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'If not us then who?': Regional leaders grapple with climate change

Jonathan Roberts • Jan 1, 2020 at 8:00 AM

For Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock, the time for city and regional leaders to face climate change is now.

“If not us then who?” Brock asked. “I’m in the latter chapters of my life, but this is the time where the adults have to step up.”

Bristol, Tennessee, Mayor Margaret Feierabend said the region should have taken action “before” the effects of climate change starting being seen in the Tri-Cities, but that it’s “really kind of come home this past year,” pointing to record-breaking heat in October and a prolonged, severe drought that gripped the region for much of September and October.

“I feel things are moving faster than what we anticipated and it’s definitely affecting us,” Feierabend said. “It’s coming here, it’s happening, it’s real and we really need to be doing things about it.”

Action, however, needs to be taken quickly.

In 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report stating the world has until 2030 to curb emissions by 40% to 60%, and must reach net-zero by 2050 to avoid the worst affects of climate change and keep global warming under 3.6°Fahrenheit. Due to “failure to heed these warnings,” a subsequent report in 2019 said, the world is currently on track to see a 5.8°F temperature rise by 2100, which could lead to “catastrophic heatwaves, storms and pollution.”

“Our collective failure to act early and hard on climate change means we now must deliver deep cuts to emissions,” United Nations Environmental Program Executive Director Inger Andersen said in a statement announcing the findings of the UN’s 2019 Emissions Gap Report. “(Countries) — and every city, region, business and individual – need to act now.”

And while Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City have all taken substantial action to reduce their emissions, Johnson City — the region’s largest municipality — has been on the forefront since 1989 when it became the first city in the state to implement a curbside recycling program, priding itself on being “Tennessee’s Green City.”

“Johnson City has been a leader,” said former city mayor and current U.S. Rep. Phil Roe. “They’ve been leading for three decades now.”

Brock also sees Johnson City as the region’s leader, but notes that “it’s going to take some work” before the region is able to come together on a comprehensive sustainability plan — something Feierabend agrees with, though both “would like to see the Tri-Cities as a leader,” and believe it’s possible.

“We need to come up with a realistic plan,” said Brock. “It’s going to take us a while, particularly when you think about the region. It, in all likelihood, is going to take a couple years to get a fully agreed upon, forward-thinking plan, but that doesn’t mean tomorrow our behaviors can’t start changing.”

Feierabend said she’s concerned about regional and city leaders having the political will and the resources to make significant changes.

“Are we prepared to face a changing climate? Not yet. Do I think we can be? Yes,” Feierabend said. “But it’s also, if we change to electric fleets or something like that, that’s expensive and that’s where I think we’re not ready — do we have the capital to be able to (make those changes) or how fast can we accumulate that capital or what do we have to put aside?”

In a statement to the Johnson City Press, Kingsport Mayor Pat Shull said it’s “difficult” to say how the region can work together on a comprehensive plan, but that Kingsport will “pursue any initiative that maintains a high level of citizen service and affordability while continuing to be environmentally friendly.”

“Regional cooperation is a very broad topic,” Shull said. “However, I can say with certainty as Mayor of Kingsport that the mayors and appointed leaders of both Bristol and Johnson City, are committed, as we are, to maintaining the beauty, air quality and preserving the natural resources of our region.”

Roe, whose district includes Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City, said he thinks a regional plan to reduce emissions is “a great idea,” and that many of changes cities should look at — like using more fuel efficient vehicles in city fleets — are “just common sense.” In a separate statement, Roe said he “support(s) pursuing an all-of-the-above energy policy including sources like wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear and hydro.”

“I am a strong advocate for protecting our environment and I support conservation,” Roe said.

Before work begins on any regional initiative, however, work must be done at a municipal level first — but that doesn’t mean city leaders can’t work together in the interim.

“Ultimately, we each have to do our own stuff, but if we approach it together then that’s certainly advantageous,” Feierabend said. “I think (sustainability) would be a great way to compliment each other and sometimes when we’re taking on the hard issues, if we take them on together that can help.”

Brock said Johnson City will “be doing some planning” in 2020, but that it’ll take them “the better part of this year to get some of those plans in place.” Brock didn’t provide specifics as to what those plans were, but said the city has to focus on “growing smartly” and preparing for the future, adding that they will look at “low-hanging fruit that’s there and makes sense” to change or implement.

“I think, from a city standpoint, first and foremost, is accepting that we must do something,” Brock said. “We’re going to get a plan together and, with purpose, figure out how we can become a more sustainable city, how we can protect our resources and how we can convince our citizens to participate in that effort because we all have to step up now.

“If there’s things we can make a difference on and we’re not, then shame on us,” Brock said. “I think being out front on this is very important (but) we’ll have a lot of work to do.”

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