2020 budget prompts Bloomington city council thoughts on climate change: From definitional questions to golf courses

Drop shadowed Sustainability Ord_05-15 (1)
Extracted from the 2005 ordinance that established the Bloomington Commission on Sustainability. (Dave Askins/Beacon)

Wednesday’s departmental budget hearings in front of Bloomington’s city council returned to a couple of themes from Monday’s session on the budget overview.  On Monday, councilmember Dave Rollo asked questions about the city’s preparedness for a looming economic downturn. And Isabel Piedmont-Smith questioned whether the budget generally did enough to address climate change.

On Wednesday, the topics of the economy and climate change led to some of the most energetic councilmember speaking turns of the four-day series of hearings. The more animated councilmember remarks came after some members of the public gave commentary on the budget of the Economic & Sustainable Development Department.

It is one of the smaller departments in the city, at under $1 million annually. This year the budget proposed by the department’s director, Alex Crowley, is about $997,000, up about 5 percent from $949,000 last year.

Talk at the council table was spurred by public commentary encouraging the city council to insist that the administration do more to address climate change, specifically to create a separate department for climate action. (The administration would need to increase amounts before the council gets a formal first reading of the budget on Sept. 25 with a final vote on Oct. 10.) Creation of a separate department was a specific step suggested by Piedmont-Smith on Monday.

The urgency attached by public speakers to the topic comes in part from a 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to the report, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius depends on a decline in CO2 emissions by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and reaching net zero carbon emissions by around 2050.

On Wednesday, the topic of climate change was framed in at least a couple of different abstract ways. What is the appropriate relationship between the economy, the environment and social equity? Should the city’s response to climate change be the responsibility of one person, or of many people? The first, definitional question harked back nearly a decade and a half to the ordinance establishing Bloomington’s Commission on Sustainability.

Some of the conversation relied on military metaphors. Speaking from the public podium, Ross Martinie Eiler said, “We need an army of people who are working together to make this a reality.” In his remarks from the council table, Steve Volan said, “We are turning the battleship of the city and it takes time to turn it.”

A more concrete specific suggestion came later during Wednesday night’s session when the council heard the budget presentation from the parks and recreation department. Piedmont-Smith said she wanted the department to consider converting the city’s golf course to a purpose that would help fight climate change. In the context of the suggestion, that could mean planting trees or a prairie in place of the fairways and greens.

One measure of the council’s position on the administration’s approach to climate change was reflected in the straw vote taken on the Economic & Sustainable Development Department’s budget. Volan and Andy Ruff passed on the vote, a typical tool used by councilmembers to signal dissatisfaction. Piedmont-Smith took the rarer step of voting no, and intimated she might eventually vote no on the budget as a whole. Councilmembers Rollo, Susan Sandberg, Jim Sims, and Chris Sturbaum voted yes. Dorothy Granger and Allison Chopra were absent.

Definition of “sustainability”

The definitional question of “sustainability” and the appropriate relationship between the economy, the environment and social equity was batted back and forth at the council table between Steve Volan and Dave Rollo.

Volan took as his reference the phrasing in the “Whereas” clauses of the 2005 ordinance that established the city’s Commission on Sustainability: “[A] sustainable community seeks to enhance and unify these three key community indicia of well-being—economic development, environmental health and social equity—while taking precautions not to compromise the quality of life of future generations…”

Volan said “sustainability”—as defined in the ordinance that Rollo wrote, and for which Volan had voted—is a three-legged stool built on the economy, environment and social equity. Volan said that he felt the definition people had been using recently was centered on just the environment. The city had a separate Environmental Commission for that exclusive focus, he said, adding, “I would beg somebody to answer me the question: How do you all define that term anymore?”

Rollo gave a kind of answer to that question by countering the three-legged stool analogy with a different one:

The proper way of looking at them is as nested hierarchies. The environment comes first. We need a livable biosphere in order to have an economy at all. … Second is considering an economy, composed of energy and materials throughput from the biosphere. And equity depends on resources that are crucial to human needs, derived from the environment through the economy that serves human needs. So the proper way of looking at it is as a nested hierarchy, not just a three-legged stool.

In his following turn, Volan said that if it’s a hierarchy, then that needs to be changed in the council’s adopted definition:

“I would at least suggest that councilmember Rollo write a new resolution explaining his new, or his changed definition of sustainability, because I’m going off the ordinance that he wrote that I voted for … and now it seems that there is a hierarchy. Maybe that’s so because of exigent circumstances. But I’ve counted on using the definition that we passed for this council.

Whether it’s possible to have economic growth that does not adversely affect the climate was part of the council conversation stemming from the definitional question. Volan said: “If there’s new business and new workers, new people in town living here, commuting here, … one result of the argument that we need to focus entirely on climate change is that maybe we need to stop doing any economic development, because it would impact the climate.”

Volan later called that remark a “straw argument”—he was not advocating against all economic growth.

Just after he floated the straw argument, he had said: “I think what we need to do is come up with a definition that says: At what more efficient rate can we expand the economy while not impacting the environment, OK?”

Ruff countered the idea that economic growth necessarily meant a negative climate impact, citing as an example, local food production.

Dave Rollo advocated for sequestration of carbon emissions (for example, by planting trees) as part of a strategy of “carbon concurrency.” That means for every expansion of the local economy, it would need to be offset that “by sequestration or efficiency or substitution, or some means.”

On the topic of the impact of economic growth on the climate, Piedmont-Smith was sanguine about the role of the “green economy.” She said: “[A]n essential part of addressing climate change is embracing the new economy of green jobs—of building solar panels, of installing them, of repurposing and using plastic to keep it out of our oceans, of developing local food networks. There can be economic development, but it needs to be subservient to our addressing climate change and sustainability.”

Chris Sturbaum advocated for a balance: “We do know it’s a moral question. And yet we have to wake up tomorrow and get to work. And we want jobs for people downtown, we want a community that’s thriving, so we balance. So that’s my response to ‘all hands on deck.’ Meanwhile, we still have to keep the boat going.”

Public Commentary

Sturbaum’s remarks about the “moral question” were in part a response to public commentary from three people.

Speaking from the public’s podium, Ross Martinie Eiler said:

We have to be brave and moral leaders in the area of climate change. And what I’ve seen of this budget is a continuance of business as usual and trying to find some small piecemeal things that are doing good and are helping, but are not part of the large-scale economic transformation that is the true challenge before us to meet the moral issue of climate change.

Eiler picked up on Piedmont-Smith’s call on Monday for a director of climate action sustainability, heading up a separate department. Eiler said, “I think the idea of a…director of climate action, would be an excellent move for the city of Bloomington. But it has to be everything. It has to be every department in our city. It has to be every budget line. It has to be every line item moving in sync, in order to really provide good moral leadership on this issue.”

Eiler’s remarks were reinforced from the public podium by Kate Rosenberger and Daniel Bingham. Rosenberger will be joining the city council in 2020, having won the Democratic Party primary for District 1 against incumbent Chris Sturbaum—because her race for District 1 is uncontested in November.

In his remarks, Bingham talked about the need for more decisive action: “And we need a commitment to these goals that isn’t couched in ‘under-committing and over-performing.'” What we need to say, Bingham said, is: “We will hit these goals, whatever it takes.”

The allusion to ‘under-committing and over-performing’ was a reference to the remarks of department director Alex Crowley, in response to the critique from Piedmont-Smith to some vague language in his presentation. “I like to under-commit and over-perform and so I think we just want to make sure we know what we’re doing,” Crowley said.

One or many?

Crowley’s response to a question from Dave Rollo addressed the question of assigning responsibility to a single person or department to tackle climate change. Crowley’s remarks indicated some possibility that the administration might consider adding a position dedicated to climate action:

I think another way to look at it also is that we all have to do it. And so the value of having one person would only be successful if the organization as a whole gets behind the effort. … You might make an argument that in fact everybody is in on it and you don’t necessarily have to do that. Obviously having one person focused on one task like that is definitely worth considering.

In his remarks, Jim Sims spoke of turning his “own battleship,” but said the concept of free will means that people’s minds have to be changed, or the goals will never be met. Sims said:

I think it’s more of a grassroots thing, this is a social justice thing. But more than that, I think it’s a free will thing. And I think that’s what we need to work on is people’s understanding and to change their will. … You can have half the people agree on everything, but the other half has free will and if they don’t understand it, then you will never meet the goals …