At Saturday’s Climate Neutral Unconference Mayor Mike McGinn made some strong comments about values and politics, and the role they play in limiting our success in closing the Sustainability Gap. McGinn took attendees on a walk down memory lane, recounting past struggles with the regional power structure that is highly motivated to build big, spendy highway projects. He gave what amounted to a half-time locker room speech, encouraging advocates of carbon neutrality for Seattle but also calling on them to get into the fight.
And it is a fight. As Publicola reported leaders aren’t prepared to put their money where their mouths are in terms of reducing carbon emissions. Just the opposite is true, with regional bodies like the Puget Sound Regional Council and the State Legislature pushing huge highway projects. McGinn pointed out that carbon neutrality is not a technical problem but a political one and set out three basic principles about the political limits being set by elected leaders on progress.
The first point McGinn made was about access. He recounted his days as staff to a congressman and how certain groups—labor unions especially—when straight into the congressman’s office, while others met with low level staff. Political leaders ought to pick who they listen to. If they listen only to business interests then we’re likely to get more highways because their argument is always that economic development depends on roads.
The second point he made was about the decisions being made by local leaders. He recounted the repeal of the “head tax,” showing a now well known picture of him holding up a “no” sign indicating his opposition to the appeal. The “head tax” repeal was a clear example of the persistent and continuing efforts by some interests to reduce taxes at the expense of sustainability. As I pointed out earlier the repeal of the tax certainly won the praise of the business community, but blew a $4.5 million hole in the Seattle Department of Transportation budget.
McGinn wound up his comments with a third point, saying that ideas are powerful. But they are a lot more powerful when backed up with action. He cited the uphill climb on defeating 2007’s roads and transit package. The ‘no’ effort started out small, outspent, and overmatched with support of elected officials from the governor on down. Governor Christine Gregoire said at the time “it’s not a perfect package. It’s not necessarily one I would have done … but the fact is it’s the only game in town and there is too much at stake.” The grass roots effort ended up proving her wrong.
In the end unconference discussions were framed by technical and political realities. And the political reality is that most elected officials in the region don’t hold the same values as conference goers based on who they listen to (the roads lobby) and what they actually do (vote for roads over alternatives). With the vast majority of emissions coming from transportation it’s difficult to see how the regions leaders hope to tackle the challenge of climate change by building more roads. McGinn’s comments were sobering, but also reframed the issue around getting better organized. Based on his own election as Mayor, the lesson is that people can be powerful when they organize around their values regardless of the odds.