Asheville made headlines last January when it became the first city in North Carolina to formally declare climate change as an emergency. A resolution unanimously adopted by Asheville City Council on Jan. 28, 2020, after hundreds of community members marched on City Hall and activists with Sunrise Movement Asheville staged a sit-in outside the office of City Manager Debra Campbell, called for a “massive-scale mobilization to halt, reverse and address” the dangers caused by a planet “already too hot for safety.”
2020, the second-hottest year in Asheville’s recorded history according to the National Centers for Environmental Information, did see life transformed at emergency speed — by a different emergency. Less than two months after the climate resolution went on the books, Mayor Esther Manheimer declared a local state of emergency due to COVID-19 on March 12.
The city’s responses to the pandemic, which has caused 253 confirmed deaths in Buncombe County as of press time, have been swift and wide-ranging. Among other emergency actions, Asheville buses were made fare-free to minimize contact between drivers and passengers; businesses received fee waivers and permission to take over public space; residents were protected from water shutoffs; and Council and many city commissions decided to meet remotely until further notice.
Asheville’s commitment to an “equitable and just citywide mobilization effort to reverse global warming,” as outlined in the climate emergency resolution, has not yet led to similar shifts in how the city conducts its daily business. But while climate change’s time scale may be longer than that of COVID-19, scientists predict its negative impacts will be of similar or greater magnitude if governments don’t take substantial, immediate action.
The World Health Organization, for example, has set a “conservative estimate” of 250,000 additional global deaths per year due to climate change from 2030 through 2050. And as previously reported by Xpress (see “Head for the Hills,” Aug. 26), sea level rise alone is expected to drive over 24,000 new residents from the coastal United States to the Asheville metropolitan area through 2100, straining the region’s already burdened housing supply and infrastructure.
“If it was truly perceived as an emergency, then I think we would be doing more and talking about it more,” says Asheville City Council member Kim Roney, who was elected in November on a platform that included a local Green New Deal and rapid renewable energy deployment. “I don’t think we’re at that place yet, whether it’s as an institution, as a city, as a community or as a society, of a willingness — and maybe it’s a capacity issue, but that concerns me, too — to engage multiple emergencies at the same time.”
‘The Upside Down’
Amber Weaver, Asheville’s chief sustainability officer, acknowledges that the early days of the pandemic threw the city into disarray. On March 13, she gave a presentation at Council’s annual retreat regarding sustainability initiatives, including the climate emergency resolution, and the funding needed to begin fulfilling them. The following Monday, March 15, she and many other city staffers were sent home due to the coronavirus.
“Things have been topsy-turvy. We’ve been in the Upside Down, I suppose you can say,” Weaver says, referencing a bizarre alternate dimension from the Netflix series “Stranger Things.” Discussions on how to fund a recommended $2 million in additional sustainability operating costs and $11.1 million in capital projects for fiscal year 2020-21, she continues, were immediately regarded as “no longer viable.”
Before the pandemic, former Council members Julie Mayfield and Keith Young had proposed a 3-cent increase in the property tax rate to help fund the city’s climate response, a move projected to raise about $4.5 million annually. Anna Priest, chair of the city’s Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and the Environment, says that idea “went by the wayside” as soon as Asheville declared a COVID-19 emergency.
“The city staff were redirected to emergency COVID-19 response mode for the better part of four months,” Priest explains. “The sustainability office, as well as SACEE, continued to work on our goals as best we could with the resources we were given throughout 2020.”
Even without additional funding, some progress on the climate emergency resolution has continued throughout the pandemic on a delayed schedule. An initial public input session first scheduled for May took place virtually in October, and Asheville continues to develop a Climate Justice Plan that had been scheduled for approval in December. The city has not released a revised timeline for the plan’s release.
“To do this work the right way, it’s not anything that we can rush,” emphasizes Weaver. She points out that the city signed a $29,500 contract with Asheville-based Tepeyac Consulting to engage with residents who are Black, Indigenous or people of color, many of whom face disproportionate dangers from climate change due to the ongoing impacts of discrimination and inequitable policies.
While COVID-19 inarguably challenged Asheville’s capacity for new projects, the climate emergency resolution also outlined changes to existing programs and intergovernmental relationships that have remained active throughout the pandemic. It’s unclear if city staff has carried out much of that work in accordance with Council’s wishes.
One clause of the resolution calls for its delivery to “all relevant state and federal agencies and elected representatives representing constituents within the city.” Neither Weaver nor city spokesperson Polly McDaniel could confirm that the resolution was sent to any such entities. While the resolution doesn’t name specific agencies or lawmakers, recipients might have included the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, federal Environmental Protection Agency and Buncombe County’s General Assembly delegation.
Asheville has participated in several state and national environmental advocacy actions since the resolution’s passage, including filing a formal opinion on Duke Energy’s power generation plans, joining an amicus brief against regulatory rollbacks proposed by the EPA and signing on to the “America Is All In” commitment to the Paris climate accord. At the time Xpress spoke with Asheville representatives, none of the city’s public messaging on those efforts mentioned the climate emergency.
“That was an oversight on our part,” says Weaver about the city’s language. “I think that the climate emergency encompasses a lot of items, so sometimes it’s easier just to call out the renewable energy goal or carbon mitigation goal.” (A subsequent press release issued on Jan. 29 explicitly tied those advocacy efforts to the climate emergency resolution.)
Another climate emergency clause references Asheville’s 100% Renewable Energy Resolution, adopted in 2018, and mandates an annual report that discusses both the city’s progress and any necessary funding to fulfill the goal. Weaver confirmed that this report for 2020 consists entirely of a three-line table on Page 108 of the city budget that does not address either of those points.
When asked if Asheville is on track to meet its renewable energy and carbon emissions reduction targets, Weaver was unable to answer. She said the city’s newly established Office of Data and Performance would be working on that analysis in the coming year.
The climate emergency language also tasks the city manager with identifying the funding needed to address its sustainability goals and informing Council if additional revenue is needed. Jaime Matthews, Campbell’s assistant, says her office had created no relevant reports, presentations or memorandums on those issues since the passage of the resolution.
And the mandated “sustainability impact statement for all new [Capital Improvement Plan] projects” in the city’s budget mentions only green projects, such as new solar panels on government buildings and the replacement of diesel buses with hybrid vehicles. Not included are more carbon-intensive projects such as sidewalk construction and road resurfacing.
“I think what you can deduce from that page is that the items that we did not mention were the ones that were not examined for carbon, because they did not positively impact our carbon reduction,” Weaver says about the omissions.
Out of the fire
The Sunrise Movement, which led the campaign for Asheville to pass the climate emergency resolution, has expressed concern over the city’s pace of action. The group references a 2018 report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which concluded that global carbon emissions must be slashed 45% by 2030 to avoid the worst impacts of warming.
“We have repeatedly been told that this process must be slow and that there are several roadblocks, including COVID-19 and other emergencies that our community is facing. However, we maintain the insistent position that the overlapping crises we face must be met simultaneously through an intersectional approach,” reads a statement from Sunrise provided to Xpress. “We have nine years to transition our society off of fossil fuels and into a climate-resilient regenerative economy. We wish it wasn’t true, but we quite simply have no choice.”
Weaver maintains that her two-person office, which has a total budget of under $770,000 and represents about half a percent of all general-fund spending, does not need additional support from City Council to accomplish the work with which it’s been charged. Instead, she says the federal government needs to step up with substantial funding for Asheville to reach its goals.
Early indications from the administration of President Joe Biden suggest that help is on the way. On Jan. 27, Biden signed a suite of executive orders aimed at addressing climate change, and he has proposed a $2 trillion investment in renewable energy that would direct roughly $800 billion toward disadvantaged communities.
While the city waits for federal assistance, Weaver says her office will focus on connecting sustainability to racial justice work. She notes that many of the Asheville neighborhoods flagged as being particularly vulnerable to heat stress and flooding from extreme weather are home to large Black populations: “Why did that happen? It happened because of redlining,” she says, referencing New Deal-era federal housing programs that excluded Black citizens from many areas of the city and concentrated those residents in neighborhoods that were subsequently disrupted by urban renewal through the 1980s.
“The opportunity to incorporate climate emergency and sustainability more deeply into departmental decision-making is the reparations that were adopted,” Weaver continues. The city has yet to commit any funding to that effort to bolster the Black community, passed on July 14, or establish a reparations commission as outlined in its supporting resolution.
At the Council level, Roney says she would like her colleagues to tackle tree canopy protection, stormwater policy and climate-sensitive development rules in the first 100 days of their new term. Participatory budgeting, which would give residents direct control over a portion of the city’s spending, is also on her agenda.
But Roney emphasizes that Council is unlikely to act without additional pressure. “I know this community wants to have superheroes, where one person comes in and does very specific work, but you have to have four votes,” she says, referring to the number constituting a majority on the seven-member body. “So we need our community to help us to understand what our community values, how we want to spend our money and how we want to use our land.”