The Flagstaff City Council unanimously declared a climate emergency to little public fanfare last week.
Council first approved a resolution to pass the climate emergency declaration to a packed Flagstaff City Hall early this year. No one who filled the seats of Flagstaff City Hall in January could have predicted the changes the city, county and country have experienced over the following months due to social unrest and COVID-19. Comparatively, only one member of the public provided comments during the declaration, and spoke in support.
The current course is the result of the city’s climate action adaptation plan, hundreds of people signing community petitions and multiple reports that warn of the likelihood of the global temperature increasing by 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, which would have severe impacts on the world’s ecosystems, economies and way of life.
Flagstaff joins more than 1,750 communities worldwide that are committing to carbon neutrality by 2030, according to the city.
Many councilmembers lamented the declaration could not be held in Flagstaff City Hall with the community that worked hard to create the plan, after multiple schedule changes due to COVID-19.
The city’s non-binding declaration acknowledges the region’s climate risks of reduced water availability, increased wildfire, drought, reduced snowpack, flooding and forest loss. The declaration also supports scientific modeling that estimates Flagstaff will likely reach 25 days each summer with high temperatures over 105 degrees.
The declaration says the city will benefit from an ecologically sustainable, equitable and just society.
The city's next step involves modifying the city’s climate action and adaptation plan (CAAP), educating youth about climate change, taking climate action that requires full community participation, and keeping equity for people of different vulnerable, minority and impoverished communities central to the city’s plans.
The CAAP’s previous goal of reaching 80% carbon neutrality by 2050 was not seen as effective enough by many in the community, and the new push will change the plan to make Flagstaff carbon neutral by 2030.
Carbon neutrality involves an agency, person or business taking steps to achieve a net-zero carbon footprint, meaning even if they continue to emit carbon, the entity will take steps to capture or eliminate as much carbon as it emits.
The resolution initiates a 120-day window for the city’s Sustainability Section to form a version of the CAAP to make the entire city carbon neutral by 2030.
Sara Kubisty, a community organizer of the climate declaration, said despite the lack of attendance at the council meeting she's still extremely supportive of climate action. She was happy the declaration was unanimously approved, but was concerned about whether the council will remain committed to each part of it in the future.
Kubisty's concern stemmed from watching the council’s treatment of recent Black Lives Matter protests and demands, from which reform and defund questions were pushed to the 2021 budget discussions in light of the conversation starting so close to when this fiscal year's budget was due.
She acknowledged Black Lives Matter and climate change are not 100% connected, but felt the important comparison to make was over the question of equity. She hoped that councilmembers and city staff will have the courage to take the steps to ensure that the new climate action and adaptation plan benefits all communities in Flagstaff.
“I do think that if the City of Flagstaff doesn’t hold [equity] true with everything they do, how are they going to do that with climate?” Kubisty told the Arizona Daily Sun. “With Black Lives Matter aside, I am incredibly happy that the entire city council passed this unanimously. I think that’s huge.”
Councilmember Austin Aslan worked with community members to push for a change of thinking on climate, and was happy the council was taking this step. In his mind, the country’s dedication to flattening the COVID-19 curve needs to be applied to carbon emissions.
“It’s the same narrative. It’s the same challenge. It’s just a different time scale,” Aslan said. “Reducing carbon emissions in the next decade aims precisely to flatten the curve so that environmental impacts are mitigated enough to buy us the time we need to further address the problem.”
Councilmember Jim McCarthy made a point to recognize that in order to be successful, the city, citizens and businesses will be involved in the carbon neutrality equation. McCarthy thought the goal was good to support, but unrealistic.
But Vice Mayor Adam Shimoni seemed to think the challenge was not insurmountable. Shimoni said given the different reality COVID-19 has created, he felt it was the perfect time for people and businesses to reinvent themselves.
“We can change our game plan to really make some big pivots in the way we operate -- that time is now,” Shimoni said. “We don’t have opportunities like these very often to make lasting change. The timing is perfect in my opinion.”
The new resolution also means the city will change internal processes related to budget prioritization, building improvements, zoning and building codes.
Arizona Corporation Commission
After passing the declaration, the council discussed sending a letter to the Arizona Corporation Commission asking them to join the city’s push for carbon neutrality, and to speed up its current trajectory. Currently the Arizona Corporation Commission, a publicly elected body that oversees the state’s electricity utility, is set to become 100% carbon neutral by 2050.
Council initially planned to ask the commission to join its goal to complete carbon neutrality by 2030. However, the council decided it wanted the commission to speed up its carbon neutrality pledge, even if that did not mean it moved at Flagstaff's speed.
Aslan suggested not setting any date or deadline for the commission to reach carbon neutrality, and instead framed the correspondence as asking the commission to join the council in its bold action. The council liked the recommendation and passed the decision unanimously.
The council also signed a resolution urging the federal government to pass a carbon fee and dividend legislation, specifically the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act.