Opinion: The City Council is on the wrong side of the planet

Last year, Berkeley City Council declared a climate emergency. This year, its actions betray that declaration.

On June 12 last year, the Berkeley City Council declared a climate emergency, proclaiming “common sense and morality indicate that humanity can no longer safely emit greenhouse gasses” and that “the community of Berkeley… must substantially curtail use of fossil fuels.” It then resolved “that we face an existential Climate Emergency” and further resolved that “the City of Berkeley endorses a just citywide emergency mobilization effort to end citywide greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible.”

So what did Berkeley’s City Council do on May 14 this year? They agreed to purchase 15 gas-powered parking enforcement vehicles to replace part of Berkeley’s current fleet instead of pursuing an option that would have laid the groundwork for obtaining similar electric vehicles.

They did this by ignoring a request by Councilwoman Kate Harrison to investigate whether the gas-powered vehicles to be purchased could be leased instead – a request readily agreed to by the staff presenting the purchase request. Were a lease possible, that would mean that after a couple of years the city could again look at purchasing electric parking enforcement vehicles as the technology became more reliable. (Staff noted that while the company the vehicles are to be purchased from has an electric model, Berkeley had been operating two of the electric version as demos but they were unreliable due to battery problems. According to staff a new, improved model is in the works but the need to replace the old vehicles is pressing.)  Instead, with an outright purchase now, the gas-powered vehicles so acquired will likely be with us for a decade (the existing ones have been in service that long).

The vote to ignore Harrison’s sensible request and proceed with the purchase was 5-4, with Mayor Jesse Arreguín on the wrong side of the planet.  This is the same person who said a year ago, “With innovation and commitment, we will be a fossil fuel-free city,” and who tweeted two years ago, “If Trump refuses to be a leader on climate change, we will.”

There is symbolism, and there is commitment. There are words, and then there is action. On May 14, the Berkeley City Council failed the people of Berkeley. And they failed to follow through on their own words, literally, at the point where the rubber meets the road.

No one is asking the Council, the City Manager, the staff or Berkeley itself to do what is technologically impossible or financially ruinous. But thinking just a bit outside the box, within a limited timeframe, to do that little bit extra to help save a planet in peril, as Harrison proposed, is not something that should have been controversial, let alone defeated.

While the City Manager has the Council’s authorization to execute a purchase order, there is no date certain required by the resolution. Following the precepts contained in Berkeley’s unanimously passed climate emergency declaration resolution, the City Manager should ask her willing staff to pursue a lease or even some other possibility – at least for the month her staffers said was reasonable. Meanwhile, the City Council can and should reverse itself.

In short, this disregard for the planet should not stand, and should have never stood.

If the City isn’t willing to abide by its own declarations, perhaps the Council could heed our State Senator Nancy Skinner who recently tweeted, “We’re in a full-blown climate emergency.”

It’s time for everyone in Berkeley to act like this is the truth that it is.

JP Massar is a Berkeley activist who, inspired by Greta Thunberg, wishes he was still young enough to do a school strike for the planet.