Energy & Environment

Local Warming

It's a blue-sky morning in Seattle, which means that Ron Sims can see the Cascades all the way from his downtown office. The mountain range...
by | November 30, 2007

It's a blue-sky morning in Seattle, which means that Ron Sims can see the Cascades all the way from his downtown office. The mountain range cuts a long, jagged shadow on the eastern horizon, before heaving upward to the surreal snow-capped heights of Mount Ranier. It's a nice view, but there's nothing pretty about what Sims, the King County executive, knows is going on up in the mountains: Temperatures there have nudged higher in recent decades and, as a result, the snowpack has declined by as much as 60 percent in some places.

Historically, the pattern has been that each winter, snow piles up high in the Cascades, and each spring and summer, that snow gradually melts. Cities depend on the runoff for drinking water, farmers depend on it for irrigation and hydroelectric dams depend on it to generate almost all of the region's power. In other words, modern human life here is calibrated to one grand assumption: that complex cycles of water, ice and slush will keep working pretty much as they always have.

The problem is, they aren't. And that's what has Ron Sims concerned. Temperatures are up one-and-a-half degrees from a century ago. And as global warming heats up, that trend is expected to accelerate. Scientists at the University of Washington predict that local temperatures will rise another 1.9 degrees by the 2020s and 2.9 degrees by the 2040s. What that means for weather this winter, or for any specific year in the future, is hard to say. But scientific modeling points to a couple of inescapable conclusions that have huge implications for how King County plans its future.

One is that a lot of the water that used to fall as snow in the Cascades instead is going to fall as rain. So rather than trickling from the mountains for months, that water will rush down the valleys, surge into floodplains and strain levees that were designed for cooler times. Flooding events such as the one last November, which caused $34 million worth of damage, are likely to become more frequent. The other conclusion is directly related to the first. Less snow in the mountains means less snowmelt in the spring and summer. And that means water for drinking, farming and generating power will be a lot harder to come by.

The science has pointed Sims to a conclusion that many of his peers will find hard to swallow. No matter how many hybrid cars they buy for government fleets or energy-efficient light bulbs they install in government buildings, some degree of climate change is inevitable. The amount of greenhouse gas already in the atmosphere is simply too great to avoid any consequences. "With all the discussion we've had on global warming, I am stunned that people haven't realized that it's actually going to occur," Sims says. "The ice caps are melting now. They're not going to refreeze next year because we reduce our emissions. We're going to live in that world. So plan for it."

Sims is not saying that governments should give up on reducing their carbon footprints. In fact, both King County and the city of Seattle are national leaders in reducing emissions through the use of biofuels and other measures. However, if most of the talk about global warming — and all of the controversy — have been about mitigation, Sims believes that governments must also start thinking about adaptation.

So King County has begun looking out to the year 2050 and planning backwards. County staffers are working with scientists to understand what the local impacts of climate change are likely to be. They expect coastal-erosion problems associated with rising sea levels, health crises associated with new infectious diseases and heat stroke, public-safety difficulties associated with more frequent forest fires and ecological issues associated with endangered habitat for salmon. Climate change won't affect every region in the U.S. in quite the same way, but every region will be affected somehow. That's why King County also published a guidebook for local, regional and state governments. It's called "Preparing for Climate Change," and it's essential reading for government managers everywhere.

King County is building climate-change risks into all of its long-term planning and policy-development processes. Last month, the county council agreed to a tax inspired by the looming dangers of climate change — a down payment on Sims' $335 million plan to bolster levees and reduce flood risks during warmer, wetter winters. "We're learning to define ourselves not in 2007 terms or 2009 terms but in 2050 terms," Sims says. "It's a gamble. We're making decisions based on something that has not occurred yet, but we believe from the science that it's what will be.

"I don't think we're being unreasonable," Sims goes on. "But I don't know how you divorce your immediate issues from 2050. If you get there by accident, fine. But if you know you need to plan and don't, to me that's negligent."


There's a paradox about climate change that you can easily miss, even if you accepted all the arguments in Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." For a problem that is global in scope and whose politics reverberate internationally, the on-the-ground consequences of climate change are entirely local. And local governments, by and large, will be the ones stuck dealing with floods and drought, fires and storms, infectious diseases and invasive species.

Ron Sims' call for municipal officials to adapt for global warming may sound daunting. It shouldn't. Most cities and counties are accustomed to doing land-use planning, natural-hazards planning and, since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, disaster planning. Most of global warming's local perils are familiar problems, only magnified. And although environmentalists don't like to talk about this, some regions stand to gain. Longer warm seasons for agriculture and recreation could be a boon for some northern climes.

What's difficult about adaptation planning is that it casts doubt on many long-held assumptions.

Take the concept of the "100-year flood." That benchmark is deeply ingrained in local planning documents, building codes and the federal flood insurance program. Yet a 100-year flood today may not mean the same thing just 20 or 30 years from now. Scott Shuford, a city planner who has worked in St. Petersburg, Florida, and Asheville, North Carolina, says climate change essentially voids the historical record. "Basically, we're looking at changes to our climate that have not been witnessed for centuries or millennia," Shuford says.

The other cognitive leap with adaptation is a matter of acceptance. This isn't the old debate about whether or not global warming is for real — that is settled. Rather, the debate is among environmentalists and others who never doubted the problem. Until recently, adaptation was something of a dirty word. Some greens believed that time, money or resources dedicated to planning for a warmer world only distracted from the hard work of preventing warming in the first place. Some still see adaptation as waving the white flag. "It's kind of depressing," says Anne Marie Holen, who coordinates a global warming task force in Homer, Alaska. "It's hard not to see the need for adaptation as a sign of failure. If we'd begun serious mitigation measures when scientists first began warning government leaders about global warming and climate change, we wouldn't be in such a pickle."


Despite Holen's misgivings, Homer is one of a handful of communities around the country that have begun thinking about adaptation. Homer, a coastal town of 5,000, is feeling vulnerable to nature's whims. A recent run of warm, dry summers brought an invasion of spruce bark beetles that ravaged millions of acres of forest. Then this summer, about 75 square miles of the weakened timberland caught fire. Homer also is susceptible to sea-level rise: The city's port and its major tourist draws are located on a low lying spit. Many locals noticed when the Anchorage Daily News ran a front-page story in October about three Alaskan villages that must relocate, at a cost of $330,000 per person, because of coastal erosion. "That's just the beginning," Holen says.

Holen's task force is looking at how to scrutinize coastal development more closely, account for wildfire risks, bolster storm-water infrastructure and develop new sources for drinking water. The goal is to go back later and inject that thinking into the city's comprehensive plan. "The advice I'd have for other communities is take it seriously now," she says. "Because the challenges and the costs will only increase the longer we wait. And the impacts on families and on city budgets will only increase."

A few larger localities also are paying attention. Boston Mayor Tom Menino recently asked for an adaptation plan for the city. He also ordered that any construction or renovation of public facilities include an evaluation of the project's climate-change vulnerabilities and a description of how to manage those risks. A climate-change task force in Chicago has been studying adaptation questions such as what kinds of trees will thrive in a warmer climate and how to handle warm-weather pests such as termites.

In Miami-Dade County, the big worry is a rise in sea level. Harvey Ruvin, the county clerk and a longtime activist on climate change, is grim about accelerating ice melts in Greenland and the Arctic Ocean. His biggest fear is what scientists call the "albedo effect." That's where solar energy is absorbed into the seas where it used to reflect off icepack, creating a feedback loop of melting and warming. In the worst-case scenario, sea level would rise quite suddenly, not imperceptibly over a long period of time.

Ruvin, who chairs a climate-change advisory task force, ordered maps of what Miami-Dade would look like with the sea level one, two, three and five feet higher than it is now. At the upper end of that range, most coastal areas, including Ruvin's home in Miami Beach, are underwater. But even the low end of the range shows salt water intruding into the county's drinking-water sources. "We've got to reduce our use of fossil fuels, but at the same time we have to deal with adaptation," Ruvin says. "Those are companion efforts."


Almost everything Ron Sims knows about global warming he learned from scientists at the University of Washington. The Climate Impacts Group brings together climatologists, hydrologists and experts in aquatic, coastal and forest ecosystems. If scientists are often caricatured as insular and aloof, this group defies the stereotype by making public engagement essential to its mission. No entity has done more to explain to people and policy makers in the Pacific Northwest how global climate patterns are playing out in their backyard.

The Climate Impacts Group gets much of its funding from the federal government. But many of its clients are state and local agencies. Water systems and utilities have been particularly interested in the researchers' work on the Cascades' retreating snowpack. "In the last two years, the demands on our time have really shot through the roof," says outreach specialist Lara Whitely Binder. "Local governments are saying, 'Okay we get it.' They're asking us to share the science with them because they're ready to take action on it, and they're trying to bring themselves up to speed."

As state and local leaders begin thinking about adaptation, the first people to find are the nearest climate scientists. Most of what's known about global warming is, not surprisingly, global in scope. Somebody has to "downscale" the data to local conditions to make it useful for communities to plan around. Climate scientists may, in fact, become every bit as crucial to state and local policy making as demographers and economists. Because if you accept the idea of planning for a warmer future, then you also must accept the idea of making decisions based upon scientific modeling rather than historical observation.

That's a big leap. Politicians usually want certainty before they stick their necks out. Yet there is much about climate change that scientists are still unsure of. For example, changes in precipitation are notoriously hard to predict. That's because so many forces, from ocean currents to topography to vegetation, drive weather patterns, and each responds slightly differently to rising temperatures. When it comes to temperature, on the other hand, scientists are dead certain that the whole planet is warming. They disagree only on the question of how much.

As Sims sees it, the fact that scientists are still debating details is no reason for government not to act now. After all, governments are accustomed to building highways based on traffic projections or schools based on projections of school-age children. "Here's what I say: I don't need perfect, I need approximate," Sims explains. "I'll never be a scientist. I'm a policy maker. Our job is to ask, 'Do you think this might happen?' and when the answer is yes, that's sufficient for me."

Perhaps the biggest problem with the science is that there's not enough of it to go around. "Local warming" is something of an emerging field. And government at all levels has failed to fund enough downscaling work, given the stakes. The Climate Impacts Group is one of only eight such teams around the country — and not every region has one of its own. "We've been working for years to show there's a problem" with global warming, says Josh Foster, a program specialist with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. "Now we've convinced everyone there's a problem and overnight they want much greater certainty. We haven't invested enough resources into the questions for which answers are now being demanded."

Building research capacity is a crucial matter and one that states might be well suited to help with. Washington State, for example, has contracted with the Climate Impacts Group to model climate changes across the state down to a scale of six kilometers. And California produces a biennial report on climate impacts across the state. By revisiting the issue every two years, California is recognizing the importance of keeping policy makers up to date with the latest understanding of what's going on.

On the national level, Shuford is working with scientists at the National Climatic Data Center to develop another climate change handbook for local planners. He's hoping to pull together a detailed national picture of what urban and rural communities across the country can expect from global warming. "One of the challenges is to identify these resources and translate them into something useful," Shuford says. "As we get further into it, it may be that we find it's not possible to break it out at a county or community level. But I'm fairly convinced that for most of the areas we can get information out there summarized in a way that will be effective for them."


If climate adaptation is still a nebulous field, Sims has come up with a way to navigate the fog. King County is focusing first on "no regrets" policies. In other words, policies that would make good sense to implement whether or not the year 2050 turns out as wet and wild as Sims fears it will be.

A good example of what "no regrets" means can be found in an industrial zone southeast of Seattle. Hundreds of warehouses and light manufacturing plants, including a Starbucks coffee-roasting facility, are situated in a flat river plain that goes on for miles. In late October, the Green River looks tamely confined within its earthen levees. But it was a different scene in November 2006, when unusually heavy rains soaked the whole region, including the Cascades. Muddy runoff came to within a foot of overtopping the Briscoe levee, which began cracking and sloughing under the strain of holding back the waters. Mark Isaacson, director of the county's water and land resources division, walks atop the levee as it undergoes repairs, recalling the economic disaster that almost was. "The engineers asked me if I thought the levees would hold," he says. "And I said I can't promise you that."

As Isaacson explains, there are 119 miles of levees in King County. And many of them date back to the 1930s and '40s, when farmers protected their crops by heaping piles of sand, rocks and tree stumps along the river banks. The Army Corps of Engineers shored up many of the levees back in the '60s. But development that followed in the flood plains raised the stakes. Boeing, for example, makes 737s at a plant adjacent to the Cedar River in Renton. When the river floods, new airplanes can't get to the runway to take off.

Now, climate change is layered into the calculations. The Climate Impacts Group tells King County to expect more flooding events in the future, especially during November. So Sims ordered a countywide flood-control plan, and persuaded the county council to replace numerous small flood-control districts with one that serves the whole county. The real test came last month, when the council funded the first phase of the plan with a property-tax hike.

"No regrets" thinking is simple enough to grasp when it comes to levees, especially after Hurricane Katrina. But King County is now applying the same logic across all areas of government. County officials are promoting the use of reclaimed water as a drought-proof source of summer irrigation water. Health officials are plotting responses for non-native diseases such as the West Nile and hanta viruses. And planners are looking at ways to reduce the urban heat-island effect, as a hedge against heat waves. That last measure may sound particularly odd in a cool region where most homes don't even have air conditioning. But that's exactly the point. "You don't want to believe anything's going to change," Sims says. "You want to say we're going to reduce our emissions, and everything's going to be okay.

"I won't be here in 2050," Sims goes on. "But I believe that whether it's my children or their grandchildren, future generations will look back and say these were prudent investments."


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