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Sorry, Seattle, your climate change ‘leadership’ hasn’t made much of a dent

Seattle leaders love to talk about fighting climate change.

But fighting words come more easily than actually reining in the city’s carbon emissions.

“The federal government has demonstrated an alarming unwillingness to play a leadership role in climate protection,” reads a Seattle City Council resolution. It commits to stifling Seattle’s emissions of greenhouse gases at least as aggressively as nations of the world already agreed to do.

If you thought the resolution was taking a swipe at the Trump administration, guess again: Mayor Paul Schell signed it 16 years ago, in 2001.

The resolution set out plans for reducing Seattle’s greenhouse gas emissions below their 1990 levels by anywhere from 7 percent – in line with a climate treaty signed in Kyoto, Japan – to 40 percent in a decade.

Four years later, Mayor Greg Nickels launched an initiative that more than a thousand cities joined, committing to reduce their emissions a la Kyoto.

“Global warming is an issue that the nation’s capital has turned a deaf ear to,” Nickels said in 2005, with verbiage that echoed Schell’s and that today’s leading candidates for mayor echo in turn. “So the leadership must come from others.”

By the 2012 deadline, Seattle’s emissions had dropped just 1 percent below their 1990 levels — far short of the widely publicized commitments.

It's an ongoing pattern. Last year, city officials reported that Seattle has fallen behind on its 2013 “action plan” to get down to zero net emissions by the year 2050. While Seattle's emissions are falling, the pace of reductions would need to triple to achieve that goal, according to the city’s latest greenhouse gas inventory.

“We are not on track when it comes to reducing transportation emissions, and we are laser focused on getting it right,” said Jessica Finn Coven, who heads the city’s Office of Sustainability and Environment.

Transportation, mostly cars, is the city’s main source of climate-disrupting pollution.

Adhering to the city’s action plan would require reducing tailpipe exhaust 15 times faster than the 0.5 percent a year Seattle has actually achieved.

In contrast, the city is on track in reducing its second-biggest source of pollution – buildings – as new, energy-efficient buildings rapidly spring up in place of older, draftier structures.

Coven takes a glass half-full view of the city’s slowly ebbing tide of carbon pollution.

“Our economy's growing. Our jobs are growing. Our population is growing, and yet we're reducing pollution. That's really good news, and that's not happening everywhere,” she said. “We are not reducing pollution fast enough to meet our very ambitious 2050 goals.”

The lackluster performance has drawn critics from left and right.

Said Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center, a free-market think tank: "Setting goals is easy. Following through is hard.”

The six leading mayoral candidates say they’d step up Seattle’s efforts to fight climate change in some fashion. Four of them told KUOW climate is their top environmental priority.

“We will not just lead the nation,” former U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said. “We may lead the world in showing them that sustainability is something that can be accomplished.”

Myers is skeptical.

“I think that a lot of mayoral candidates and politicians promise to meet these targets because they sound popular but never actually follow through,” he said.

Myers does give Seattle credit for at least keeping track of its pollution. He said 20 other cities in Washington state made the same pledge and aren’t even tracking their emissions.

Emily Johnston of 350 Seattle, a climate-action group, said politicians aren’t even aiming high enough to fend off climate catastrophe.

“None of these plans are actually going to get us where we need to be,” Johnston said.

She said emissions can be phased out decades faster than the city is aiming for. “That requires some really hard choices and making some politically unpopular decisions,” Johnston said.

“It’s politically risky to be serious about climate change in the transportation sector,” ex-mayor, now-candidate Mike McGinn said. “You can hold me up as exhibit A.”

But he said he wants to try again.

“The scope of the changes we need is really great,” McGinn said. “And that means changing the ways in which we're going to get around and changing the way we build our neighborhoods.”

The policy positions of the six frontrunners, all liberals, can blur together. All six call for boosting transit. McGinn, former state Rep. Jessyn Farrell and urban planner Cary Moon have all held advocacy jobs promoting alternative transportation.

“One of the most important things we can do in this city is reduce our carbon pollution from driving,” Farrell said. She called for more investments in transit, sidewalks and subsidized bus passes.

“We’ve got to shift our priorities,” Cary Moon said, “Make sure we are investing in biking, walking and transit.”

“People generally like to use those modes if they work better, especially if they’re faster and cheaper than driving,” Moon said.

Candidate Nikkita Oliver, an attorney and activist, said improving housing affordability is the best thing Seattle can do for the climate – since people who can afford housing near their jobs wouldn’t be forced to commute far away, a point made also by Farrell and McGinn in KUOW interviews.

Of the leading candidates, only Bob Hasegawa, the state senator and former truck driver, said climate isn’t the city’s dirtiest problem.

“I would like to see more of an environmental justice focus,” Hasegawa said. “Cleaning up the environment that low-income neighborhoods, especially in South Seattle, are having to put up with.”

The city’s sustainability office has until the end of the year to report just what it will take to avoid breaking the city’s latest climate pledge: In June, Seattle City Council vowed to reduce Seattle’s emissions in line with the 2015 Paris climate accords abandoned by President Donald Trump.

John Ryan loves getting tips and documents. He can be reached at or on the encrypted Signal or WhatsApp apps at 1-401-405-1206 (whistleblowers, never do so from a work or government device, account or location). For greatest security, use KUOW's SecureDrop portal. Snail mail is also a safe way to reach him confidentially: KUOW, 4518 University Way NE #310, Seattle, WA 98105. Don't put your return address on the outside.

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