Houston Mayor, Legendary Activist Spark Dialogue on City Climate Plan

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Bill McKibben discuss why the plan is important for Houston

By Stephanie Thomas

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner joined legendary environmental activist Bill McKibben Sunday at Congregation Emanu El as part of Houston’s Progressive Forum organized and moderated by Randall Morton.

McKibben, an author and founder of the international climate organization 350.org, has been writing and speaking about the need for climate action for 30 years. Turner joined him to discuss Houston’s Climate Action Plan, which aims to get the city to net zero carbon by 2050.

Asked what he wants to see in a climate action plan, McKibben conveyed a sense of deep urgency.

“We need to frontload (reduction of) emissions,” he said.

To stay below 1.5℃ warming, cities like Houston must dramatically slash emissions during the 2020s. Emissions reductions can’t be an afterthought put off until the 2040s.

Mayor Turner said that the city had most leverage over matters regarding transportation in the climate plan, but he didn’t comment on his support of the I-45 expansion project. The ill-conceived plan would actually lead to more cars on the road and more vehicle miles traveled.

McKibben pressed Turner on the upcoming Youth Climate Strike. Would he be there? Would he give his open support to students? Turner failed to directly respond to the question, but rather turned his attention to some projects the city is working on, such as the Reinventing Cities program in Sunnyside, which is converting a former landfill into a solar farm. Turner also asked for support on the forthcoming METRONext Bond, which will be on the city ballot on November 5th and is designed to encourage more transit in the area.

McKibben reminded the mayor to listen to and accept assistance from the environmental community. The mayor emphasized he wants to work together with energy companies across the spectrum, from fossil fuel producers to renewable firms. At the same time, Turner repeated the words his daughter spoke to him as he became mayor, “Don’t build a city for yesterday, build a city for tomorrow.”

We need real transformation to create a Houston for tomorrow. At this point, we are relying on last century’s industry to fuel our economy. We need deep change.

As the mayor left, McKibben invited young activists Bryan Parras of the Sierra Club and t.e.j.a.s., and Sarah Greenberg of Sunrise Movement, to share some insights.

“The climate crisis is personal,” Greenberg said. She invited everyone to join the Climate Strike on Friday Sept 20th.  We need people standing up in protest to accelerate action on the climate crisis.

McKibben highlighted multiple instances in which people standing up prevented or delayed environmentally catastrophic projects. He was also clear that these actions aren’t just about keeping CO2 out of the atmosphere. The climate crisis is a “fundamental challenge of justice,” according to McKibben. With 1 billion climate refugees predicted by the end of the century, we need to act now.

Like Greenberg said, this is personal, and taking action is how we defend the future of our children. We must break the political power of  industries holding us back from climate action.