Asheville lags on climate emergency goals

Sunrise Movement Asheville sit-in at Asheville City Hall
HALL OF (CLIMATE) JUSTICE: Members of Sunrise Movement Asheville staged a sit-in at Asheville City Hall in December 2019 to demand the passage of a climate emergency resolution. Photo by Daniel Walton

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.

Back burner?

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.”

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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the Assistant Editor of Mountain Xpress, regularly contributing to coverage of Western North Carolina's government, environment and health care. His work has previously appeared in Capital at Play, Edible Asheville, and the Citizen-Times, among other area publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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14 thoughts on “Asheville lags on climate emergency goals

      • dyfed

        Scientific consensus is a beauty contest among people with socially approved credentials and far inferior to actual science when it comes to sifting through large amounts of ambiguous and politically volatile evidence. That the evidence shows local climates change regularly is indisputable. That the evidence shows any kind of global trend, or that the evidence shows a majority-anthropogenic cause for any hypothetical trend, is an unfalsifiable and unscientific hypothesis that has yet to be tested in any way. Climate is a murky topic where nobody can prove anything of use by experiment. Countless climate science papers trumpet effects that are indistinguishable from random noise, or that only show significant effects once p-hacked to death.

        People will treat it as an emergency when there’s reason to. Right now, it’s so much vaporware and huckster alarmism, which is very hard for most to admit, but hey, that’s life.

        • It’s simply untrue to say there is no global trend to warming and that this trend has not been driven primarily by humans. See the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report from 2018 (https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/):

          “Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above preindustrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. (high confidence)”

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          • indy499

            Wonderhow those UN public seervants figured that out from expensive Geneva?

          • dyfed

            It is not convincing, when the evidence for a hypothesis has been called into question, to merely repeat it and add only that Very Important People, such as the IPCC, believe it. That’s about as unscientific an approach as one can take.

            It’s no secret that every IPCC report treats climate disaster as virtually certain and the anthropogenic cause of it as a foregone conclusion. I wish I could share their confidence but, as I said, the state of climate science is dismal and not open to test, and the mere mention of skepticism towards this conclusion is enough to permanently cut you off from resources and career prospects in climate academia proper (and journalism, yes? Do you really have any choice about this? It might make you look like you’re endorsing me if you don’t contradict me!). That said, the evidence that there is great uncertainty and little ability to prove that climate change is anthropogenic is everywhere if you drill down to the evidence and statistical analyses that supposedly support this conclusion of impending emergency.

            It’s enough to make you wonder what the point of reporting on it is. There’s one line, you’re expected to repeat it, it would be career and social suicide for you to stop repeating it. Journalists talk a good game about uplifting marginalized voices but never do so in a way that might actually upset the prevailing orthodoxy. When the CDC was telling everyone to stop buying masks, the news was shaming people who were buying them for hurting frontline hospital workers. Now that the CDC is shaming people who don’t wear masks, you’re talking about how harmful and difficult it is for service workers to deal with people who won’t wear masks. Do you see the pattern? I’ll tell you what it is. You say what it’s safe for you to say, and you probably believe it too.

          • I appreciate you reading, dyfed. I think we can both agree there’s no point in continuing our discussion if we aren’t operating off the same set of facts and if you’re not sharing any substantive reason to question the evidence. All I’ll say is that consensus climate science has been vetted by decades of research and thousands of peer-reviewed papers, as referenced and summarized by the authorities I’ve quoted.

            As a reporter, I remain open to research and facts that would dispute that consensus. But in the words of Carl Sagan, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If you have such evidence, I and the global scientific community would love to see it.

          • Peter Robbins

            Here’s a popular article that addresses the “concern” that climate science is not really science and can be ignored without risk: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-idea-that-a-scientific-theory-can-be-falsified-is-a-myth/. It probably won’t convince people emotionally committed to denialism, but it may persuade others.

            As the article states, the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change is not a beauty contest or a matter of politics; it is based on overwhelming evidence (and multiple lines of evidence) that all reasonably point to the same conclusion: human activity is altering the climate in ways that may prove disastrous for civilization. If “dyfed” thinks natural causes explain the evidence better, he is free to make his argument and publish it in a peer-reviewed journal. I’m sure the editors won’t hold it against him if he doesn’t have a fancy degree and insists on using a pseudonym.

            But while we await his findings, consider this: if we know (to a reasonable degree of certainty) that small natural changes can produce climate impacts that are dramatic from a human perspective; and we know (to a reasonable degree of certainty) that a small increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases is one such change; and we know (to a reasonable degree of certainty) that humans are pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a rate far faster than at any time in the paleo-history; and we know (to a reasonable degree of certainty) that the earth’s atmosphere now is rapidly getting warmer in a manner consistent with greenhouse effects; and we know (to a reasonable degree of certainty) that the observed warming is inconsistent with careful tracking of natural events known to have climate-changing potential; and we know (to a reasonable degree of certainty) that greenhouse-gas increases considered rapid by the (very slow ) standards of geologic time have caused huge impacts, including mass extinctions, in the paleo-history; and we know (to a reasonable degree of certainty and from multiple sources of evidence) that climate is already changing in ways generally predicted by climate models; and we know (to a reasonable degree of certainty) that those changes, if they continue, pose a risk of worldwide catastrophe, what grounds are there for complacency? Beyond wishing thinking, I mean. I’m not a scientist or a risk-management expert, but I do try to keep up, and that situation meets my common-sense definition of an emergency. Class dismissed.

  1. dyfed

    Since there’s no direct way to respond to the prior thread,
    I have to leave another comment. So it goes.

    The problem, Mr. Walton, is that there really isn’t much in the way of evidence to dispute. Take exempli gratia the assertion that temperatures have risen approximately 0.8 degree Celsius. What you don’t know about that evidence is that the margin of error on measurement over that time is approximately 0.98 degree Celsius. That is to say, our measurements are simply *not* precise enough to prove any warming has taken place.

    Take it further: over the same period, measurements that are taken locally show no particular trend. Urban temperatures have gone up; rural temperatures have gone down. Only when averaged do they show this ambiguous trend that lies within the margin of error.

    What’s more, even the IPCC in its own reports admits that there is weak-to-no evidence to support that temperature changes or sea level rise cause increased risk of natural disaster. Climates have been changing the world over for millennia; fluctuations of several degrees Celsius are totally normal on the geological timespan that life has existed on Earth, and nothing to be particularly alarmed about.

    Obviously I’m not going to write a hundred pages of discourse on the very weak and vanishing evidence that climate change is anthropogenically caused in the majority, or that such change is apocalyptic or an emergency situation. It’s enough to me to state the obvious: citing reports of ‘scientific consensus’ is not evidence, and if you examine the evidence critically, you’ll see what I have: there’s not a big story to tell.

    • Peter Robbins

      No evidence for human-caused global warming? Um, you might want to shoot these jaspers an e-mail, so they don’t get blindsided again. https://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-are-as-sure-as-you-can-be-in-science-that-humans-caused-climate-change. And I think these science fellers take a dim view of the rest of your talking points, so a cc to them is in order, as well: https://skepticalscience.com/argument.php. Good luck with your research program. I’m sure it has great promise.

      • dyfed

        Scientists are sure of a lot of things, Peter. A few decades back they were sure that homosexuality was a mental disorder. They were also sure that female hysteria was a treatable condition. They were also sure that fat in your diet caused cardiac issues. The fact is that most of what you know today as settled truth, in the past was considered absolutely wrong and ignorant by the best minds of the great consensus.

        The trouble with your constant appeal to What We Know is that a lot of it is based in consensus opinion, and science doesn’t work that way. Science is a fantastic process that loses all applicability once you begin to base your conclusions on what the opinions of authorities are. Facts are never wrong, but people are often wrong about the facts, en masse. In fact consensus opinion often lags the discovery of the truth by decades. Think of how long it took for there to be acceptance of the germ model of disease, or the heliocentric model of the solar system, and there was considerably more obvious evidence than there is in the very murky and untestable/unfalsifiable field of climatology.

        • Peter Robbins

          Did you read the material I cited? None of it is based on an appeal to authority. Not one word. It is all based on evidence, and the sources of the evidence are given in the citations. I gave you the links, rather than summarizing the material myself, to make sure I didn’t misstate some aspect and give you a chance to create a distraction. If you have conflicting evidence or studies to cite, be my guest. I love learning new things. But don’t just sneer at scientists who are obviously more capable than you are. It’s embarrassing.

          As far as scientists sometimes being wrong, of course they are. But the only reason you know that is because science is self-correcting, and a scientific consensus is something that emerges and is refined by that process of self-correction. If you don’t like to rely on a scientific consensus to summarize current understandings, fine — go ahead and accept my challenge. E-mail the climate scientists who published the studies and tell them where they went wrong. See how you do in the big leagues where the heavy hitters play. Or better yet, publish your own article in peer-reviewed journal and we can all read it. We have so much to learn.

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