fFirst came the late December heavy snow that blanketed Seattle and the surrounding area. Then, in early January, there were heavy rains and floods. One by one, four of the region’s major mountain passes were declared impassable and a 20-mile stretch of Interstate 5 south of Seattle was closed.
It was the first time all five had closed in more than a decade, effectively cutting off the Seattle area from interstate travel.
But it was simply the latest in a series of extreme weather events to hit the Pacific Northwest over the past year. In typically mild Washington state alone, heavy snowfall began last February, followed by dry, scorching summer temperatures that claimed more than 100 lives, and then record-breaking fall rains in the Seattle area.
Now, with more intense extreme weather events expected in the coming years due to the climate crisis, a bipartisan selection of Washington state legislators simultaneously introduced a handful of climate-focused, rather than mitigation and emission-reduction, bills this legislature to focus adjustment.
From a proposal to establish a grants program for farmers and ranchers vulnerable to damage from floods and other natural disasters, to including climate resilience plans in water system plans, these innovations aim to prepare the state for the challenges ahead.
“I just think we’re definitely seeing a lot more extreme weather events and this is going to become the norm, not an isolated incident,” said Democrat Mark Mullet, a Washington senator who introduced the air-conditioning proposal.
He said the legislation was inspired by a conversation with a local firefighter, who recalled making three separate calls to retirement homes during the heat dome in late June and finding residents had died from the heat.
But these proposals also reflect a broader trend that has emerged over the past five years, in which the climate movement has increasingly recognized the importance of adaptation, explained Aseem Prakash, professor of political science at the University of Washington and director of the Center for Environmental Politics .
The recent Glasgow Climate Pact doubled the share of climate funds earmarked for adaptation. And in October, the Biden administration released climate adaptation and resilience plans that included building supply chain resilience and improving how workers and communities are protected from climate change.
Prakash explained that even if we start to drastically reduce emissions immediately, the effects of the climate crisis are already being felt.
“So we have to adapt. I think the climate movement recognizes this political and moral need to adapt,” he said. “And also, if we have floods or extreme heat waves, who suffers? It’s really the poor people, the underprivileged. So there is also a very important climate justice component.”
Justin Allegro, director of state government relations at The Nature Conservancy in Washington, said it’s important that it doesn’t become an either-or situation.
“There’s no point investing in just one strategy,” he said. “We know that the impacts of climate change will continue to occur and there is so much we can do as a state to better prepare, better respond and build better resilience. And at the same time, we must make every effort to fundamentally reduce emissions quickly, quickly and fairly.”
In Washington state, Rep. Mari Leavitt, a Democrat, introduced a proposal that would create a grant program to help local jurisdictions and state-recognized tribes with the additional costs associated with extremely hot or cold weather and unhealthy air quality due to wildfires are.
She explained that the grants are flexible to meet the different needs of each area, but could be used for things like adding additional cooling housing and HVAC systems, or just providing more fans and water to those in need.
“These extreme weather events will continue,” she said. “And we just weren’t ready and the resources weren’t available, so cold centers opened later and for limited periods of time.”
She gave the example of a refrigeration center in Lakewood, Washington, about 40 miles southwest of Seattle, which was only set up a few days after the heat wave began and failed to function despite attempts by firefighters to drop people off in the morning. only opens its doors at noon.
“I asked the question, ‘Why did it take so long?’ The response I got was, ‘We were trying to figure out the resources to open,'” she said.
Another proposal under consideration is the Outdoor Recreation and Climate Adaptation (Orca) plan, which will generate projected revenues of $4.4 billion play a role in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Washington Representative Mary Dye, a Republican behind the Orca plan, said the funds should instead go to things like building structures to protect communities from catastrophic flooding and improving forest health to reduce wildfires.
“I think you have to be real and honest and do good things today that will help our state really adapt to the things that are ahead,” she said.
But those proposals are still fairly targeted and, apart from Orca, don’t come with a huge price tag, Prakash explained.
“I hope it gets raised more because it’s an issue we need to address,” he said. “And that’s not to say we shouldn’t mitigate. We should definitely mitigate. But we also need to start taking adaptation more seriously, which we haven’t done yet.”
Washington state climatologist Nick Bond said it was clear the state could have done a better job of responding to these extreme weather events.
He said: “Hopefully we can learn from this, so next time there won’t be as many fatalities, and see what we can do to reach out to the people who don’t have the resources to extricate themselves from a threatening situation.”