As climate shifts, local government must change, too

As climate change and its impacts on the environment become clearer, the need to address these impacts at the local government level becomes more pressing.

Local governments in Washington state are required to update their comprehensive plans under the State Growth Management Act (GMA), and the State Shoreline Management Act. These updates present an opportunity to adopt policies and strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and to prepare for changes already underway as a result of climate change.

The current GMA update will look out 20 years, from 2015 to 2035. In order to mitigate the impacts of climate change, we will have to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The sooner, the better. We will also need to adapt to changing circumstances such as sea level rise, storm events, wildfires, agriculture and forestry impacts, and water supply issues. Several recent publications and studies inform this work.

The case for action

Every four years, the United States Department of Defense publishes the “Quadrennial Defense Review.” The review is a foundational study, intended to inform the adaptation, reshaping and rebalancing of the nation’s military forces to meet global strategic challenges. In 2010 and again in 2014, the review identified climate change as a significant concern for national security and national defense. The 2014 review states: “Climate change poses another significant challenge for the United States and the world at large. As greenhouse gas emissions increase, sea levels are rising, average global temperatures are increasing, and severe weather patterns are accelerating. … Climate change may exacerbate water scarcity and lead to sharp increases in food costs. The pressures caused by climate change will influence resource competition while placing additional burdens on economies, societies and governance institutions around the world. These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.”

In May of this year, the United States Global Research Program issued its report on climate change titled the “National Climate Assessment.” It includes regional assessments of climate impacts. The Northwest section of the study finds climate change is already affecting snowmelt, precipitation and water supply; creating vulnerabilities related to sea level rise, erosion, ocean acidity and wildfires; contributing to species migration, insect infestation and forest mortality; and requiring adaptive — and expensive — changes in agriculture.

The economic risks of climate change in the United States are documented in a June 2014 study entitled “Risky Business.” The study was published by a committee co-chaired by Michael Bloomberg (former mayor of New York), Henry Paulson (former Treasury Secretary under President Bush) and Thomas Steyer (retired founder of Farallon Capital Management). “Risky Business” documents the economic risks our nation faces from climate change using standard risk assessment methods. Like the National Climate Assessment, the study examines a range of potential consequences for each region of the U.S. The Northwest section includes damage to coastal property and infrastructure from rising sea levels and storms, changes in agriculture production, energy demand, higher temperatures, labor and public health. The study calls for aggressive measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare to adapt to changes in the environment and the economy.

In his excellent book “High Tide On Main Street,” oceanographer John Englander documents the science and the consequences of sea level rise. Englander accurately predicted the events of Hurricane Sandy on the New York and New Jersey coast. The book was published in 2012, one week before Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast.

On July 8 of this year, The Brookings Institute published a brief article by Dr. Stephen Palumbi, professor of biology at Stanford University, titled “Stopping Distance.” Palumbi uses the metaphor of stopping distance while driving a car — including reaction time, speed and road conditions — to illustrate the challenges of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Palumbi calls it “climate stopping distance.” In order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change, we must reduce emissions as soon as possible. The longer it takes to reduce emissions, the more severe the climate damage.

Acting locally

Local climate action plans are where this journey begins. They should include a mitigation component — reducing emissions, an adaptation component identifying significant vulnerabilities — and operational responses to them and an economic development component.

The city of Everett has taken initial steps to reduce the release of greenhouse gases by supporting land use and transportation links providing transportation alternatives to single occupancy vehicles. The city has adopted award-winning land use plans focusing on transit-oriented development along Evergreen Way and in the downtown core, maintains its own transit system and is actively engaged in planning for rail systems to Everett with Sound Transit’s 2016 ballot measure, ST3.

More can be done, including developing a menu of options to further reduce emissions and measuring the results. Examples include:

Improve building standards resulting in improved energy efficiency;

Work with the Snohomish County Public Utility District to encourage solar, wind and other clean energy sources on a larger scale;

Continue work with existing partners to hasten development of transportation alternatives, including development of light rail between Lynnwood and Everett;

Promote developing livable, urban spaces, accessible to pedestrians and cyclists, that are attractive, well designed and enable people to move without reliance on automobiles;

Support incentives for a green (electric car) highway with charging stations for electric vehicles; and

Support state implementation of clean fuel standards to lower emissions.

Economic opportunities

Adaptation begins with a risk assessment of climate impacts including storm and extreme weather events, flooding, sea level rise, water and agriculture. Recent storm events have exceeded the design capacity of Everett’s combined sewer storm water system resulting in flooding and property damage. Plans to redesign or modify the system are being prepared. Identifying vulnerabilities to the city’s infrastructure (e.g. water, waste water, transportation) are essential elements of this plan.

There are opportunities for economic development. Everett is particularly well situated geographically and strategically to attract new businesses associated with clean energy, transportation and engineering technologies addressing mitigation and adaptation to climate change. The city has great potential partners including the Navy, PUD, aerospace, education and health care.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of planning for climate change is public education and dialogue about the events that are unfolding around adaptation and mitigation. The conversation will evolve as new and better information becomes available. It is better to get it started than to get it perfect.

We have before us the opportunity to make a difference for future generations. This is where we apply the brakes. The 20-year time frame of the Growth Management Act updates (2015 to 2035), and the following Shoreline Master Plan updates, are precisely where we will need to make decisions regarding infrastructure investments, and private sector investments in energy and technology to turn the corner: reducing greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the changing environment.

It’s time to get started.

Paul Roberts is a member of the Everett City Council, chairman of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency Board, vice chairman of Sound Transit Board, and vice president of the Association of Washington Cities Board. The views expressed are his own.

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