local matter.

Solve for X

My big problem with the Green New Deal was also what I like about the idea behind it.

The Green New Deal essentially says this: We know we need to take action to blunt climate change and those changes will hurt people. Let's not make the same mistake we made with free trade and globalization, screwing small factory towns and then telling them to sink or swim.

So universal health care coverage became part of climate action. To make sure the same people always screwed by change aren't screwed again.  However, the climate emergency is an emergency for a reason. 

Mom and dad wake up and find their house is on fire. They should not be expected to solve dad's philandering and mom's drinking problem before getting the family out the front door before load-bearing walls collapse in sheets of flames.

If humanity waits to solve racism, sexism, wealth inequity and universal health care prior to decarbonizing, then we should all just buy guns to prepare for the post-catastrophe hellscape (or as MAGAs call it: "Paradise.")

It's important to do all of that, just separate them so we can address a life-or-death emergency.

"Resilient Together" calls itself "equity-centered" but it's more of a "while-were-at-it" thing.

Take "shade equity" – a term that seems focus-grouped and poll–tested to trigger much yammering on talk radio.

Doesn't the same sun shine on us all?

Just relax. It actually makes sense. What the plan calls for is putting shaded bus stops in non-white parts of Tucson in the same or similar proportions as the university-area and East Side bus routes.

"Resilient Together" also suggests creating tree-lined pedestrian paths through high-poverty areas and wealthier areas, so people aren't stuck walking in the heat. 

Well, here's something to think about. Crime follows poverty and could be dangerous if those pedestrian paths are isolated or hidden from law enforcement. Don't discard the whole idea. Just plan to have police actually patrol those areas. Install good lighting along their routes.

The equity portion of Tucson's climate plan just says keep the forgotten people in mind while acting locally to knock down carbon emissions. That's fair.

Batteries included

The truth is the "Resilient Together" plan gives the City Council a lot to work with.

I break this down into two categories: the doables and moonshots.

The doable list includes:  

  • Create zoning options to to increase densities.
  • Establishing an internal carbon tax to goose city departments into adopting sustainable energy.
  • Streamline permitting process for solar users.
  • Give employees EV charging at no cost. 
  • Demand city department use hybrids as medium and heavy duty city vehicles and work with school districts to make bus fleets electric.
  • Establish a "no-idling" policies for city vehicles.
  • Develop a "food rescue” policies to help end food waste by using spoiled food for composting.
  • Work with Tucson’s business community to identify workers who are experiencing signs of heatstroke and other problems related to rising mercury readings.create a design code for new buildings that address shade equity, cool roofs, pavement prevention and urban greening.

One of the most challenging parts of this would be the internal carbon tax on city vehicles. That sounds great, until Tucson police run out of carbon budgeting and start complaining they can't respond to a home invasion.

That's when Tucson goes viral during  Fox "News" Story Hour and all climate action at the local level stops as U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-Coal) leads a bipartisan effort to forbid cities from imposing internal carbon taxes.

With some jiggering, the Council could impose something like carbon pricing within city departments. 

I mean, food waste is one of the leading causes of climate change. I was wondering if the plan would deal with it and it does.

Here's my beef. None of this is so outside the box that Tucson had to wait for "Resilient Together" to get the policies approved or ordinances passed. They just could have done it after setting the 2030 carbon neutrality goal in 2020.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the New Deal without first coming doing a two-year "community engagement effort" to craft a "Four Freedoms" plan. He just slammed through the Civilian Conservation Corps.

What's the big idea?

So a plan is a total waste of time?

No. The plan could have focused more on the moon shots and how to get them done and what to watch out for while doing it.

The moonshots are some serious big think and I would have liked to see more fleshing out so they don't just remain hypotheticals in City Hall file cabinet. So planning to plan in the future on these topics aren't a bad idea. 

For instance, the plan calls for discussing the possibility of starting its own public utility that uses only carbon-free power sources.

Oh, I'm sure that will go over up at the state Capitol Complex. No doubt, that Tucson Electric Power (ha, ha) would accept its fate and just retreat into oblivion after a polite bow.

The certainty of a jihad against it, doesn't make a public utility a bad idea. Before even floating the idea, policy makers might want to have a firm grasp on the reasons and the risks. 

One lib mentions cow farts or gas stoves and suddenly bills appear in legislatures all over the country after days of conniptions on certain news outlets.

Some of these more ambitious plans would have made for a better focus for a planning effort because they require some deeper study. It's politically dangerous just to toss outside-the-box ideas against the wall and see who hyperventilates.

There are other options that are longer-term:

  • Make Tucson a 15-minute city, driving down commute times.
  • Turn methane under the Los Reales landfill into an energy source with carbon capture.
  • Restore riparian habitat and create new climate-reslilent riparian areas
  • Create a comprehensive heat mitigation plan.
  • Create an all electric-car share program with a focus on lower-income areas

The planning process also produced one big reveal that surprised me. Most of Tucson's CO2 emissions don't come from tailpipes. Nope, 56 percent of carbon emissions are the result of indoor cooling and electrical generation. 

That's an important bit of information to have on hand as Tucson starts tailoring our own local policies to deal with climate change.

Here's a good for instance, rather than 86 TEP, maybe focus on a community effort to retrofit homes and business seems perfect for local governments to undertake. Sure some cash out of the federal government would help, but the work would have to be done door-to-door.

And the plan calls for this kind of policy with local financing and financial help for small businesses in the form of a revolving fund. Awesome. Yes. Let's go. Revolving funds are established to act like banks. Lend to person A, who pays the fund back so person B can borrow later.

I love this idea. It's ambitious but achievable. It just takes the city getting in gear.

Pitfalls of public opinion

Getting community buy-in is important, but here's what the consultants point out that the public had in mind about how to deal with climate change: trees.

'Tree' may have been the most frequently said and written word across all of our conversations with community members. Many Tucsonans commended (Mayor Regina Romero's) Million Trees Initiative but shared there was still a need for tree cover, vegetation, and other nature-based solutions across the city to protect them from heat and other hazards such as flooding.

Yeah, great. Trees are cool (and cooling!) and all, but Tucson's not going to Johnny Appleseed our way out of the climate crisis.  The full solution is not "arboreal." 

Very little in "Resilient Together" is earth-shattering, and the public process doesn't seem to have hatched a brilliant idea that's been hidden from people with subject-matter expertise.

However, I'm starting to think that was never the point and that a lot of people have been underestimating Romero.

Romero: Master of her domain?

My problem with the City Council since Rio Nuevo is that they have seemed scared of big things. Political leaders will always try to get away doing just enough to say they've done something, which is different from doing something.

Tucson remains a low-wage town and the Council has never really aggressively addressed the issue in a way that would leave them accountable for failure. The same goes for crime. Movement and process can get confused for action.

On the other hand...

Romero came up in local government as a dreaded "bureaucrat" (oh no, not that!) and Lord knows the public much prefers the can-do spirit of no-nonsense business people to get after it.

Bureaucracies eat business people like happy-hour jalapeño poppers.

A mayor who was businessperson of the year may come in full of fire but their ideas may be silly. They don't know as much about traffic as traffic engineers or the water issue like water resource managers. The staff pros have civil service protection and can outlast part-time elected officials.

What a bureaucrat like Romero may know is these long planning processes are not so much about external buy in from the public at large. They are about internal buy-in to light a fire a fire under the city staff. Bouncing a planning process off community stakeholders with public engagement is really about starving the bureaucracy of excuses to do nothing.

It's not a council member's initiative, easily blunted. No, this is a citywide plan with the community imprimatur. That's a mandate.

Romero may be arranging her bishops and rooks to go get the queen before cornering the king.

The City Council's housing plan has also recently emerged as a pretty strong document. What will become of it? What will happen to "Resilient Together?"

The difference between paper-shuffling busy work and getting things done will be determined by action. Let's see what happens next.

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

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