It has been a week since King County Executive Ron Sims proposed an Office of Global Warming, and still no peep out of the Seattle Times recognizing his extraordinary vision on this issue. Back in 1988, when as a councilman Sims first proposed a similar office, the Times editorial board ridiculed his warnings as “hyperbolic clouds of rhetorical gas.” 18 years later, with the scientific consensus firmly on his side, the Times refuses to acknowledge Sims’ steadfast (and prescient) environmental leadership.
Of course the risk for local media when they stubbornly refuse to give local issues and leaders the coverage they deserve, is that they leave themselves open to being scooped by their national colleagues. And that’s exactly what happened this week, when US News & World Report hit the newsstands with a cover story on global warming that prominently features Sims and his decades-long efforts to prepare King County for the local impact of climate change.
KING COUNTY, WASH.–From a chopper buzzing the forested foothills of the Cascade mountains just outside Seattle, County Executive Ron Sims describes this as “a good year.” The craggy canvas below is a gorgeous bottle green. The lakelike reservoirs are nearly full. Crisp-white snow caps much of the Cascade Range. It’s everything one would expect in this cool, water-rich corner of the world. But residents here worry that the “good years” are becoming increasingly rare. According to scientists at the University of Washington, the Pacific Northwest has gotten warmer by 1.5 degrees since 1900, about a half-degree higher than the global average. That might not seem like much, but the effects are being noticed here, particularly in the amount of snow in the Cascades. Since 1949, snowpack in the lower mountain range, a primary source of water for the area, has declined 50 percent, raising the odd specter of water shortages in the rainy Pacific Northwest.
The culprit is unusually warm weather, which is melting snowpack and changing the precipitation cycle. More water is falling as rain–and being lost as runoff–and less is falling as mountain snow, a natural banking system that holds the precipitation until the spring, when it melts to fill reservoirs for the dry summer season. “Our water system is based on snowmelt,” Sims says. “But we’re continually losing huge volumes.”
The problem snapped into focus over the past two years, when the state was hit by a severe drought–the kind of extreme weather fluctuation that scientists expect will become more common as temperatures climb. The governor declared a statewide emergency. Ski resorts closed. Rivers and reservoirs fell to dangerous lows. For Sims, the water crisis was a worrisome sign of things to come. “How are we going to meet the needs of people and fish,” he asks, “when the snowmelt is going away?”
It’s a question haunting the 58-year-old Sims, who has made fighting the effects of climate change a central theme for much of his 10-year tenure as county executive. The quest puts him on the front line of what is shaping up to be the next battle in the climate-change wars: preparing for and adapting to a warmer climate.
Sims has always been willing to expend political capital on issues ranging from tax restructuring to health care reform to avian flu preparation, and he has once again put himself on the front line, this time in the battle over how our region should respond to climate change and other environmental threats. The controversial Critical Areas Ordinance and Brightwater sewage treatment plant are both partially intended to help buffer the county from the impacts of global warming, while light rail and other policy and infrastructure initiatives that promote urban density provide the added benefit of making our region more energy efficient.
This is the type of vision to which you’d think our local punditocracy might at least occasionally pay passing lip service, but while opinion makers often decry the lack of leadership from our elected officials, any attempt to exercise the very same is more often than not sneeringly dismissed as arrogance or folly. In the case of Sims and his initiatives on global warming, it appears that our local editorialists simply can’t see the forest for the trees that some property owners claim they should have the right to clear-cut come hell or high water. (Or both.)
But while the Times refuses to recognize Sims’ efforts to think globally and act locally as more worthy of praise than ridicule, national publications like US News are lauding him for his pragmatism.
Adaptation is more effective, experts say, when it’s handled at a regional level. That’s why a growing number of communities, in the United States and elsewhere, aren’t waiting. Sims is a good example. “Nationally, you have an administration that fights scientists,” he says. “We have said the key is to listen to scientists, not politicians.” Sims made good on his word by hiring the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington, a group of climate and Earth scientists who quickly highlighted the problem of melting snowpack–estimating that the area’s water supply could drop 20 million gallons a day in the future, even as demand is expected to rise. So, in April, the county broke ground on a new sewage plant, to be equipped with a $26 million facility to recycle and purify sewage into water clean enough for agricultural and industrial use, freeing up potable water for use in homes, restaurants, and businesses.
A lack of water could also leave much of the region in the dark. About 90 percent of Seattle’s energy comes from hydropower dams in the Columbia River Basin, which extends into Canada. If the annual snowpack continues to drop, a greater percentage of the supply will belong to Canada. For now, eco-friendly Seattle says that there’s little it can do other than continue to explore wind power and promote conservation.
The heavily forested area abutting Seattle, meanwhile, is by design. While all fast-growing counties in Washington employ urban growth boundaries to stem sprawl under a state law, Sims has been especially aggressive in implementing it in King County–imposing stiff environmental restrictions on private land, like requiring that green buffers remain around waterways and limiting development in some areas. Two years ago, the county purchased the development rights to 90,000 acres of working timberland for $22 million. The trees act as a huge carbon sink, absorbing greenhouse gas emissions but also functioning as a vast sponge, soaking up all that precipitation now falling more as rain than snow while relieving pressure on area levees. Controlling the development rights also means the rivers running through the land will be there to tap as a future supply for potable water.
The scientific consensus on global warming is overwhelming, so much so that Michael Shermer devotes his “Skeptic” column in the June issue of Scientific American to explaining his “cognitive flip” on the issue.
It is a matter of the Goldilocks phenomenon. In the last ice age, CO2 levels were 180 parts per million (ppm)–too cold. Between the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution, levels rose to 280 ppm–just right. Today levels are at 380 ppm and are projected to reach 450 to 550 by the end of the century–too warm. Like a kettle of water that transforms from liquid to steam when it changes from 99 to 100 degrees Celsius, the environment itself is about to make a CO2-driven flip.
In his film “An Inconvenient Truth“, Al Gore makes an impassioned plea that it is not too late to cut carbon emissions and forestall some of the very worst consequences of global warming. But it is too late to avoid climate change entirely, as it is already taking place.
Rising temperatures and sea levels are perhaps the single greatest crisis facing our world, our nation and our region. It is time we start supporting our political leaders who are facing this crisis head on, rather than ignoring or reviling them for it.