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Shea: A career spent combating the climate crisis

Wednesday, December 29, 2021 by Molly Walsh

In the summer of 1988, Brigid Shea unfolded a copy of The New York Times and read a front-page story that changed the trajectory of her life, about a NASA scientist who had testified to Congress about the life-threatening consequences of releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The article helped fuel a three-decade career dedicated to combating the climate crisis and preparing communities for a changing world.

Over the decades, Shea has worn many hats as a reporter, consultant, Austin City Council member, and since 2014, a Travis County commissioner. Finding ways to battle climate change has been a common thread throughout. 

Shea was initially interested in running for Travis County commissioner because the county has special authority in emergency situations, including those caused by climate change. This mission was emphasized during Texas’ winter storm and the subsequent failure of the power grid in February 2021. With thousands of constituents left without power and water, the importance of emergency management became especially apparent.

Looking ahead to future policy, Shea said it’s not enough just to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also vital for the county to prepare residents for future climate-related disasters.

“It was a lesson for anyone who was paying attention about the kinds of things that will continue to happen as climate change impacts become more severe,” she said. “We really need to take important lessons from this and focus on being better prepared and that really has been my wheelhouse. That’s the thing that I’ve worked on most extensively for my time in office. We can’t … stop the extreme weather, but we can be better prepared.”

A key element of disaster management is providing timely updates to the public. In late 2020, Shea advocated for the modernization and expansion of the Travis County emergency alert system, Warn Central Texas. With the expansion, Shea helped the county transition from a landline-based notification system to a mobile phone-based system, increasing the contact rate from 8 to 70 percent.

“I will continue to focus on those kinds of things,” she said. “How can we better prepare our residents …. What can we do at a systemic level to improve the county’s infrastructure and have our resources better prepared, better positioned to help people?”

While the Covid-19 pandemic has brought significant challenges to the Travis County Commissioners Court, it has also spurred new opportunities to help protect the environment. Shea recalls the early days of the pandemic, when workers across the world began to work from home. With fewer daily commuters, air quality improved in cities across the globe, and the positive environmental effects became apparent through clearer skies and cleaner waterways.

“In India, people were quoted saying, ‘We’ve never seen the stars before, the night sky is so beautiful.’ In Venice, Italy, people said, ‘We’ve never seen the bottom of the canals before, there’s all kinds of fish and marine life here.’ And you know, that experience was repeated all over the world because people were forced to telecommute, work from their homes. And guess what? It worked really well.”

These tangible effects inspired Shea to introduce a plan allowing 75 percent of eligible Travis County employees to permanently work from home. According to Shea, almost half of the county’s 5,000 employees are eligible for remote work. Based on the county’s 2020 greenhouse gas inventory, remote work initiatives help to lower emissions by cutting commutes and reducing the need for office space. Shea said that since the introduction of the remote work policy, the county has also recorded an increase in employee productivity and morale.

“We’ve reduced our emissions conservatively by 5,500 tons of CO2,” she said. “And we expect that that number will grow in the future as we get a more accurate measurement. So we’re … making a significant impact on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions at the county level, which is what will be critical for all local governments and local institutions to do in order to reverse climate change.”

This year, Shea was invited to attend the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, representing the perspective of local governments. At the conference, she shared the positive findings of Travis County’s telecommuting program. 

“This is something every local government can do,” she said. “Virtually every business can adopt it as well and it can dramatically reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from commuting.”

Looking ahead to 2022, Shea plans to increase climate equity initiatives within Travis County. A growing concern about climate change is the way climate-related disasters disproportionately affect low-income communities. Shea said the socioeconomic impacts of climate change were already apparent during last winter’s ice storm. Within the next year, she is interested in creating a climate equity advisory group for Travis County to help protect and prepare low-income communities from climate-related incidents.

 “We can now anticipate that poorer communities will have fewer resources and will need more assistance,” she said. “And we can increase their resilience and their preparedness. I mean, everybody’s going to need it, but we now know that poor communities will need more help.”

This story was written by a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin Monitor is working in partnership with the UT School of Journalism to publish stories produced by students in the City and County Government Reporting course.

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