Ensuring a more resilient and sustainable future

The outcome of the presidential election and recent confirmation of an EPA Administrator who has pledged to scale back environmental regulations have many of us wondering how best to continue our efforts toward a more resilient and sustainable future. We at Houston Endowment believe that lessons can be learned from the determined, strategic work of our partners toward improving our region’s air quality.

Due in part to its large industrial complex and car-centered culture, the greater Houston area experiences high levels of ozone, particle pollution, and air toxics that pose serious health risks, particularly in “hot spot” neighborhoods near the Houston Ship Channel, many of which are predominantly low-income communities of color.

While local officials play a role in enforcing laws related to air quality, the state holds primary responsibility for developing Texas’s comprehensive plan to meet federal air quality standards, issuing permits to facilities that will emit pollutants, and enforcing air quality regulations.

Much like the Trump administration, our state’s leadership has long valued a business-friendly approach toward environmental protection and has a track record of challenging federal efforts to strengthen air quality rules.

Even in this such climate, local advocates working to improve Houston’s air quality have made substantial gains. As a funding partner for much of this work, we have observed three approaches that we believe have proven particularly effective:

1. Putting people first: Due to the complex science of air quality, we’ve seen eyes quickly glaze over during important policy conversations. We’ve also seen opportunities to engage the public lost due to a moral imperative focused on protecting the environment for the environment’s sake. Our partners have learned that humanizing the issue catches the attention of decision-makers and the public alike, and compels them to act.

A Houston Endowment-funded poll found that once people learn the health impacts of poor air quality and viable strategies that exist to address both industrial and mobile sources, an overwhelming majority report being motivated to act to ensure these strategies are adopted. Importantly, this support crossed political and demographic lines.

Recently, a Houston Endowment-funded, Rice University-led research study found strong connections between local concentrations of certain pollutants at certain times and two acute health conditions—cardiac arrest and asthma. In addition to being cited in the federal government’s 2015 decision to tighten federal ozone standards, local advocates embraced these findings, often leading with them when making the case to decision-makers and local residents for important policy changes, such as the federal “refinery rule” to limit emissions from flaring activity.

This “people first” strategy has also motivated Air Alliance Houston, a local advocacy group, to regularly offer “Toxic Tours,” providing a powerful opportunity for influencers, decision-makers, and the public to see first-hand the impacts of pollution on Houston’s neighborhoods.

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2. Acting locally: While opportunities for federal action to strengthen air quality standards and policies may be off the table, we believe there is considerable opportunity to act locally, particularly in urban areas like Houston.

For example, in 2015 local partners successfully urged the City of Houston to enact an anti-idling ordinance for large trucks, a move that is especially important because our city is a ground transportation hub. In response to concerns about emissions from the robust yet unregulated metal recycling industry, Air Alliance Houston has established a five-year partnership with the city to assess health risks and develop strategies to mitigate these risks.

And since 2009, the Environmental Defense Fund has convened the Port of Houston Authority and our regional council of governments to apply for and secure more than $12 million in federal funds to replace older diesel engines in short-haul trucks and tugboats operating at the Port. Analysis of this revolving loan program has found a higher rate of return in terms of nitrogen oxide reductions per $1 million investment than many other common emissions-reduction initiatives.

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3. Collaborating: Our partners have found strength in aligning their diverse expertise toward common goals and teaming with communities. We at Houston Endowment periodically convene a number of partners working to improve Houston’s air quality and have observed the rich dialogue that results when researchers, policy experts, and grassroots organizers put their heads together.

It was at such a convening where the idea to conduct the above-mentioned poll emerged, which was the first step toward what is now a three-year, seven-partner initiative to apply proven communications strategies to elevate awareness about the health impacts of air quality and motivate residents and decision-makers toward action.

A similar Houston Endowment-funded collaborative, led by Public Citizen’s Texas Office, has effectively fostered resident leaders to engage with decision-makers. Their efforts have led to the establishment of the Port of Houston Chairman’s Citizen Advisory Council and the incorporation of several residents’ recommendations into the port’s most recent strategic plan, as well as the expansion of a state program that provides incentives to replace polluting vehicles and equipment.

There are certainly other factors that contribute to success in a challenging context—visionary leadership, strategic use of data, a balanced tone, and credibility across stakeholders are just a few. We believe that for the near-term, however, the strategies we’ve outlined here—a people-centered approach, local action and strategic collaboration—will help to maintain the momentum of our collective efforts to ensure a healthy environment.

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Ann Stern is the president and CEO of Houston Endowment. The private foundation invests approximately $80 million annually in organizations that support and promote arts and culture, education, the environment, and health and human services. Prior to joining the foundation in 2012, Stern was executive vice president of Texas Children’s Hospital. She also practiced law with Beck, Redden & Secrest and Andrews Kurth, and has taught business law at the University of St. Thomas. She serves as a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and also serves on the board of Holdsworth Center. Stern received her bachelor’s degree in Plan II from the University of Texas at Austin. She also received a J.D. from the University of Texas at Austin.  

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Editor's note: The views expressed by contributors to the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation's blogging initiative, "Can Texas's approach to sustainability inform a path forward for the U.S.?," are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the foundation. The foundation works as an engine of change in both policy and practice, supporting high-impact projects at the nexus of environmental protection, social equity, and economic vibrancy. Follow the foundation on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for regular updates from the foundation.


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