At the 1940 Dem Convention Eleanor Roosevelt spoke these words: ”This is no ordinary time and no time for weighing anything except what we can best do for the country as a whole.”
Likewise, I would like to advise the members of Asheville City Council that this is no ordinary time for the City of Asheville, Western North Carolina, the United States, and all life on this beautiful living planet. In the next few weeks Asheville City Council Members will be selecting the new City Manager. And of course recent events with the departed City Manager Gary Jackson, and the departed County officials have put the focus on certain qualities in the Manager position that no one could argue with. We need a qualified individual with impeccable credentials that certify his or her honesty, integrity, transparency, ability to work well with Staff and members of the community, and of course economic and budgetary expertise. The issues of policing, social equity, affordable housing, transportation, and economic development all have their advocates on the Council.
I suggest however that there is one central issue that links all of these together, and if not addressed directly, will lead to disaster for those living here today and for all future generations.
When I moved to Asheville in 1998 I believed that Asheville had the potential to lead North Carolina in a developing and implementing a model plan that addressed the ongoing denial and totally inadequate response to the scientific evidence of global warming and its impacts on human society and all other life on earth. I envisioned that within a decade we would be witnessing a complete change in the landscape of downtown Asheville and all surrounding communities. I imagined that when a person drove on Interstate 240 through downtown, they would see solar panels on all buildings and also covering parking lots.
It took, however, a decade before Mayor Bellamy and Council made “sustainability” an official department in City Government and organized a citizens committee, the Sustainability Advisory Committee for Energy and the Environment, to help plan the City’s efforts. A decade later unfortunately, the City’s modest gains in reducing carbon emissions by 30% tell a tale of lack of vision and leadership by all Council members, except Julie Mayfield and the City Manager and Staff.
I challenge any reader to name 5 buildings in downtown Asheville with solar electric panels. The reality is that there are none on City owned buildings, none on new construction of hotels and condos, none on any hospital and Mission owned doctor’s offices, with the exception of Target, none on any big box stores along Tunnel Road, Hendersonville Road, and Brevard Road, and none on any Ingles, Publix, Whole Foods and on and on and on.
This is no ordinary time. Where is our community’s visionary and transformative leadership? I challenge City Council to take that role. If they do not rise to this challenge, the risks to our children are NOT beyond imagination. Each new “extreme weather event” here and abroad, the continuing warming of our oceans, sea level rise, red tides, forest loss, prairie and farmland loss presage more local impacts on our life in the mountains of WNC. All is connected on earth.
Within decades Asheville’s average daytime temperature will be about 91 degrees, impacting the health of the elderly, young, and poor the most. We will see more floods, droughts, and wildfires in our region. We will see an influx of “climate refugees” from southern coasts, the desert Southwest and California, the North Carolina Coast and Eastern N.C. ALL will tax the infrastructure of our region beyond current imagination.
City Council members must make experience and commitment to “sustainability” a core requirement of the new City Manager. A rapid transition to 100% Renewable energy is past due, and Council members will soon be asked to vote on an !00% Renewable Resolution. City Council and the City Manager must be committed to hiring more staff for the Sustainability Department to develop a practical pathway to achieving those goals. The new City Manager and all Council members must reach out to the Chamber of Commerce, small business leadership, the hotel and hospital industry, and demand their commitment to make Asheville’s designation of “ Climate City” a reality, not just a green, PR slogan. When the discussion comes to the cost of sustainability, my answer is we must look at the risks and future costs of NOT ACTING NOW.
As a retired Emergency Medicine M.D., when a patient arrived in the E.D. often their fate was sealed because they didn’t act soon enough. I hope we are not past that point regarding climate change and ecological chaos. The choice for all of us now is in Council’s hands.
This is no ordinary time.
This essay as published as a Guest Editorial in the Asheville Citizen-Times on Sunday, September 2, 2018. On September 19th, the Mountain Xpress published this LTE:
City Council Needs Missionary Zeal
Sometime in the not too distant future, our children and grandchildren will be asking what were we thinking, or not thinking, when we did not take adequate and timely action to respond to the threat that accelerating climate change posed for human civilization. By then however it will be too late to avoid calamity.
Some communities completely ignored the evidence. Some, like Asheville, made very modest attempts to address the problem. Asheville Mayors Worley and Bellamy signed the Mayors Climate Change Agreement, established the Office of Sustainability in the City Government, and hired staff to develop and implement carbon reduction goals for City Municipal operations.
Most recently the City worked to develop a 20-year strategic plan, named
LIVING ASHEVILLE: A COMPREHENSIVE PLAN FOR OUR FUTURE, which was adopted in June of this year. It is 392 pages of amazing goal setting in six categories that include: “Livable Built Environment”, “Resilient Economy”, “Harmony with the Natural Environment”, “Healthy Community”, “Interwoven Equity”, and Responsible Regionalism”. Yet in some fundamental way, there is a blind spot to the fact that if we continue to use fossil fuels to power the changes that are proposed, the hot world and degraded landscapes will make it impossible to achieve any of the 6 stated goals because of the general social and environmental chaos that awaits us in a world to which we are not adapted.
The fact is that current carbon reduction goals have not been met. Sustainability staff finds itself so overworked and under supported by recent City Managers that they were reluctant to support the adoption of the 100% Renewable Resolution that was being proposed by the Sustainability Advisory Committee on Energy and Environment (SACEE) because they didn’t believe that they had the people power to do the work that such a goal demanded. Nevertheless the SACEE had the wisdom to pass the Resolution, which will be voted on by City Council in October.
What we need most from the Mayor and Council is visionary, courageous, and determined commitment to the “mission” of making Asheville a real Climate City. Such missionary zeal was historically embodied in NASA’s mission to land an American on the moon. Likewise, Franklin Roosevelt in leading America into the European war to preserve freedom and democracy for us and our European brothers and sisters embodied such missionary zeal.
Asheville needs a new City Manager who is qualified by experience and commitment to carry out such a mission. And we need Council to provide funds to support funding for a rapid transition to a near zero carbon economy, or LIVING ASHEVILLE is just words on paper.
Richard Fireman is a retired M.D. and co-founder of Alliance for Energy Democracy and can be reached at email@example.com.
The most frequent argument that I hear from City Staff and Council is that the technology of renewable energy is too expensive currently so not to be cost effective, or that the technology needs to be “more mature” before they invest significant public money into projects.
My suspicion is that other than Councilwoman Julie Mayfield, the Mayor and other Council members have not delved deeply into the science of climate change, nor the economics, risk analysis, and social cost/benefit analysis of investing now vs. delay in renewable energy. To that end I have 2 references for the curious reader. Each of these references were personally delivered to Council members last week.
The Economic and Social Benefits of Low-Carbon Cities: A Systematic Review of the Evidence
The Race of Our Lives Revisited
And BTW Asheville, the State of California just declared that full carbon neutrality is now on the table for the world’s fifth largest economy..