King County Executive's Climate Change Chat Shows County is Falling Short of Promises
King County Executive Dow Constantine hosted an online chat earlier today to highlight the county's efforts to address the risks from climate change. We asked a couple of questions regarding the science behind the county's efforts thus far.
First, Lara Whitely Binder of the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group (CIG) and Ross Macfarlane of the environmental group Climate Solutions argued in the online chat that we are already seeing the impacts of climate change.
Lara Whitely Binder: Pacific Northwest climate has been changing in a number of ways that are consistent with what we expect from climate change. • Average annual temperature in the PNW increased 1.5 degrees F during the 20th century. • Spring snowpack has declined due in part to warmer winter and spring temperatures. Losses in the Washington Cascades are on the order of 28% for the period 1944-2000. • Nearly every glacier in the Cascades and Olympic Mountains is retreating, thinning, or both. • The timing of peak streamflow has moved earlier into the spring in many river basins as snowpack melts earlier. • Some areas of Washington, most notably Puget Sound, have seen increases in extreme precipitation in the last 25 years. • Finally, many coastal areas in Washington saw an increase in sea level during the 20th century. For example, the city of Seattle saw an increase on the order of +8 inches during the 20th century.
Ross Macfarlane: Many people think of climate change as something that will happen in the future, or only affect distant animals and environments like polar bears. As Lara's post shows, climate scientists are showing that changes are happening now and here. That is why we need to work both on reducing carbon emissions and increasing our ability to adapt.
This is a common, if unscientific, refrain designed to justify dramatic and costly steps today. The problem is that while there may be impacts in the future, the science simply doesn't indicate we are seeing impacts today from the increase in atmospheric CO2. So, I asked a question.
Todd Myers: Lara, you say we are already seeing impacts from anthropogenic climate change. Yet, Cliff Mass, whom you work with at the UW, wrote in the Seattle Times a couple years ago: "How many times have you heard that severe windstorms and heavy rains will increase in the Northwest under global climate change? The truth is, there is no strong evidence for these claims and the whole matter is being actively researched. Some portions of the Northwest have had more rain and wind during the past decades, some less. And initial simulations of future Northwest climate do not suggest heavier rain events." He says similar things about snowpack. How do you square that with your claims?
Lara backed off the claim somewhat, indicating that science does not indicate that recent weather patterns are related to climate change.
Lara Whitely Binder: Hello Todd. You are correct that changes in extreme events are an area of active research as it is these types of events that tend to stress our infrastructure and natural systems. Over the last 25 years, some areas of Washington have seen an increase in extreme precipitation but we cannot say that this is due to climate change. We do anticipate more extreme events in the future as a result of the jet stream moving further north but the models vary in how much more frequent these types of extreme events may become.
The second topic was one of King County's strategies to reduce transportation-related carbon emissions. I asked a question about one of the county's strategies.
Todd Myers: A few years back the County Council supported using biodiesel in the transit system. That project was canceled, however, due to the high cost and research that showed soy-based biodiesel may actually increase carbon emissions. What are you putting in place to ensure this type of error doesn't occur again?
Ron Posthuma: Response for Todd - Use of biodiesel was a pilot project that saved King County Metro Transit over $1 million and provided jobs in Washington State. Subsequent researched (sic) emerged that showed biodiesel was not as environmentally beneficial as first thought, and there is still debate on the environmental impact. We will continue to look for cost effective and environmentally beneficial fuel alternatives.
Todd Myers: Ron, I don't understand. This is from the recently released 2010 KC Energy plan: "Given the large volume of diesel fuel used for transit vehicles, the current incremental cost of using biodiesel rather than conventional diesel is high enough that meeting the 50 percent goal would necessitate transit service cuts." This seems to indicate the cost was higher. What am I missing?
Ron Posthuma: RE Todd Myers: The Energy Plan specified production or procurement of renewable energy equivalent to 50% of County energy use by 2012. We are currently pursuing this goal and have made great progress utilizing Cedar Hill landfill gas which also provides revenue to the County. Biodiesel has become much more expensive than diesel and is not currently used by Metro Transit but we continue to track prices and opportunities.
Ron does admit that the cost was too high and the environmental benefits dubious. He retreats to the claim that spending the money created jobs. Of course, spending the money more appropriately, or leaving it in the hands of businesses, would also have created jobs.
Finally, while Dow Constantine says transportation is the most important area of climate change to address, Ron notes that there has been little progress in that area.
Earlier this year, state officials admitted that Washington won't meet its carbon reduction targets for 2020. The City of Seattle's report last year notes that by 2012, the city will have failed to reach the Kyoto Protocol targets it hoped to meet. Now the county is admitting it will have difficulty meeting its 2012 target. In each instance, however, politicians are long on touting their commitment and success in addressing climate change, but short on evidence of that success.