ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Well, now to the state where George Bush was governor - Texas. Texas leads the U.S. in emissions of global warming gases and an unlikely network of mayors is trying to change that.
NPR's John Burnett spent some time with them. He has this story as part of Climate Connections, our year-long series with National Geographic.
JOHN BURNETT: The greenest mayor in Texas comes from Austin, the capital city of the most polluting state in the most polluting country on Earth.
Mayor WILL WYNN (Democrat, Austin, Texas): First and foremost, my name really is Will Wynn. People ask me all the time why I changed my name to run for mayor, but, no, my parents did this to me.
BURNETT: The lanky, cowboy-booted mayor is standing in a hotel meeting room before an audience of government planning executives. He's holding a remote and facing a large screen, showing a map of the United States.
Mayor WYNN: Folks, I'm sorry, but it's not supposed to be 120 degrees in Fargo, North Dakota, like it was last July.
BURNETT: This is not in his job description as mayor of Austin, but the former real estate developer wants people to know that climate change is real, they should be alarmed, and as Austinites, they can do something about it. That's why for the past year, Will has been going around town presenting his local version of Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" PowerPoint. He says the response has been mixed.
Mayor WYNN: I've heard it all. Why - who's Austin trying to kid, Austin, Texas is going to save the planet. You know, why don't you fix some potholes instead, you know, that kind of stuff. Well - but, the fact is folks, whether my citizens like it or not, Austin should and is going to play an indispensible role in this whole dialogue about global warming and the concept of climate protection.
BURNETT: Austin seeks to be the nation's greenest city by making all of its facilities, fleets and operations carbon neutral by 2020, by writing the most energy efficient building codes in the nation, and by having the city-owned utility, Austin Energy, aggressively seeks solar and wind power. To show that it can be done, Austin's sleek new City Hall is made of local and recycled materials including the reused water in the waterfall.
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Mayor WYNN: Well, it's the global crisis, a global challenge, but fundamentally it's about the local consumption of energy. I preached that the net answer isn't let us tax you more and we'll go create programs to save the planet. My net message is drive less, when you drive get better gas mileage, and use less electricity in your homes. Save your money and our policies can help save the planet.
BURNETT: This kind of thought distances Austin City Hall from the state capitol down the street, where the governor and his allies hold steadfastly to the belief that the human role in climate change is debatable and though shall not bother big business. You might expect this from the Democratic mayor of Austin, a liberal, environmentally conscious, blue city in a red state. But consider that every other Texas big city mayor - in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio - have gotten on the climate change bandwagon.
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BURNETT: A group of mayors met recently at the University of Texas at Arlington, including Waco Mayor Virginia DuPuy, a Republican.
Mayor VIRGINIA DUPUY (Republican, Waco, Texas): I'm realizing more and more that we don't live on an island. That whatever we do is going to have an impact on people not only in our state but, apparently, across the world. There's major impact from the overall carbon emissions. And so we need to go ahead and look at this holistically.
BURNETT: The mayors came together last year to fight 11 proposed coal-fired power plants in east and central Texas, which they believed would have further degraded their air. Climate change and global warming are still loaded phrases in the public discourse down here, so the mayors prefer to oppose the thing they can all agree on - air pollution, though, they are aware that CO2 reduction is a dividend.
Arlington mayor Robert Cluck is a physician who works at the city hospital.
Mayor ROBERT CLUCK (Republican, Arlington, Texas): When I go into the emergency room at (unintelligible) one day, as I did a week ago, the rooms are full of people are trying to breathe, primarily kids with asthma.
BURNETT: As a Republican mayor, Cluck says he's been chastised by party members for somehow being unfaithful, that a dirty atmosphere is an issue of Democrats.
Mayor CLUCK: This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue in my mind. Some people think because I'm a Republican I should hold the party lines and not suggest anything positive be done about the air quality. I refuse to do that.
BURNETT: Opposition to the dirty power plants created activists in surprising camps. Texas businessmen, who normally don't raise their voices except to oppose more regulation, joined Texas Business for Clean Air. The membership list includes prominent names in oil and gas, real estate, finance and retailing such as Garrett Boone, chairman of a Container Store.
Mr. GARRETT BOONE (Chairman, Container Store): We're a clean air group because I think it's good for business. Our message is, hey, business leaders, wake up. You know, if you don't have clean air, you're not going to have a healthy economy.
BURNETT: Even a few evangelical Christians got fired up. Reverend Scott Freeman is pastor of the Northside Church of Christ in Waco.
Reverend SCOTT FREEMAN (Pastor, Northside Church of Christ, Waco): Initially, back when global warming first came upon my landscape, I was vehemently opposed to it. I was one of those very conservative Evangelicals who thought to be faithful, you had to be at war with science. And I think the more the evidence and the scientific consensus was that global warming was happening, the more aware and concern I became.
BURNETT: Now, he and his wife, Tracy, are trying to change their lifestyle.
Ms. TRACY FREEMAN (Reverend Scott Freeman's Wife): We're trying to drive our cars less, be more conscious about what errands can we run all at once so that we don't have to get into the car multiple times a day.
Rev. FREEMAN: And we really feel that our primary way of sharing this message is through our lifestyle, that people see that we're living somewhat differently.
BURNETT: North of Waco on Interstate 35, another climate conversion has taken place. Carl Cornelius, the mayor of tiny Carl's Corner, Texas wants to turn his truck stop of the same name into, yes, the state's and the nation's only eco-friendly truck stop.
Mr. WILLIE NELSON (Musician; Founder, Houston Biodiesel): We really want to put solar panels on the roof.
BURNETT: That's Carl's friend, Willie Nelson, whose biodiesel fuel BioWillie is sold here. The city of Carl's Corner was incorporated to allow the truck stop to sell liquor in the dry county. But, now, the mayor is building a 30,000-square foot truck stop and entertainment complex that he wants to be a model of alternative energy.
So this is going to be a combination biodiesel truck stop, saloon, opry house, restaurant…
Mr. NELSON: Convenient store, wash machine and dryer and showers, scales, the whole works. And I'll tell you what else it is, is hopefully the whole place eventually will be run off the fuels. All we have to do is put a harness on Mother Nature a little bit and we've got it.
BURNETT: Harnessing Mother Nature that's what they're doing in west Texas, home to the largest concentration of wind power in the world. Tomorrow, we'll meet a cotton farmer turned wind evangelist who hopes to turn his dying little town into wind city, USA.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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BLOCK: And on tomorrow's program, we'll have that story of the Texas cotton rancher turned wind farmer. You can get a sneak preview right now at npr.org/climate.