Prop J is bad news for climate change

We have 12 years to stop global warming, so we can’t afford to wait three years for action

Average annual household carbon footprint in Austin, Travis County, Texas. Source: UC Berkeley CoolClimate Network, Average Annual Household Carbon Footprint (2013)

Global warming is worse than we thought (and we already knew it is really, really bad). A new report just released by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects a “world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040.” To avoid this, we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent over the next 12 years.

It’s a tall order, and to be honest, we may not make it. But every additional degree of increased temperature will unlock another level of hell, so we should do everything we can to slow that increase. That starts by rejecting Austin’s Proposition J this fall.

We’re not going to get the action we need from the Trump Administration which has repeatedly ignored and denied climate science, so it’s up to cities and states to step up and fill the leadership void. Here in Austin, we’re already off to a strong start, with a plan to get 65 percent of our electricity from renewable energy by 2027, reduce our solid waste to zero, and put more electric cars on the road.

But to hit our climate goals — Austin’s Community Climate Plan calls for a 44.8 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, very close to the UN’s target — we have to do much, much more.

For example, Austin’s climate plan counts on us taking 160,000 vehicles off the road by 2050 through better land use policies that shift the city “from an auto-centric to a more people-centric environment.” To make that shift a reality, “complete communities must be built that are compact and connected.” The climate plan calls for updating the 1984 Land Development Code (LDC) to make it easier to build “duplexes, triplexes, and quadplexes, as well as ADUs (accessory dwelling units)” in the urban core.

That makes sense, because if we don’t allow more new housing in the urban core, people looking for affordable housing will have to go farther out into the suburbs, where the average annual household carbon footprint can be more than double that of homes in the urban core.

Last fall, Environment Texas Research and Policy Center released a report which reviewed recent research on urban development and found that compact development in the city core, by every metric, is far better for the environment than the suburban sprawl our current code facilitates.

The CodeNext process to update Austin’s development code was controversial, with some fighting against greater density, claiming that it would destroy neighborhoods, which they portrayed with sensationalistic images of bulldozers and wrecking balls. Ultimately, the debate became so toxic that the mayor and city council voted to kill CodeNext, and directed the city manager to come up with a new process to update the code. CodeNext’s opponents, however, had already collected enough signatures to put Prop J on the ballot. Prop J would require a public vote and a waiting period of up to three years before any comprehensive changes to the land development code could be made.

The IPCC report is clear that time is running out. If we want to slow or stop catastrophic climate change, we have to start cutting our greenhouse gas emissions drastically now. We can’t afford to put up more barriers and waiting periods that will prevent us from making Austin less dependent on fossil fuel-powered cars and trucks (which are responsible for 36% of greenhouse gas emissions in Travis County). We have to start building our city so that it’s easier for Austinites to use transportation alternatives including mass transit, biking, and walking.

Prop J isn’t just bad news for our climate; it would also make it harder to clean up our waterways, fight flooding, and ensure a sufficient water supply.

The city’s Watershed Protection Department had proposed that new developments should be required to use green infrastructure, which can reduce the stormwater runoff which pollutes our creeks and leads to flooding (which is becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change). With the demise of CodeNext, these changes are on now hold and, under Prop J, we might have to wait up to three years or more after the council adopts them before they could take effect.

In addition to the global climate crisis, we may again face a local crisis that demands urgent action that can’t wait for three years — such as another bad drought.

The drought of 2011–2013 caused significant damage to Austin’s environment and economy. Water levels at Lakes Travis and Buchanan (Austin’s main water supply) fell to record lows, and the Austin Water Utility started preparing for the possibility that the lakes would go completely dry. Just in time, the drought ended. But if it hadn’t, Austin would have needed to make emergency, comprehensive changes to make sure our taps didn’t run dry. If — more likely, when — Austin faces another drought as severe, we’ll need urgent action to mandate water conservation. Under Prop J, we would have to wait up to three years or more before we could make comprehensive development code changes to increase water conservation.

Prop J’s supporters argue the that city will still be able to make changes to the code, as long as the changes aren’t “comprehensive.” But piecemeal solutions are how we got into the messes we’re in today, from sprawl to traffic to flooding. Big problems such as global warming need big, comprehensive solutions.

Under Prop J, we might not even be able to make smaller policy changes. We don’t know what a judge would consider “comprehensive.” Will that judge consider Austin’s Comprehensive Watershed Ordinance “comprehensive?” If the city ties together changes to two separate parts of the development code at the same time (which is standard procedure to create a compromise that can win the city council’s approval), will the judge consider that “comprehensive?” We just don’t know.

With the future of the planet on the line, I’m not willing to take these risks. That’s why I’ll be voting “no” on Prop J.


Political ad paid for by Environment Texas, a project of Environment America, and approved by No on Prop J PAC.