Pensacola, Florida
Monday July 22nd 2019

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Tough Going Green

By Jeremy Morrison

A growing number of cities and counties across the country are committing to what might be considered ambitious renewable energy goals. Mayor Grover Robinson appears to consider them too ambitious for Pensacola anyways.

This trend towards renewable goals speaks to a growing awareness of climate change and the importance of minimizing man’s impact on the environment. In Florida, cities like Orlando, Tallahassee and Gainesville have made commitments to transition entirely to renewable energy sources over the next few decades. Other cities—places like Aspen, Colo., or Burlington, Vt.—have already realized this goal.

The city of Pensacola also has a renewable energy goal—kind of, sort of. It’s not official or anything.

“I was never a big fan of the 2040 (deadline),” Mayor Robinson said recently.

Last year, Pensacola’s Climate Mitigation and Adaptation Task Force delivered a report outlining various efforts that could be made to address the effects of climate change. While generally heralded as just peachy, the report was shuffled into a state of limbo when Mayor Robinson suggested any action on recommendations from the report be put on hold.

“He basically asked could we be a little patient,” said Pensacola City Councilwoman Ann Hill.

“It’s a patient issue,” said Neil Richards, chairman of the city’s Environmental Advisory Board, which delivered the climate task force’s report to the city council.

Both Hill and Richards were in attendance at a forum this month hosted by environmental organization 350 Pensacola, during which four members of the city’s climate change task force discussed their report and what actions they hoped the city would take.

“I think what we have here in the city of Pensacola is an amazing blueprint,” said Dr. Haris Alibasic, an assistant professor in the University of West Florida’s Public Administration program. “With this blueprint, we have a good starting point, and I would hate if it just went into thin air.”

Dreaming Big
The climate mitigation task force’s report outlined several areas of focus for the city of Pensacola. In addition to setting a renewable energy goal, the report recommended that the city conduct a greenhouse gas emission inventory and that the mayor sign on to the Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement, which involves commitments to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

Alibasic called the report “an amazing blueprint,” but stressed it would take “strong leadership” at the municipal level if any of the goals outline therein were to be realized.

“There are great recommendations in the report,” agreed Dr. Wade Jeffrey, a professor of biology at UWF. “The hard part is going to be implementation.”

Joining Jeffrey and Alibasic on the panel of task force members were Cynthia Cannon, an urban planner with Santa Rosa County, as well as Carrie Stevenson, coastal sustainability agent with Escambia County’s UF/IFAS Extension. The forum, held at the Studer Community Institute on June 4, was moderated by Christian Wagley, who represented environmental interests on the mayor’s transition team.

Task force members were unanimous in their top priority to emerge from the report—they all feel the city should focus first on creating the so-called greenhouse gas emissions inventory, essentially a portrait of the city’s carbon footprint.

“Without this report, we’re not going anywhere,” Alibasic said, describing the inventory as “doable” and the “cornerstone” to any mitigation efforts.

“Until you know how sick you are, what’s really wrong, you have no idea how to repair it,” said Stevenson.

Alibasic also pointed to the report’s recommendations on renewable energy goals. The report suggested the city shoot for running on 30 percent renewables by 2030 and going full 100 percent renewable by 2040.

“We have to dream and think big,” Alibasic said. “The idea is to really start thinking big picture issues that could put Pensacola on the map.”

The task force members acknowledged that some of the difficulty in getting people to understand the importance of climate change and how it requires mitigating lies in the fact that the issue of climate change itself has been politicized.

Stevenson suggested viewing the issue through a purely scientific lens as opposed to a political one—“It’s not a political issue; it’s simply a scientific phenomenon.”

Jeffery agreed, “You have to get the emotion out of it; you have to get the politics out of it.”

Alibasic said he was growing less concerned with convincing skeptics of the legitimacy of climate change—“I am struggling to say, ‘We need to convince everyone.’ Perhaps we don’t.”

At one point during the forum, Dr. Alibasic’s daughter came and sat on his lap. He said that considering the impacts of climate change on future generations helps understand the urgency of the issue.

“She’s going to be finding a lot more of these issues in the future, and we’re not leaving a good planet Earth for them, and I think that’s key,” he said.

Are Blue Bottles Green Enough?
In March, City Councilwoman Sherri Myers brought three task force recommendations to the city council. They included creating the greenhouse gas inventory, establishing an office of sustainability and joining the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives-Local Governments for Sustainability.

Mayor Robinson asked that Myers hold off on the climate task force recommendations until after the city conducted a strategic plan workshop, which happened in May.

During the recent task force forum, Dr. Alibasic recounted how Mayor Robinson had been receptive upon the report’s arrival—“the mayor came to me and told me how great the report was”—and wondered if it’d be beneficial for task force members to reach out to him again and stress the importance of acting on the report.

“If you need us to help communicate that,” he said, “I’m happy to come in.”

About a week after the forum, Mayor Robinson said he was still committed to acting on the recommendations outlined in the climate mitigation report. Some of them. Eventually.

“If you want them all done tomorrow, they’re not all going to be done tomorrow, but they are gonna get done. I mean, I do expect us to do that,” Robinson said.

Insofar as the report’s recommendation that the city transition to renewable energy by 2040, the mayor doesn’t see that as a relevant target.

“I mean, let’s face it, I could do nothing in eight years and then go, ‘Hey, we’re still shooting for 2040,’ so I don’t think it becomes accountable to what we’re doing,” he explained.

Robinson said he’d prefer to focus on goals attainable within his political term in office and complimentary of other municipal efforts.

“I think we need to do something that we can realistically do over eight years and we can set a goal to do that,” he said. “But it’s gotta be in concert with all the other things we’re doing at the same time, and we’ve got a lot of things working.”
As for the all-important greenhouse gas inventory, the mayor said he was on board, but not just yet.

“It’s on the table,” Robinson said. “We’re going to do it at some point when I can finally get staff pulled away from a couple of other projects to start this project. I mean, every time we turn around we’ve got a new project, but we are gonna do it.”

The mayor instead pointed to other city efforts on the environmental front, such as the decision to replace streetlights with LED lights and the possibility of using the city’s public work’s property for a solar-installation field.

Robinson also pointed to the shiny new blue water bottle from which he was drinking. The reusable metal bottles have been distributed to all city employees and are part of an effort to eventually eliminate the use of disposable plastic and Styrofoam cups within city properties.

The new water bottles, the mayor said, are illustrative of a more nuanced approach.

“What we hope to do, we hope to change behavior. I mean, again, one plastic bottle is not something, but if you change behavior, over time what you can make is a significant difference,” Robinson said. “We’re not gonna cure, save the Earth tomorrow, but if we take little steps, we’re gonna do it in the future and we’re gonna make a much better world.”

The new water bottles are all well and good, but task force members are hoping for something with a little more oomph.

“Without concrete action from city council or city leadership, it will seem like a futile effort,” Alibasic said.