Temperatures Rising

The urgency to move quickly on climate efforts is palpable in Seattle

By Heidi Mills

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Illustration by Ben Wiseman

September 7, 2022

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Seattle Magazine.

As the world warms and catastrophic climate events unfold around the globe, Seattleites worry, hope, and act in ways big and small.

Seattle Aquarium director of conservation programs and partnerships Dr. Erin Meyer leads a program to breed and release endangered zebra sharks to tropical areas of Indonesia.Pediatric resident Alee Perkins pulls invasive ivy and blackberries out of local parks to restore native plantings. ZooTunes concert goers drink their beers out of reusable cups and deposit them in a bin for washing, sanitizing, and use at the next event. University of Washington Climate Impacts Group Director Amy Snover bikes to work in the morning as she begins another day preparing communities prone to wildfires, flooding and other climate change disasters.

The very term “climate change” can be daunting and depressing simply because of its future implications. According to the United Nations, climate change in its simplest form refers to long-term shifts in temperature and weather patterns. The World Health Organization has called climate change the biggest threat of the 21st century.

In Seattle – and Washington state, thanks to third-term Gov. Jay Inslee, who made the issue a centerpiece of his 2020 presidential campaign – the collective determination to confront a massive global problem has made Seattle a national leader in preserving the broader environment.

The state Legislature has set a target to reduce emissions at least 25% below 1990 levels by 2035. The Department of Ecology is more ambitious, targeting 40%. The state also has a goal of 100% clean electricity by 2045. Businesses are required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from hydrofluorocarbons or fluorinated gases, which amount to 4 million tons of pollution each year. Seattle has passed laws to ban plastic bags, Styrofoam and organic material in garbage cans. The number of electric vehicles on the road continues to grow. Composting, recycling, and taking reusable bags to the grocery store have become second nature.

“We are definitely ahead of the curve because it’s the way in which we live,” says Pat Kaufman, commercial program manager for Recycle/Compost/Reuse at Seattle Public Utilities. “We have a progressive political reality here so our elected officials will move forward with these models that offer alternatives to use and toss.”

Some of the top climate change scientists in the world can be found at the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group and Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. They are recognized globally for studying climate change and increasing regional resistance to wildfires, flooding, habitat destruction and coastal displacement. Seattle’s newest major sports and events center, Climate Pledge Arena, made combating climate change its name and mission.

Many of those working directly on climate change express optimism that we are doing big things in Seattle, and that they personally can make a difference.

“Seattle has been a leader in climate change for decades,” says Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington, not just because of efforts by organizations throughout the state but because residents take the small but because residents take the small, consequential steps each day to reduce waste.

But the same individuals who find hope also worry that we aren’t doing enough. The Earth continues to warm, and at times the pace of innovation and willingness of the public to change our way of life seems low. Compared to some European cities, we remain far behind in investing in bicycling, public transit and multifamily housing, says Emily Johnston, director of communications for climate justice group 350 Seattle.

“Seattle is perceived to be doing reasonably well compared to other cities in the U.S., but that’s a pretty low bar,” Johnston says.

With progress comes more obstacles. How can we better recycle batteries from electric vehicles and data warehouses? How do we prepare miles of shoreline for rising tides? Snover, who leads both the UW’s Climate Impacts Group and the Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, says that despite the many talented, dedicated people working on climate change in the greater Seattle region, it simply isn’t enough.

“It breaks my heart that we are in this situation,” Snover says. “I grew up here. I spent my childhood hiking and skiing. To experience low snow years, and know there will be more. To experience the smoke and the fires. It’s depressing. Yet here we are.”

Still, novel ideas developed by Snover and other local activists increasingly make Seattle one of the most innovative centers for climate change innovation. Seattle leads the nation in part because groups are beginning to look not only at how to reduce pollution and climate damage, but also how to repair the damage we’ve already done.

The Seattle Aquarium launched an ambitious climate change agenda that includes work to breed and reintroduce endangered species to their native waters. The aquarium’s mission has long been to inspire conservation of our marine environment, but the new species recovery program goes one step further.

While zoos have successfully reared and released animals for decades, this is unfamiliar territory for aquariums. It is innately more difficult to run species-recovery programs in the ocean because aquariums must create their ecosystems to breed them.

As its first species recovery program, Seattle Aquarium staffers are working with partners around the world to breed zebra shark eggs in the U.S., bring them to nurseries in Indonesia, and then eventually release them to the wild. Dr. Erin Meyer chairs the steering committee for ReShark, the organization formed to bring sharks back to the ocean. The first batch of eggs shipped to Indonesia in July. A second species recovery program underway attempts to reintroduce pinto abalone into local waters.

“We are intentionally positioning ourselves to be part of the solution, and not part of the problem,” says Grant Abel, Seattle Aquarium’s director of life sciences.

The aquarium will carry its climate change mission into the new Ocean Pavilion building, one of several key components of the ambitious, $756 million waterfront renovation. The pavilion, which will feature tropical species and coral, will open in 2024.

Despite increasing its physical footprint by one-third, the aquarium aims to produce zero waste by 2025 and become climate positive by 2030, which means it will use less water, electricity and other resources than it is producing.

“If the aquarium can become climate positive, any business in Seattle can do it,” Meyer says. “We have pumps and lights on 24/7 because we are supporting life.”

The Seattle Aquarium’s goals and species recovery programs are all part of the organization’s mission to protect and improve ocean health. The fight against climate change cannot be successful without saving ocean habitats.

“I view the ocean as the womb of our planet,” Abel says. “It is where life began, and it is where life will continue. In order to sustain human life on our planet, a healthy ocean is fundamental.”

Another local group charting the next step in climate change policy is Seattle Public Utilities. The utility has a long established and robust recycling and composting program. Now, SPU wants to stop the waste from ever being produced.

“Increasingly we are shifting our focus to waste prevention because the production of goods and food is where climate change happens,” says Ashima Sukhdev, climate mitigation and circular economy policy advisor at SPU.

One simple and highly efficient way to prevent waste is to shift from recyclable and compostable containers to reusable. Pat Kaufman, SPU commercial program manager for Recycle/Compost/Reuse, likens the reuse movement to a bike or scooter share, which requires a network and entrepreneurs behind it. He wants to promote businesses that can enter the reusable cup and dishware space.

One such deal launched this summer when ZooTunes partnered with Minneapolis-based r.Cup. The concert series, hosted by Woodland Park Zoo, will serve all beer and wine in r.Cup’s reusable cups. After finishing their beverages, customers deposit their cups in bins, and r.Cup washes and sanitizes them for use at a future event. ZooTunes pays r.Cup a per cup fee for the service.

For Kaufman and SPU, ZooTunes is just the beginning. They want to eventually have all city restaurants offering options for reusable carry out containers, with collection sites around the city. So far, Kaufman has seen substantial interest from investors in the reusable market, which will prove key when scaling larger.

“I think the concept of reuse is so obvious and so old school,” Kaufman says. “It’s how our grandparents lived.”

SPU has long been a national leader in composting and recycling. The utility hopes to do the same with waste prevention and other projects to reduce emissions. With the hiring of Sukhdev late last year, SPU now has two staff members devoted to climate change – a move highly unusual for a utility.

“We have the opportunity to experiment with these cutting-edge solutions because the average Seattle resident is so enthusiastic about this,” Sukhdev said. “As a leader in this space, Seattle can share what we are learning with other cities and bring them along.”

Outside of SPU, other city departments are developing and implementing numerous projects to combat climate change. The city has a devoted Office of Sustainability and Environment working on climate change issues. It is setting building performance standards that are among the most stringent in the nation and helping households transition from oil heat to electric. 

Staff are working to electrify all elements of transportation, with the goal of 90% of personal trips being zero emission by 2030. The city is investing in environmental projects in disadvantaged communities, such as investing in electric drayage trucks that serve the port.

“We need to learn from these pilot projects and scale up,” says Jessyn Farrell, interim director of the city of Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment, which is focused on reducing pollution, slashing energy consumption in commercial buildings and investing in public transit to reduce fuel emissions. “We are doing a lot of the right things, but we need to go bigger.”

Climate activists can also be found among industries without obvious environmental missions. Pediatric resident Alee Perkins started a group called Pediatricians for Climate Action to make the case that climate change is bad for human health. Wildfire smoke, extreme heat events, flooding, and other climate events can impact physical and mental wellbeing.

“It is the ultimate public health threat of this century,” Perkins says. “Every other threat we face is worsened by climate change.” 

Pediatricians for Climate Action members have been advocating for climate bills at the state level and trying to incorporate climate change into medical school curriculums. Residents meet at local parks to remove invasive species and revive native eco-systems, using the outings as both a way to help and a team building exercise. Fellow pediatricians have been generally supportive, Perkins says, if not proactive.

Perkins finds her own therapy in outdoor spaces, pulling out ivy and other noxious species that crowd out native wildlife. For her, it’s a practical way to cope with a massive, frightening reality.

For other Seattleites, shifting from gas to electric vehicles is a proactive way to address climate change. As of June 2022, 52,172 electric vehicles were registered in King County. The Seattle Electric Vehicle Association, or SEVA, dates back to 1979, when early enthusiasts converted gas cars.

Grace Reamer, vice president of SEVA, and her husband, Kevin Boze, both own electric vehicles and enjoy introducing others to the EV world. When Boze brought his first electric vehicle to car shows in the early days of EVs, many people were skeptical. Now, car show visitors pepper him with questions. 

Through their advocacy work, Boze and Reamer want the public to know that electric vehicles aren’t only for those who can afford fancy new Teslas. A 10-year-old Nissan Leaf, for instance, can fit a tight budget and provide years of gas savings. “Electric vehicles are not just toys for rich people,” Reamer says.

City of Seattle staff are also working to encourage electric vehicle adoption. Many Seattle residents live in multifamily housing or single-family homes without garages or driveways, making it difficult to install charging stations. In response, Seattle City Light is accepting online applications for curbside electric vehicle charging stations. The city will pay for the stations, opening them to anyone who pays a per kilowatt hour fee. Seattle City Light will start installing the charging stations early next year.

When Reamer and Boze drive outside of Seattle, they don’t see many electric vehicles on the road. They are reminded how far ahead Seattle is in electric vehicle adoption, and hope that it will one day be echoed throughout the country.

For the University of Washington’s Snover, the same can be said for many of the climate change initiatives in the Seattle area. As she prepares to retire from her role leading the Climate Impacts Group and Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, she looks at the work we are doing with pride, hope, and concern that it won’t be enough. The time for Seattleites to act, she says, is now. 

“What I always say is that the future hasn’t been written yet,” Snover says. “People need to remember that we actually have a choice in what we want the future to look like.”

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