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Electric Utility Commission unanimously declares climate crisis must be addressed

Wednesday, July 17, 2019 by Jessi Devenyns

In a unanimous show of hands, the Electric Utility Commission passed a resolution July 15 asserting that the time has come for Austin to declare support for climate change mitigation policies and to adopt its own resolution declaring a climate emergency.

The need to take a stance against climate change is nothing new, Commissioner Stefan Wray told the Austin Monitor. He said that he has been thinking “for a long time” about passing a resolution to tackle climate change head-on, but the recent flurry of media on the matter spurred him to action.

Since 2017, nearly 800 local governments in 17 countries have made climate emergency declarations as hurricanes, wildfires and floods ravage the planet with increasing intensity. Governments need to take stronger action, said Commissioner Karen Hadden. “These things are adding one upon another,” she told the Monitor.

The National Centers for Environmental Information has tracked 250 climate-related disasters in the United States since 1980, totaling over $1.7 trillion in damage. Texas leads the other 49 states with the highest number of billion-dollar disaster events.

Declaring a climate emergency is not simply a declaration of political solidarity. Wray told the other commissioners and the public that organizations like the American Heart Association, the American Nurses Association and the American Medical Association have declared climate change to be a public health crisis.

In June, more than 70 health organizations issued a “U.S. Call to Action on Climate, Health, and Equity.” In their memo, the organizations outline 10 points intended to strengthen the nation’s resiliency to climate change as well as slow the potential for future damage.

Wray pointed to this declaration and to the recent establishment of a city commission in Los Angeles dedicated to developing and implementing a mobilization plan in response to the climate emergency as goals for what the city of Austin should be working to achieve.

Although the Electric Utility Commission is not the only city body concerned with climate change – Hadden pointed to the Joint Sustainability Commission as an example of another body working toward this common goal – the commissioners felt it was their duty to bring this particular initiative up with City Council.

“Historically the EUC has addressed and made recommendations to City Council on matters related to global warming,” Wray said.

Hadden told the Monitor that much of the policy aimed at reducing the effects of global warming revolves around energy policy such as setting goals for more renewables and implementing carbon taxes. The recommendation to declare climate change an emergency is “another energy policy,” she said, referring to the resolution’s intention to encourage Council to incite an immediate response to the crisis.

The resolution was warmly received by all the commissioners, who agreed that in one way or another climate change is a pressing issue that needs to be formally addressed. “I strongly support this effort,” declared Commissioner Erik Funkhouser.

So did a number of citizens who came to the commission meeting to express their support. Members of 350 Austin, UT students and concerned citizens all spoke in favor of passing the resolution.

“Climate change or climate crisis is … a true public health emergency,” said Richard Halpin of 350 Austin. “Health risks in the future are dire without urgent action to fund climate change.”

With widespread support for the declaration, Funkhouser reminded the body that working to solve the climate crisis cannot be done at the expense of some demographic populations. He asked the commissioners to be mindful of lower-income and minority groups and to add “something that says our climate declaration will include the consideration of social equity.”

With no hesitation, the commission voted unanimously to recommend the adoption of a climate change emergency declaration to City Council. Chair Cary Ferchill was absent.

USDA photo by Bob Nichols.

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