March 24, 2006

The Gore-y Details

GoreI have PowerPoint envy.

Yesterday I was lucky enough to see Al Gore's presentation on climate change. A remarkably thorough-going look at the consquences, Gore somehow managed to be simultaneously panic-inducing and inspiring. Not only was his slideshow easily the best slideshow I've ever seen on this, or any other, subject, but Gore himself was a study in mastery--at once funny and earnest, erudite and thundering. (Where was this guy during the 2000 campaign?) If you ever have a chance to see him speak on global warming, drop what you're doing and run, don't walk.

Trying to recap his talk in a blog post would be an exercise in futility. You know the drill by now anyway: collapsing ice sheets, shrinking glaciers, spreading diseases, hurricanes, and floods. The punishment that climate change promises to inflict is downright biblical in scale--a punishment that will fall especially hard on the poorest and weakest on earth. And so it was good to hear Gore's booming declaration that arresting climate change is not a political issue, but a basic moral one.

Gore was here in Seattle, you may know, because of mayor Greg Nickels' pledge to bring Seattle into compliance with Kyoto--a pledge that 218 other cities have joined. Today marked the release of the city's Green Ribbon Commission report that details how Seattle will get there. Media coverage here and here.

I'll wrap up with a quote that Gore included as a spur to decisionmakers today. This is Winston Churchill as the gathering forces of facism were darkening Europe:

"The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences.”

Update 3/24/06, 2pm: An alert reader informs me that Lawrence, Kansas joined Seattle's Kyoto pledge today, bringing the total number of cities to 219. (Incidentally, nearly 44 million Americans live in cities that have pledged to meet Kyoto's standards.)

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Does Pollution Vanish in Sunshine?

Here's a bit of good news:  I was trolling through EPA's Toxics Release Inventory for some data on pollution trends, and came across this for King County, Washington, the home county of Seattle.

King_county_triair2 The upshot: since reporting requirements began in 1988, toxic air emissions from major facilities in King County have fallen by almost 90 percent.

Mind you, this isn't the complete story.  Not all facilities that pollute have to file reports with the EPA. Also, not all chemicals are covered in this graph -- some compounds have been added since 1988, and some potentially hazardous compounds aren't covered by reporting requirements. Plus, this doesn't cover emissions from cars, trucks, or other mobile sources. 

And the King County's pollution decline may be less impressive than it seems at first blush. Some of the decline may have been the result of "outsourcing" pollution to other parts of the state, or other parts of the world.  And perhaps most importantly, this line represents the total volume of pollution, not its total toxicity.  The toxicity might have fallen more slowly (or quickly, for that matter) than the volume -- but that's much harder to figure out.

Still, despite all those caveats, it's a pretty impressive feat, no?  Fifteen years of "sunshine" -- in which major facilities are required to face public scrutiny for how much they pollute -- and they manage to cut the annual volume of pollution to a tenth of its former level, even as the county's population and economy grew rapidly.  This gives me hope, and some confidence that  even further reductions in pollution are possible, if not inevitable. As the song goes:  "Please don't take my sunshine away."

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March 22, 2006

Seattle's Growing Up

Tower Solid article in the Seattle Times today on the rising building height limits in downtown Seattle.

The article even includes a brief historical note on the 1989 voter-approved height cap following the construction of the super-tall and hideous Columbia Center Columbia Seafirst Center Bank of America Tower BankAmerica Tower Columbia Tower. Seattle's thinking on downtown density has changed quite a bit since then. Instead of constricting development, most are enthusiastic about new development in the city's core--development that is revivifying once-dormant neighborhoods.

Seattleites have change their minds partly because of the dawning realization that downtown density is good environmental policy. It's a superbly efficient use of land (among many other environmental benefits). Over the last two decades, residents watched sprawl devour the Cascade foothills and lowland farms and realized that the salvation for natural spaces was partly in the city.

The article does include once curious bit:

There's scant evidence, however, that the changes would curb sprawl over the next 20 years by pulling more people downtown. Under current or proposed zoning, city studies project about 10,000 new households downtown and 29,000 new jobs in that period. [Emphasis mine.]

That's a non-trivial number of households and jobs, but it's odd--at the least--that city growth projections are the same with or without the height increase.

What's going on here? Are the projections mistaken? Or is the height zoning change just a matter of aesthetics, not a substantive policy to increase downtown density?

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March 16, 2006

Standing Up for Plan B

In Washington, the PI editorial board stands up for Plan B.

"The Washington State Board of Pharmacy is considering a policy to outline if and when pharmacists could refuse to fill prescriptions due to their personal moral, religious or ethical objections. Here's our suggestion: never."

In Washington, DC, Washington's US Senator Patty Murray does too.

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March 15, 2006

Tides of March

Madrona_1Puget Sound restoration efforts got a big boost yesterday. The Nature Conservancy, The Trust for Public Lands, and People for Puget Sound formed a new alliance with funding from the Russell Family Foundation. Here's how the Seattle P-I describes the coalition:

Their goal is to raise $80 million in public and private funds in the first three years of the project, during which time their focus will be on shoreline restoration work and establishing 10 new parks and protected natural areas around the Sound. They also will develop a decadelong plan expected to cost billions aimed at a recovery of the Sound on the magnitude of projects to save Chesapeake Bay and Florida's Everglades.

The ecological problems facing Puget Sound are troublesome and complex--see, for example, this, this, this, and this--but we're now seeing precisely the kind of serious-minded efforts that can turn things around. And in addition to this new coalition, Washington residents are already fortunate to have the state's Puget Sound Action Team and Shared Strategy for Puget Sound. It's encouraging to see conservation and restoration work that's broadly appealing and well-organized. With this kind of intelligent and careful stewardship, Puget Sound can be restored to a flourishing marine ecosystem--a reminder that the region's natural heritage can thrive alongside many more generations of northwesterners.

Check out more coverage in the Seattle Times and the Tacoma News-Tribune.

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March 08, 2006

Shocker: Global Warming Bad For Skiing

Snow_5A new study from researchers at Oregon State University, showing that warming trends are likely to have significant effects on snowpack. (Good articles in the Seattle Times and the Oregonian.) The Northwest's coastal mountains are especially sensitive to climate change because temperatures frequently hover near freezing--so even slight warming can drastically reduce the amount of snow that accumulates. (For localized details, click on the image at right, from the Seattle Times.)

By 2040, if warming trends continue as predicted:

    • About 3,600 square miles of low-elevation terrain usually covered by snow during the winter would be dominated by rainfall.
    • Nearly 22 percent of the snow-covered areas of the Oregon Cascades and 12.5 percent of the snow areas of the Washington Cascades would shift to a rain-dominated winter climate.
    • More than 60 percent of the Olympic Range's snow-covered area would have rain-dominated winters.

The OSU findings aren't exactly revolutionary, but they are more evidence that the Northwest has particular reason to be concerned about the impacts of climate change. And the snowpack affects a lot more important aspects of life in the region than just skiing: salmon run, irrigated farms, residential water supplies, and so on.

(During last year's lousy winter, when my skis stayed closet-bound, I blogged about this subject a bit.)

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February 23, 2006

The Whales Among Us

Orca_artThe long term outlook for Puget Sound's resident orcas depends in part on the health of the Columbia Chinook salmon, which are themselves struggling because of the four dams on the Lower Snake River. In a word: To save the whales, we may need to first save the salmon. Saving the salmon may mean tearing out the dams. And tearing out the dams would mean bridging a nasty political divide in the Northwest.

Few issues in regional conservation raise tensions faster than talk of breaching those dams. But if we are to protect the Sound's orcas, the subject will have to be revisited. Again. And writer David Neiwert does so in an exceptionally nuanced article in the Seattle Weekly. He points out, rightly, that we simply don't know as much as we should about the resident orcas, especially about their wintertime travels and diet. We need more scientific research in a hurry. And if the best evidence is right--that Columbia Chinook are a necessary component of orca recovery--we'll also need some skillful politicking because either the whales will continue to face insufficient food or the dams will have to come down. As Neiwert casts the issue, we'll have to bridge the  cultural and political divide between Puget Sound urbanites, who love the whales, and rural inland northwesterners who want the dams in place.

It's tragic, in a sense, that the fate of the orcas may rest on political machinations. The southern resident orcas, perhaps even more than the salmon, are an emblem of the ways that ecosystems and wild creatures are not just local phenomena. They rely on the integrity of whole landscapes with all their biological complexity, even though those landscapes are sometimes overlaid by a fragmented and poisonous political system.

At the very end of the article, Neiwert touches on what I think may be the key. The policies to protect orcas--cleaning up toxics, easing sprawl, restoring fisheries--have other effects too. Namely, they're pretty good for people. So in the face of staunch political opposition, maybe it's time for conservationists to try another tactic: showing that the policies in the best interest of orcas are also in the best interest of people.

If that sounds woefully anthropocentric to you, well, I agree that it is. But consider why the orcas get so much attention: it's at least in part because they exhibit signs of intelligence, even appearing to mimic certain human behaviors such as family life. The Western Grebes and geoducks of Puget Sound are struggling too, but they don't get nearly the conservation resources because they're simply not as charismatic. We're eager to protect the orcas at least in part because they remind us of ourselves.

Whether or not that's a bad thing is a subject for another (and longer) post, but it's useful to remember that, in a metaphysical sense, protecting the orcas is also partly about protecting ourselves. And in a practical sense, we inhabit the very same ecosystems as the orcas. So a Northwest with natural systems resilient enough to support a flourishing orca population is likely to be one that supports a flourishing human population too.

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February 15, 2006

Nativity Scene

Perhaps everyone else knew this, but I certainly didn't: most residents of the northwest US were born outside the state where they now live.  Roughly 53 percent of folks who live in Idaho and Washington, and 55 percent in Oregon, are transplants, born either in another state or country.  (For the record, I'm a wanderer too, born and raised on the east coast.)

For the most part, in-migrants came from other parts of the US, rather than overseas.  As of 2000, only 1 in 20 residents of Idaho, 1 in 12 residents of Oregon, and 1 in 10 Washingtonians were foreign-born. The rest of us came from other parts of the US.  (Of course, there's some overlap here; some folks who were born in, say, Washington now live in Oregon. So there may be quite a few people who didn't move far -- but the Census site where we got these numbers couldn't tell us specifics.) 

British Columbia, on the other hand, has a substantial population of international in-migrants: 1 in 4 residents of the province were born in another country, mostly in Europe or Asia.

I have no larger point here -- other than a bit of surprise that, for a place that seems to have inspired genuine loyalty among its inhabitants, our roots may be a bit shallower than I'd thought.

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February 13, 2006

Pipe bombs

Another plot to cripple the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was foiled recently, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer (via Reuters). A Montana judge gets credit for apprehending the plotter, in Idaho, although Oregon and Washington are the main consumers of oil from Alaskan oil.

A year ago, we released the 2005 Cascadia Scorecard, which detailed the profound vulnerability of Cascadia's energy infrastructure (pdf), including the Trans-Alaska pipe.

The latest plot--which involved blowing up propane trucks along the pipeline, among other acts of sabotage elsewhere--doesn't seem to have been as far along as one in 1999 or one in late 2003. (Both described here (pdf), on pages 30-31.)

The larger story, of course, is that Cascadian officials have done little to secure its energy system in the past year. Pending energy security measures in Washington and Oregon may be bright spots on the horizon.

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February 08, 2006

One Less Car = One Less Parking Spot

At the risk of making this blog too Seattle-centric, I thought I'd point out this nifty article in today's Post-Intelligencer about the city's efforts to promote alternatives to the car -- everything from walking to biking to transit to ride sharing to van pools.  And there's ample reason to be concerned about rising car traffic, particularly downtown--not just on environmental grounds, but on financial ones.  Cars, you see, take up lots of space in a crowded city; and storing them all is expensive, and takes up real estate that could be put to far better uses.  From the article:

In the next 19 years, the city expects 22,000 new housing units and 50,000 new jobs.

Assuming the same percentage of people continued driving alone to work, the city estimates it would have to build 20 city blocks of 10-story parking garages downtown.

That's a lot of parking.

Also note the upside-down state of transportation finances. Funding for the bus system is nowhere near where it needs to be to accomodate all the new riders the city is hoping for.  And meanwhile, city officials still seem hell-bent on spending billions for roads, some of which will just make downtown's car problems worse. Obviously, the city deserves a lot of credit for its low-cost efforts to promote alternatives to the car; but in the bigger picture, you have to wonder if they've got their priorities straight.

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