Imagine Seattle Taking Action on Climate

It's 2032. The Mayor of Seattle – in 2032 a woman of color being mayor will be almost unremarkable – stands before the city council and distinguished guests to announce the completion of a program that marks Seattle officially becoming carbon neutral. While Seattle couldn't control all of its carbon emissions directly, we discovered that the vast majority were under our control and what little was left were fixed by state level action or by offsetting. Seattle, in 2032, led the nation in hitting its targets ahead of schedule, helping to make it more likely the United States as a whole would be carbon neutral by 2035 and allowing the world to hold the line to a difficult, but not disastrous, increase in global temperature.

Jellyfish yard art by Dee Miller

The residents of Seattle of 2032 live in a more equitable and inclusive city where income and wealth do not determine where a family lives. We welcomed back our neighbors we'd forced out over the preceding decades. As climate refugees arrived, we welcomed them and built a city that ensured all children get a fair shot at life, even if their parents didn't start out here. Changes in how and where we built housing allowed us not only to welcome more people, but to do it without damaging the environment. The tree canopy, once a flashpoint of local politics, now covers almost 50% of Seattle's area, much of it along reclaimed roadway and new parks next to new housing. Seattleites of all abilities and backgrounds are able to get around town without polluting – mostly on sidewalks or bike paths and using a bus or train when the first two don't get them far enough. The transition to walkable and safe communities was a big part of creating the success of 2032 – and even better there hasn't been a single person killed by a car on Seattle streets in four years.

The Port of Seattle, partly due to Seattle's leadership, would be able to have their own ceremony in 2033, even with the challenges of huge container ships arriving daily and fleets of port trucks owned by many different companies. King County wasn't far behind either. The State of Washington as a whole was going to hit its targets too. All because  Seattle got serious about climate change.

Does this seem impossible? I don't think so. It seems like a future not only possible but worth striving for. We really could build this future. We must build this future. But what would it mean for us to do start now? What we need to do isn't mysterious. There's no uninvented technology. There's a lot of work, both at the city and the state level. It will be complicated to ensure Seattle doesn't just export inequity elsewhere. But it does require us to act. What would it mean for us to act locally now?

The largest single contributor to our carbon emissions in Seattle are cars and trucks. Our major bus system, King County Metro, is already electrifying its fleet. Sound Transit, which provides the main rail system, is already working on carbon neutral electricity sources. The streetcar system uses Seattle City Light which already has a mostly non-polluting energy mix. The obvious answer is to get as many people out of private cars as possible (no, electric cars aren't sufficient). If we want to hit 2032 (or 2035), we need to get folks out of cars now. We can do it, but we have to start now by actually prioritizing buses everywhere with exclusive rights of ways for all our arterial buses. Third Ave can't have cars on it (except deliveries and folks who need door to door service). We can't continue to let buses get stuck in traffic on Aurora, Denny, and Westlake. We can't let buses get stuck anywhere. A stuck bus is a charge against the future.

We need to get people out of cars and buses and onto smaller vehicles or their own two feet. If we have to choose between space for cars or space for people to walk or bike, we have to chose the latter. We have to take ending deaths on our roads ("Vision Zero") seriously, starting by lowering speed limits everywhere now. We can't expect people to walk or bike or scooter if the streets we offer are scary, noisy, dusty places full of fast moving cars (tragically, the poor and people with disabilities often don't have any choice now but to use our most dangerous streets). Taking climate change seriously means making streets for everyone, not streets for every car.

We need to truly reform our land use. It's unconscionable that in my neighborhood, 2000 feet from a future light rail station, we only allow houses for single families who can afford a 5000 square foot lot. It's unconscionable that nearly the only economically feasible way of building housing is for a private developers to buy lots and build expensive homes for the few, with no opportunities for families that don't have a lot of money. It's unconscionable that it takes years for a housing project to get approval just to start construction while we decide if the facade fits the character of the neighborhood while the actual characters have left for lack of enough rent money. It's unconscionable that the city has to fight over scraps of funding and land to maybe build affordable housing (or induce private developers to) when we should be building communities that include everyone. We must build something better.

We have to get serious about efficient buildings. We don't need pilots. We need to make it economically infeasible to build anything but the greenest building possible. Every time I look at the MHA program's "green" incentives I'm reminded that it's fiddling around the edges, while the forests burn. Sorry to be a downer, but there it is. A serious green building program needs to recognize that new buildings will be around for fifty years or more and every last one needs to be as efficient as possible – in 2035 they need to be carbon neutral.

I could go on about the programs we should do. The details are endless. Complications everywhere. Building a carbon neutral Seattle (and Washington) will be hard. But the details and needs are not mysterious. There really is no magic technology that we're waiting for – and even if there were, we can't wait for a wizard to save us.

picture of sun in smoke

My daughter is almost five years old. In 2035 she will maybe just be finishing college. If we build this future, she'll have grown up in an increasingly welcoming city with people from all over the world and all kinds of backgrounds. She'll have grown up being active in her community, walking and biking everywhere on increasingly safer streets. She will be horrified to learn we used to put up memorials for people who died on them. She'll have seen the civic engagement and activism that built this future. The idea that people used to be forced into long and polluting car commutes because they couldn't afford to live in the city will shock her. All of her friends will have seen this beautiful future be created. What would these new generations of children who witnessed this transformative change go on to do? Those of us who are adults now cannot even imagine what they will achieve.