Austin may create new post to deal with climate emergencies

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Austin city staffers have recommended creation of a “chief climate resilience officer” position at a salary of up to $200,000 a year to deal with a climate emergency declared in the city three weeks ago by the city council.

The position is the first priority in a climate resilience plan explicitly linking climate change with natural disasters like flooding, wildfires, extreme heat and drought, presented to the council this week by Lucia Athens, the city’s chief sustainability officer.

The new plan is the latest in a flurry of climate change activity this year, beginning with a $2.5 million grant Austin won in a national Climate Challenge sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies. 

On May 9, the city council called on Athens’ office to begin formulating a climate resilience plan. The same night, the council passed a resolution supporting U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ multi-trillion dollar Green New Deal. 

The resilience plan is also consistent with the council’s climate emergency resolution passed on Aug. 8, saying Austin can become “a global leader in emergency climate action by building a climate-resilient and adaptive city for all residents.” 

Deciding whether or not a new executive position is needed, what the goals and duties would be and how the person hired will go about building a climate-resilient and adaptive city will be decided by the city council, Athens told The Texas Monitor Wednesday. 

It is also unclear how the city intends to fund the new position.

Such a job could coexist with the city’s climate program manager, Zack Baumer, whose annual salary in 2018 was $119,000 and Athens, who made $156,000 last year.

“I can assure you, there’s enough work to go around,” Athens said. “The council asked us what would be required in a resilience plan specifically focused on climate.”

Funding the position might fall to taxpayers. Athens and her staff drew heavily in their research on the Rockefeller Foundation, whose $165 million spent over the last six years is the support system for the municipal resilience officer movement worldwide.

The six-figure salary for the chief resilience officer in Dallas, Theresa O’Donnell, has been paid for the past five years with Rockefeller grant money. In Houston, resilience office Marissa Aho is paid $140,000 a year out of combined Rockefeller and Shell Global grant funds.

However, “That particular pot of money has dried up,” Athens said.

After Hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005, Ike in 2008 and Sandy in 2012, Rockefeller developed program called 100 Resilient Cities to fund local plans to combat disasters. A centerpiece of the program was funding for cities to hire resilience officers in those cities.

Increasingly, cities in the program have been emphasizing the impact of climate change on whatever threat they have been combatting. 

The program gave cities latitude to tailor their programs around whatever problems were considered most threatening. Rockefeller signed off on hurricane plans, but also carbon abatement and transportation “emergencies.” The foundation even approved Boston’s proposal for dealing with systemic racism.

Cities welcomed the flexibility, but it was nearly impossible for the foundation to determine exactly how its money was being spent and whether or not it was doing any good.

“One of the tricky things in the whole field of emergency preparedness is that it’s hard to quantify the results,” Athens said.  

It has also been difficult for resilience officers locally to explain their missions. In early 2018, Minneapolis’ officer, Katie Knuth, drew fire for resigning after seven months without being able to show the public anything for her efforts.

Knuth also suggested a polarized public was at least partially to blame. “I believe people feel we aren’t capable of taking on the big things because we don’t have the tools to do the work we need to do together,” Knuth wrote for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “In other words, we live in a declining democracy and face challenges that can only be addressed in a thriving democracy.”

In April, without criticizing anything that had been done so far, the Rockefeller Foundation announced it would no longer fund its resilient cities program. Officials had originally expected the program to cost about $6 million a year. In some years the foundation has allotted $40 million. 

Rockefeller announced in July that it would contribute another $8 million to the resilience program, enough to keep some programs going, but not enough for cities like Austin to count on in launching a new program.

The resilience movement also faces political challenges. The climate change movement is almost entirely the province of the Democratic Party in this country.

Nearly every American city among the 100 Resilient is run by a Democratic mayor. Of the 25 cities who won Bloomberg Climate challenge awards, including Austin and San Antonio, only San Diego has a Republican mayor. Austin’s sustainability staff made its recommendations after studying the resilience plans of Democrat-run Dallas, San Antonio, Boston, Indianapolis, Denver and Washington, D.C.

“Washington has been trying to drag us backwards, but America really is moving forward on climate change as cities continue to lead where Washington hasn’t and won’t,” Bloomberg said in its statement about the Austin grant.

The Austin council has asked for City Manager Spencer Cronk to make his recommendation on the resilience office by Oct. 1. Given the mood in passing its climate emergency resolution, the council is likely to act quickly.

“We’re basically saying this is an emergency,”  council member Alison Alter said, “and we need to treat it like an emergency and take the steps that we need accordingly.” 

Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].

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