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Changing with the Climate

In Seattle, how changes in policy help prepare for changes in climate.

Seattle hopes to become the world's first climate-neutral city. It's no small task: The City must account for, and reduce, the carbon footprint of everything from transportation to trash for hundreds of thousands of people. City Council President and YES! Magazine board member Richard Conlin is blogging about the city's efforts.


Cedar River Watershed, photo by Tiffany Berry

The Cedar River Watershed. One way Seattle is adapting to a changing climate is by creating habitat management plans for the Cedar, Skagit, Pend Oreille, and Tolt Watersheds.

Photo by Tiffany Berry.

The climate is already changing and will keep changing—no matter how rapidly we are able to turn around greenhouse gas accumulation. So we will need a strategy for adapting to the expected impacts (which were reviewed in the previous post). Here is what Seattle is doing.

The outstanding example of the City’s work to adapt to climate change is our program to manage the water supply that Seattle owns and operates, which serves not only the City, but most of the surrounding King County suburbs. Seattle’s water conservation strategy has reduced water consumption in our system to the levels of the 1960s, even though we serve more than 40 percent more people than we did then. We have developed a state of the art reservoir management and stream flow forecasting model and implemented an asset management strategy that includes climate change as a risk factor. We can withstand the impacts of climate change and still guarantee the water supply for at least the next fifty years.

Adapting to the impacts is the responsible public policy, and in no way should cause us to lessen our efforts to achieve carbon neutrality for the long run.

Seattle City Light has also long been a leader in energy conservation and developing carbon neutral resources, but as the climate changes, reduced snowpack and stream flows will impact our hydroelectric capacity. We will continue to mitigate climate impacts by relying on conservation and renewable resources for our future energy needs. In the next few years, we will have to figure out how to adapt our hydro system to changes in power availability.

The vulnerability of City infrastructure is a critical problem. We have adopted regulations and programs to ensure that buildings are as resilient as possible and to moderate expected issues such as increased stormwater runoff. To address the impact of increased storm events on our drainage system and flooding problems, the City has adopted a Green Stormwater Infrastructure program to employ natural, on-site drainage strategies to minimize the amount of stormwater that flows into pipes and conveyance systems. Seattle’s drainage system is designed for the "typical" Seattle rain event, a slow and steady rainfall. Sharp, sudden storms can overwhelm that. Rather than resize the entire storm sewer system, a hugely expensive and disruptive project, our best strategy is to reduce flow into it.

In transportation, we are expanding the options that people have to travel so they can manage in the event of infrastructure damage. We also have policies to ensure that new and rebuilt bridges and seawalls are able to withstand sea level rise, and to limit development in coastal areas.

Strategies to protect vulnerable populations from increasing numbers of extreme weather events are being incorporated into emergency management and public health planning. The City is developing improved assessments and mitigation programs for our urban watersheds and a campaign to expand and protect our tree cover. Seattle also has responsibility for four areas outside the City limits that we impact with our hydroelectric dams and water storage, and we have created habitat management plans for the Cedar, Skagit, Pend Oreille, and Tolt Watersheds.

Finally, we have adopted a race and social justice lens to analyze the impacts of budget, program, and policy proposals, and will use this to guide our work on climate adaptation.

Other specific steps currently underway include:

  • Creating a methodology for analyzing sea level rise for City projects, which will be piloted with the Elliott Bay seawall replacement;
  • Developing a planning tool for City staff to use to consider how climate change will impact new capital projects and existing buildings and incorporate adaptation options;
  • Including adaptation in the updates of the Climate Action Plan and the Comprehensive Plan.

Our next efforts will include preparing guidelines for climate change analysis for higher cost, longer lifespan projects with potentially high vulnerability and risk profiles, and developing a vulnerability and risk assessment methodology so that we can set priorities for investments in protecting City infrastructure.

Strategies to protect vulnerable populations from increasing numbers of extreme weather events are being incorporated into emergency management and public health planning.

All of these efforts are intended to use science-based assessments and implement strategies that will have measurable results. To the extent that we are successful, the people of Seattle will be protected from some of the unavoidable impacts of climate change, sometimes without even knowing what has been done and what the problems may have been that will be avoided. Will this cause people to be less worried about climate change—and less likely to support policies and changes that will prevent emissions in the future?

Probably not, because the evidence of change will be overwhelming. The people of Seattle and the political leadership have already clearly grasped the nature of the problem. Adapting to the impacts is the responsible public policy, and in no way should cause us to lessen our efforts to achieve carbon neutrality for the long run.

Up next: Density and community.


Richard ConlinRichard Conlin wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Richard is president of the Seattle City Council and a YES! Magazine board member.

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