July 12, 2001

Global climate change starts at home

Mayor of Seattle

You might think of climate change as a remote global problem that is beyond the capacity — and responsibility — of local governments to solve. But when we consider what makes our region so unique and naturally abundant, we realize that global climate change is in fact a profoundly local issue.


If you had to name one thing that makes this region special — one thing that accounts for the quality and productivity of life in this region — you’d probably have to say water. And not just the quantity of water, but the timing and distribution of water, the well-regulated cycle that delivers a wealth of water in winter and stores much of it as snow for year-round use. That water cycle drives the productivity of our forests; our inexpensive, pollution-free hydroelectric system; our agriculture; and our salmon runs. Light, heat, commerce, recreation, and food — all of them depend critically on the quantity and quality and timing of the water supply.

Scientists tell us that global warming will disrupt that water cycle. Snowpack is likely to decline by half within our children’s lifetimes. The competition for summer water supplies will intensify, and natural and human systems will be stretched in ways that strike directly at the heart of the region’s prosperity.

We’ll experience these local impacts directly, but other regions and populations will be even more severely affected by climate change. As deserts spread and densely-populated coastlines are inundated, environmental refugees will place more pressure on the remaining habitable places. Regions like ours that can still sustain agriculture and even a limited supply of drinking water will be obligated to provide homes for those who have lost theirs.

So “global” climate change is very much a local problem. And its root causes are local. It’s here at home, especially in our cities, where we drive the cars and use the power that generate greenhouse pollution. It’s our choices as communities and individuals about energy supply and use, transportation, solid waste, and land use that determine the future trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions.

We create the problem at home, and it comes home to roost. It’s only fitting, therefore, that we begin to look for solutions at home. Yes, national leadership in climate protection will ultimately be needed. But we clearly lack that leadership now, and there’s no better way to invite it than to get cracking on local solutions.

And that’s where the gloomy predictions end and the good news begins. Because local climate solutions aren’t about painful personal sacrifices or economic stagnation, as some of the pessimists in the other Washington suggest. Seattle is demonstrating day in and day out that local climate solutions are about responding to our own most pressing local challenges; they’re about building a better community; they’re about new, clean, sustainable forms of prosperity. For both the global climate and the local quality of life, we are working to:

  • Reduce traffic congestion and provide more efficient transportation alternatives.

  • Reduce and stabilize energy costs and promote energy security.

  • Limit urban sprawl by increasing affordable housing in the city and the amenities to go with it.

  • Increase recycling and reuse of materials.

  • Protect and sustain the health of our forests — both urban and rural.

  • Protect air quality.

  • Lead by example by designing and building new city facilities to be models of energy efficient and sustainable planning and construction.

  • Increase water use efficiency and protect water supplies.

Clearly, the best things we can do to respond to climate change are also some of the best things we can do to improve our community.

Let’s take electricity as one example, since energy production and use is at the root of climate change. Most new electricity nationwide comes from fossil fuels. But here in Seattle, we’ve decided to meet ALL of our electric power needs with NO net greenhouse pollution. We’re doing it with existing hydropower facilities. We’re doing it with new renewables like wind. We’re doing it with energy efficiency partnerships with citizens and businesses who are squeezing more work out of our energy supplies. And we’re saving bundles of money in the bargain by minimizing our exposure to volatile fossil fuel and electricity markets.

So the energy strategy that’s best for the climate also protects our local air quality, reduces our energy costs, and improves the productivity and comfort of our homes, offices and industries.

This clean energy path we’ve chosen may also be the engine for the next wave of technological innovation and regional economic prosperity. Energy conservation and renewable energy businesses already contribute as much to Washington’s economy as the wholesale apple business. And the potential for expanded clean energy enterprise and trade is almost unlimited. As the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources accelerates, world markets for clean energy supplies are growing at a breathtaking clip.

This region is perfectly positioned to lead this global energy transformation: we have some of the world’s leading clean energy innovators and businesses; top-flight research and development capabilities; close trade relationships with rapidly expanding Pacific Rim markets; venture capital; and an uncanny sense of where to find the next big technology enterprise opportunities.

Perhaps even more important, we are inclined to believe from our own experience that economic prosperity and environmental protection go hand in hand. And we have more than our share of practical idealists with the skills and resources to put that belief into action.

If we stick to the old energy model of digging, drilling and burning more fossil fuel, then responding to climate change will be a hardship. But if we lead the transition and pioneer a cleaner, more affordable energy future based on conservation and renewable supplies, then responding to climate change looks like an extraordinary opportunity for sustainable prosperity.

Who will rise to that challenge and reap the economic rewards of getting ahead of the clean energy curve? Is there anyone better qualified than we are?

Paul Schell is Mayor of Seattle. Last May, he and King County Executive Ron Sims co-hosted a symposium for regional elected officials on local solutions to climate change.

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