Q: Is Seattle prepared for climate change?
Seattle is preparing. It’s a process. There are some areas where we are very strong and others we are still trying to figure out. We are investing a lot to reduce our carbon footprint across the city. We are working to reduce emissions from large buildings. We invest in electric vehicles for the city and charging infrastructure.
The City of Seattle, King County and the Port of Seattle have overlapping jurisdictions. Everyone has their own roles and priorities, but there is a lot of really good coordination and alignment. Still, it is difficult to develop an orchestrated strategy for climate adaptation and preparedness.
Q: What climate impacts is the city already experiencing and which are you still preparing for?
The June Heat Dome event was an example of dire climate impacts that are only going to become more common. The city is not at all equipped to handle 108-degree temperatures, let alone over 100 degrees for three days in a row.
We are starting a smoking season that comes from forest fires burning all over the west. We’re trying to figure out how to face both the extreme heat and poor air quality.
The rise in sea level is a big one for us because it becomes expensive. We see an increase of about 60 cm by the middle of the century and 1.5 m by the end of the century. Seattle is a city of cliffs, so that doesn’t mean parts of the city are submerged; there will be episodic floods during King Tides or storm surges. However, we have seven areas within the city limits that are extremely vulnerable. This includes low-income paint communities and industrial areas. We need to invest in both infrastructure and programs that will ensure the resilience of the community.
Q: What is the main focus of your work?
I’m the climate policy advisor for Seattle Public Utilities. We provide drinking water, manage drainage and wastewater, and offer waste services. I classify our companies according to how they fit into climate work – preparation and adaptation or emission reduction and mitigation.
For drinking water as well as for wastewater and wastewater, we adapt to shifting water cycles – hotter, drier summers when we need water and extreme rainfall in winter when we don’t need it. Our solid waste business has an emphasis on mitigation. You have done a lot of work to create circular economy in the city. We reuse some of our waste streams and convert them into new products that can then be sold, increasing local jobs and local revenues while reducing and diverting waste streams. It’s gaining a lot of traction, including corporate involvement.
Then there is an umbrella that spans both areas, justice and how we prioritize communities and neighborhoods that have historically been underinvested.
Q: what does that look like?
We are very strong on investing in green infrastructure and natural resources. We have an extensive green rainwater infrastructure system and have plans for more. The approach reduces greenhouse gas emissions, has a cooling effect for the neighborhoods and absorbs precipitation. It is a multi-benefit solution that combines mitigation and adaptation. That’s wonderful.
Even within this strength we have challenges. Creating open spaces that are also floodable can have unintended consequences, such as making already expensive places even more expensive. To counteract this, we are trying to link climate adaptation with anti-displacement work.
In the Duwamish Valley, the tidal river is already crossing its banks and affecting lower-lying neighborhoods that are color communities. This becomes more and more common as the sea level rises. Another challenge is that the river itself is a superfund site. There are significant historical and existing health inequalities in this area. The residential communities bear the burden of the adjacent industrial areas.
“We are now trying to develop guidelines that will allow us to shape development differently, so that with our investments in sea level rise adjustment we also invest in building prosperity and stabilizing the community.”
We are working on the development of a resilience district around two particularly flood-prone districts. We are now trying to establish guidelines that will allow us to shape development differently, so that with our investments in sea level rise adjustment we also invest in building prosperity and stabilizing the community. The aim is to bring the benefits of improvements through public investment to established communities. We want to avoid further displacement and make the quarters in a city where there are so few affordable options less affordable.
The resilience district is extremely exciting. We are able to do this project because we receive grants first from the Center for Community Investment and then from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through a program promoting climate health and justice in cities around the world. Philanthropic funding has allowed us to work together in ways that we could not have achieved if we had only relied on community funding and the Seattle Public Utilities budget.
Q: What are the barriers to making sure Seattle is as prepared as possible?
So much attention is paid to the need to reduce emissions that the importance of preparedness and adaptation can be obscured. It all has to happen. Preparation and adaptation tend to have a much longer timeframe, especially when it comes to a large, complicated infrastructure. The projects are expensive; they require orchestration between different agencies and affected communities. It’s going to be tricky. It goes beyond election cycles and can go beyond the tenure of heads of various departments in the city. And financing is always a challenge.
With that in mind, the federal government is taking big steps in the right direction by increasing funding for some FEMA flood protection programs and building resilient infrastructure.
As that money goes to the cities and utilities and we start making investments, a success in San Francisco, New York or Boston is a success for the entire sector, as there are many collaborations between peer cities and peer providers, especially coastal cities, take place which are exposed to many of the same effects. Nobody has done that before, so we have to learn from each other.
Q: How about doing this job in a part of the country where there is not the same willingness to face climate change?
The tenor of our approach may be different, but you cannot ignore recurring asset losses. You cannot ignore the loss of life that we are seeing. Climate impacts hit people. They concern children; they affect vulnerable communities.
When I look around the country I’m more hopeful than you might expect, because even in areas where climate protection has no political momentum, something is happening anyway, among students, among communities that bear the brunt of the climate impact. I think that is powerful.
I’ve seen great community-based work in Texas after the great shutdown and resulting infrastructure failure, on the Gulf Coast in resilience after all the storms, and along the entire east coast in rebuilding after storms. It’s super inspiring.