Scruggs: We should heed pope’s climate change stance

Houston Chronicle op-ed
Melanie Scruggs, Texas Campaign for the Environment

There is an old joke about the man in a flooding house who prays for rescue. As the water rises, firefighters come by in a rowboat and offer to help him out. He says, “No, no, I’m waiting for God to rescue me.” A while later, the water is higher and a motorboat comes. He tells them, “No, no, I’m waiting for God to rescue me.” Finally, the water is up to his roof and a helicopter offers help. “No, no, I’m waiting for God to rescue me,” the man says. The water keeps rising however, and the man drowns.

In heaven now, the man asks God, “Why didn’t you rescue me?”

“What are you talking about?” God asks. “I sent two boats and a helicopter!”

This joke is not only appropriate in light of the historic rain and flooding we have seen in Houston lately, but in light of another man of prayer’s recent statements on a likely contributor to this exceptional weather: Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. The man in the joke thought his solution would come miraculously, but it came instead from conscientious neighbors working for the common good. Many Texans seem to believe that we will be magically delivered from the consequences we are already facing as a result of our unrestrained consumption and waste – record droughts, record floods and more violent tropical storms. In truth, it is the leadership of thousands of activists working in our community that offers real hope for our future.

Pope Francis’ encyclical is important, but it is only the latest statement from a faith leader urging action on climate change. Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Protestant leaders – including the Southern Baptist Convention – have said that climate change is a moral issue, and failure to act to mitigate it is a moral failing. Somehow, however, Texas politicians – usually not too shy about mixing religion into their politics – have not gotten the message. Some climate change denialists with whom I have spoken in Austin have even suggested that God would not allow climate change to destroy our wasteful way of life!

The notion that God will bail us out of the consequences of our own bad decisions is not one taken seriously by any religion I am familiar with, and as a pastor’s daughter, I am confident that I never learned that one in Sunday school. Instead, the Bible and many scriptures from other faiths are full of stories of otherwise decent, even holy people making selfish decisions they repeatedly have been warned against and facing inevitable consequences as judgment. They can be forgiven, they can be healed, and they can repent and take instead a different path. But as long as they persist in their destructive behavior, there is a price to be paid.

Those of us working to build a more sustainable and just society across Texas are leading the way, however, to avert disaster and save lives. We are working to put Houston on a path to zero waste by advocating a long-term plan to expand recycling and composting programs all over the city. We are lobbying to defend our renewable energy portfolio standards. We are educating and protecting communities that live closest to polluting facilities. We need to be doing even more, and collaborating more. Some of needed changes may be uncomfortable, but doing the right thing often is. Many Texas politicians, however, would rather pretend as though the problem does not exist than make any changes necessary to address it.

Flooding and miraculous rescues, it turns out, are no joke. A climate warming out of control is one where floods, droughts, powerful storms and other costs to human life and civilization become increasingly unavoidable. We would do well to heed Pope Francis’ pleas, and be the people piloting the figurative rescue boats and helicopters, not those refusing help when we need it most.

Scruggs is Houston program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment.

What’s the Damage? Fallout from the 84th Texas legislative session

txlegeAustin Chronicle
Michael King

As in many years, the environmental fights at the 84th Legislature were mostly not to do good things, but to prevent bad things from happening – and at best, it was a split decision.

The headline disaster was House Bill 40, often described as the Legislature’s attempt to stop local bans on oil-and-gas “fracking.” In fact, it’s much broader than that: In language that waxes grandiloquently about the “healthy and economically vibrant communities” produced by the state’s responsible development of oil and gas resources, the statute goes on to “expressly preempt the regulation of oil and gas operations by municipalities and other political subdivisions.”

Any local regulation of any kind – restricted only to surface activities – must be “commercially reasonable.” In other words, hydrocarbon rules.

In Senate Bill 709, the Lege took parallel steps to make it more difficult for citizens to contest permits (to pollute) granted by the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality – unless a Texan is directly and personally affected by the permit, it will be much harder to get a hearing. The law’s only virtue is that it just might provoke Environmental Protection Agency intervention – an outcome not exactly contemplated by its authors.

Defeated were several bad bills – notably several attempts to undermine local bag bans – and there were slight improvements in the regulation of ammonium nitrate storage.

But on the whole, said Robin Schneider of Texas Campaign for the Environment, “The oil-and-gas, chemical industry, electric utilities, and waste industry are big winners this session. Industry said, ‘Jump,’ and most Republican and many Democratic legislators responded, ‘How high?'”

The Sierra Club’s Ken Kramer summed up the session as a “mixed bag” regarding water issues, especially in the wake of the final defeat of what has been nicknamed “Gridzilla” – a “proposed state water ‘grid’ of reservoirs, pipelines, pumping stations, and other infrastructure to move massive volumes of water around Texas” – by an environmental, rural, and fiscally conservative coalition. Kramer said there was some progress on uses of graywater and other secondary water sources, as well as many “water project” bills that will have to be monitored in implementation.

Very late last week, it had appeared that Hays County citizens’ uphill campaign for broader regulation of the Trinity Aquifer (HB 3405) had died on the House floor. Instead, it was magically resurrected by the reversal of a parliamentarian’s ruling, and is on the governor’s desk. Whether it will succeed in saving residential wells from commercial drainage remains to be seen.

Tom “Smitty” Smith of Public Citizen also summarized a mixed report card for the session, saying there had been some progress on residential solar and on water conservation, but also pointing to HB 40 and SB 709 as “limiting local control and citizens’ rights.” “Thwarting ugly bills,” Smitty noted, has its own virtues: Right up to sine die, Gridzilla remained on his watch list.

Single-use Plastic Bags will be Free Again Monday

bagmonsterdannyDallas Observer
Stephen Young

At what Dwaine Caraway said would be his last City Council meeting, the term-limited council member put on a vintage performance, fighting against what’s become the bane of his existence: single-use plastic bags. He lost. Single-use plastic bags will be free again on Monday, but he lost fighting the good fight.

Caraway was instrumental in the compromise the council passed in 2014. Single-use plastic bags would not be banned outright, as he wanted, but they would be subject to a nickel fee, 90 percent of which would go to the city. The fee went into effect January 1.

In May, a group of bag manufacturers sued the city, citing then-Attorney General Greg Abbott’s 2014 opinion that plastic bag fees were probably illegal. In the suit’s aftermath, dueling memos were sent to the mayor by two, five-council member cohorts. One asked that the fee be converted to an outright ban on the bags, imitating the policy in Austin and other cities, the other called simply for the fees repeal.

“You can either be the biggest city to take action on this or the first city in Texas to take the state backwards,” Zac Trahan of the Texas Campaign for the Environment said.

After Trahan and the other open-microphone speakers — including a “plastic bag monster” that Mayor Mike Rawlings said looked like something out of Game of Thrones — it was Caraway’s turn to take center stage one more time.

Aided by a prop fence and tree that he entangled plastic bags in, Caraway decried the bags for flying everywhere and ruining the landscape of southern Dallas.

“We will eventually be known as the world class city of plastic bags if we fail to take action today,” he said.

Council members Rick Callahan and Jerry Allen, with help from Rawlings, made the case that fixing Dallas trash problem requires personal responsibility from residents and market forces, rather than regulations.

“We’re not going to ban fried chicken boxes and stuff,” Allen said, in explaining that there would be trash with or without the bags.

Rawlings said the core issue was the role of government in people’s lives, then voted with the winning side in a 9-6 decision not to ban the bags. Scott Griggs, Adam Medrano, Carolyn Davis, Lee Kleinman and Philip Kingston voted with Caraway.

“What you all are doing here today, this is wrong. I made a lot of mistakes and one of those mistakes was not to voice up even more,” Caraway said. “This is about money.”

Caraway then stressed his plans to write a book about this City Council and told Rawlings he wished he’d run against the mayor when he’d had the chance.

“This vote today tells you that they don’t care,” Caraway said, before breaking out his impression of council member Vonciel Jones Hill explaining why she doesn’t want to ban the bags.

Hill informed Caraway that her voice was a gift from God and that she resented his implication that her vote against the ban was meant to please her campaign contributors.

“What you get when you contribute to my campaign is good government,” she said.

Still needing to do something to fix an ordinance that is, as Abbott said, probably illegal, the council then voted 10-4 to ditch the fee, with Medrano switching sides because, he said, he didn’t believe the city could win the lawsuit*.

*Medrano and Kleinman switched sides and Sandy Greyson voted against the repeal.