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Editorial: A policy wonk’s fight for a climate we can live with

An Earth Day conversation with Paul Roberts on climate change, hope and commitment.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Paul Roberts, a former Everett City Council member, for major decisions related to the environment, clean air, transportation and climate change, has been in the room where it happened, a self-described policy wonk.

Roberts was interviewed this week in recognition of Monday’s marking of Earth Day, first celebrated in 1970.

Graduating in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree from The Evergreen State College with emphasis in environmental science, economics and urban planning, Roberts made his career working behind the scenes for a who’s who of state leaders, including Gov. Dan Evans, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, Gov. Booth Gardner and Gov. Gary Locke. As well he worked alongside Chris Gregoire, who later became governor, when she was with the state Attorney General’s Office as it negotiated the U.S. Navy’s contract for its homeport in Everett in the early 1980s.

A wonk for climate: Starting in the early ’70s and throughout the following decades, Roberts said, much of his work — including the Navy homeport and Boeing’s expansion of its Everett plant for the 787 and 777X lines — focused on environmental concerns and their intersection with transportation and land use. His concerns regarding global warming and climate change go back just as far, starting with his studies of economics during the 1970s oil embargo crisis.

The effect of greenhouse gas emissions, including carbon dioxide, on the climate was understood and has been tracked since the mid-1950s, with NASA scientists warning Congress in the late-1960s, Roberts said.

“I’m not really great at math, but I’m good enough at it to be able to run the projections of what (greenhouse gas) emissions would be in the out years if we continued to increase fossil fuel use,” he said.

And throughout, most officials at the state and federal levels were receptive to the issue and the threat climate change posed, but most rarely saw the urgency, Roberts said. Norm Dicks, for whom Roberts served as chief of staff, was an exception, likely because of his close friendship with Al Gore, then a senator for Tennessee, and an early advocate for confronting climate change, with his 2006 book and later documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“The evolution of the issue is such that it’s just never risen, even to this day, to the level that it frankly needs to be, given what the science tells us,” Roberts said.

Thinking globally, acting locally: Roberts had more success getting the message across locally, if slowly, with the Everett City Council and Mayors Ray Stephanson and Cassie Franklin. Roberts, who served with the Everett City Council from 2006 through 2021, pushed the council to adopt its Climate Action Plan in late 2019, with the intention of putting the city on a path to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, prepare for climate change and move to a greener economy. Everett was among the first local governments to adopt such a plan.

Roberts said the city of Everett has done a good job with its climate work, though every local government can always do more. The Climate Action Plan is in place, but to make it work the plan and related policies have to be continually reviewed and adjusted for the latest conditions to mitigate the effects of climate change, adapt to those changes and transition to a green economy, he said.

Roberts sees three immediate concerns to address locally with additional planning and preparation, starting with the threat of wildfires, particularly now for Western Washington, where wildfires burned more acreage in 2022 than in Eastern Washington. Wildfires in recent years in Paradise, Calif.; Lahaina, Hawaii and in Canada, forced a change in response as all areas have seen drier and warmer conditions for longer periods throughout the year and a lengthening of the “wildfire season.”

“Fire suppression is no longer really an effective option in all of those communities. They had to move quickly, not to fire suppression and firefighting, but to evacuation,” Roberts said. “When those conditions exist, wildfires are possible anywhere.”

Another area of concern is the water supply. The state already has declared a drought emergency for nearly the entirety of the state because of low snowpack this winter and a extended forecasts for dry and warm conditions, with the exception of the Everett-Seattle-Tacoma region. That region is fortunate to have ample water-storage capacity and is less dependent on snowpack for water. But the region’s resilience will be tested as demand for water outside of that three-city oasis grows, he said.

His third concern is for sea-level rise, as the Salish Sea region sees more frequent tidal flooding, particularly during king tides, when the sun and moon have an increased effect on tidal changes. Those tides, combined with a rising sea level and ground subduction in some areas, will have greater impacts along shorelines and low-lying areas, especially during times of heavy rains.

Everett and the Puget Sound area, sitting as it does in a convergence zone, saw that recently in December of 2019 when the region experienced two 100-year flood events in two days.

“Right here at Everett we are very much susceptible to those kinds of extreme events,” he said. “The time is now for us to get it to link up the Climate Action Plan with our emergency preparedness plan and really start to rethink and revisit” those plans and the resilience of the city’s infrastructure.

Eco-nomics: More recently, Roberts’ climate action has taken the form of a regular column he writes for The Herald, dubbed Eco-nomics, his combination of matters of ecology and economics. His latest column offers suggestions on how readers can mark Earth Day and take action to make a difference in efforts to address climate change. It was difficult he said, to balance a honest appraisal of the state of climate change’s effects while offering some hope through action.

“I knew the list of things I wanted to suggest. What I didn’t know was how to set it up without it sounding so dire,” he said.

His answer, now and going forward, he said, will be to talk about what success in the climate fight looks like.

“You have to consider it like fighting World War II or the moonshot,” he said.

It’s a long game that will require billions of dollars of investment in research and development and in efforts that work to transition to cleaner and new sources of energy, reverse the effects of more than a century of fossil fuel pollution and carbon emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change.

The next election: Committing to that work and increasing its pace will hinge greatly on the next election, and not just in the contest for U.S. president, he said. Roberts is greatly concerned about a Washington state ballot measure, Initiative 2117, that would repeal the state’s two-year-old Climate Commitment Act if passed by voters.

The act, which limits greenhouse gas emissions also adopted a cap-and-invest program that auctions carbon credits and uses that revenue to fund — in just one year of auctions — nearly $2 billion in investments in transportation, including electric school buses, EV-charging stations, hybrid-electric ferries, zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty vehicles used in shipping; rebates and assistance for home weatherization and energy-efficient heat pumps; and strengthening of the state’s air pollution monitoring network to better identify sources of pollution and methods to address them.

Passage of the initiative, Roberts said, would blow a big hole in the state’s transportation budget, the funding for the transition to clean energy and the effort to put a price on carbon that recognizes the full and often unrecognized costs of fossil fuels.

Playing Jenga: Roberts refers to the Climate Commitment Act as “the Jenga block” that is holding up the tower of confronting climate change. Removing that block is not where we want to be, he said

“Nature doesn’t care. Mother Nature is getting tired of us not picking up the phone for the wake-up call,” he said. “The laws of physics aren’t going to somehow be reversed by the laws of greed.”

For those who think that anything they do in the climate fight won’t amount to much, Roberts holds that everything we do matters; for good or for worse.

“What we’ve been doing does make a difference. And it hasn’t been necessarily the right direction,” he said. “We didn’t get here by a couple of bad decisions.”

The results won’t be seen overnight, and will require hope and commitment to make changes and adapt.

“With clean energy sources, it could happen relatively quickly, meaning 20 years. I do think trying to create hope — and this is important — to let people know, yes, there’s things you can do.”

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