Looking at climate change from a regional perspective
"Climate change poses a tremendous threat to the Puget Sound and Georgia Basin area."
Clear. Concise. Depressing. The quote comes from Patty Glick, senior global warming specialist at the National Wildlife Federation, but it was echoed in the words of all the speakers at the three climate-change panels held Wednesday at the Puget Sound Georgia Basin Ecosystem Conference in Seattle.
Scientists of varying disciplines from all over the region shared their research and forecasts for the future. But one big question for the day arose: How do we take all of this climate change science — which is primarily based on predictions that are global in scale — and translate that into local management decisions?
Let’s give ’em something to talk about
"We need to be talking about how to invest in information networks," said Stewart Cohen of Environment Canada. He emphasized the need to track advances in science — so that no one is reinventing the wheel — and then pass that on to people who make decisions about how land is managed.
Scientists also need to think about the scale of their research, said biologist John Richardson of the University of British Columbia. We might have predictions about how carbon dioxide and precipitation levels will affect a certain type of plant, he said, but we haven’t yet scaled that up to look at effects on food supply for herbivores or fish upstream — or in concert with other environmental changes to the ecosystem.
Sea level rise is one of the big climate-change-related worries for the region, but our shorelines won’t just go under, said Hugh Shipman, a coastal geologist for the Washington Department of Ecology. "We sort of all imagine we’ll be standing around in hip waders."
But that’s not the case; instead, coastlines will respond dynamically, changing depending on the geology of the area. This could include flooding, erosion (or removal of sediment), relocation or dissolution of barrier islands, and saltwater mixing with our underground freshwater reserves or low-salt estuarine habitat areas.
Shipman predicts sea level rise will occur as a series of natural disasters — and that is what will drive the human response. He also noted that an accelerated sea level rise really just underscores our existing coastal management challenges like setbacks (or lack thereof) from beaches and marshes, artificially armored shorelines, and development in natural floodplains. "Even if sea level wasn’t rising, we’ve got a lot of people building in stupid places."
Just do it
Fortunately, there are also many people working toward smart urban planning and land-management decisions. In the final, and certainly most uplifting, discussion, representatives from several governmental agencies in the region spoke about what they are doing to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
The city of Vancouver, British Columbia, adopted in 2008 a Sustainability Framework that calls for a 15 percent regional reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2014 and a 33 percent reduction by 2020. The city has also identified about 40 different mitigation actions including energy conservation, greener building standards, renewable energy projects, and energy recovery from utility operations. "We’re going to have to take some risks," said Hugh Kellas, manager of the policy and planning department for Metro Vancouver.
On a larger scale, the provincial government of British Columbia has pushed a number of climate-change-related measures through the legislature and looks farther into the future with a goal for 2050: reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to 80 percent below 2007 levels.
To do that, said the Ministry of Environment’s Ben Kangasniemi, they’ve adopted California’s tailpipe standards, created a revenue-neutral car tax, entered into the Western Climate Initiative’s cap and trade program, begun a landfill-capture project (with a goal of 75 percent methane capture by 2016), and have required all government operations to achieve carbon neutrality by 2010. But even with all of these aggressive policy measures, Kangasniemi said, they’re still coming up with a 27 percent gap for their 2020 target of reducing emissions by a third — an issue they will continue to address.
Bringin’ it home
Elizabeth Willmott spoke about King County’s efforts, opening with a 2006 quote from King County Executive Ron Sims (who’s been tapped to serve as deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development): "The key is to listen to scientists, not politicians."
Willmott said they aimed to do that as they put together their 2007 climate plan that includes strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. More than this, though, the county is addressing social justice issues like how poorer populations will be more acutely affected by urban heat. They’re also developing a training curriculum for coastal managers and planners.
"We’re hyperactive at King County," Wilmott said, but she acknowledged they couldn’t do it without partnerships. To that end, they’ve joined a coalition of nine partner cities and counties including Miami, San Francisco, and Toronto that will exchange lessons on incorporating climate change into infrastructure decisions.
She ended her presentation with a quote from President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech about dusting ourselves off and remaking America — and then added: "For me, it’s about building a resilient future for ourselves."