Climate Change

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (D) touts 200-city consensus on greenhouse gas reductions

In the past year, 200 cities have agreed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions 7 percent below 1990 levels, the same standard that the United States would have been held to had it ratified the Kyoto Protocol. During today's OnPoint, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels (D) -- who spearheaded the climate effort -- describes how global warming is affecting snowpack and water resources in the Pacific Northwest. He also explains how Seattle plans on meeting its obligations and why local action could pave the way for a new federal policy. Plus, Nickels addresses criticism that reducing carbon emissions could stunt economic development in his state and others.


Darren Samuelsohn: Welcome to OnPoint. I'm Darren Samuelsohn. Joining us today in the E&ETV studios in Washington to talk global warming is Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. Mr. Mayor thanks so much for coming on the show.

Greg Nickels: It's my pleasure.

Darren Samuelsohn: You were just inaugurated to a second four-year term in Seattle as the mayor. In your inaugural address you said, "Seattle is a leader in the battle against global warming pollution." How can one city be a leader on global warming?

Greg Nickels: Well it's interesting. In the United States of course the federal government has really refused to take any kind of leadership amongst the community of nations. And so last February 16, when the Kyoto Protocol became law in 141 countries, I challenged Seattle to step up and locally find a way to meet the Kyoto reduction goals. And I also challenged mayors across the country to join with me in that effort. So we're showing locally how we can do that. Our city government, we've reduced our own emissions by 60 percent from 1990 levels and now we're expanding that community wide, so not just the city government, but private industry and people in their own homes. At the same time, as of this morning, 200 mayors have joined with me in the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, each of them agreeing to take local action. So I think Seattle has provided leadership by showing we can do it at home, but also by challenging the rest of the country.

Darren Samuelsohn: You said the 60 percent by 1990?

Greg Nickels: We've reduced it 60 percent from our 1990 levels.

Darren Samuelsohn: How did you do that?

Greg Nickels: Well a big part of it of course is our electric utility. We own our electric utility; it's called Seattle City Light. And as of about a month and a half ago it has zero net greenhouse gas emissions.

Darren Samuelsohn: It is a hydro plant, correct?

Greg Nickels: It is mostly hydro. We've purchased wind power. We've divested of some coal that the utility used to have. We've invested in green buildings. We've invested in converting some of the cruise ships that call on Seattle so that they no longer run their diesel plants when they're in the city, but they hook-up to our electric plant. So we've done a lot of different things to get that number.

Darren Samuelsohn: You've said that Seattle has seen the effects of climate change. Can you give me some examples of what you're talking about?

Greg Nickels: Yes, a year ago at this time I was spending a lot of time with the superintendent of Seattle City Light and the superintendent of my water division. The reason is that we had about 1 percent of normal snowfall. For a hundred years we've relied on snowfall and the snowmelt to provide us with water for drinking and water for hydropower. When we're at 1 percent of normal the sustainability of both our water and our electrical plant is brought into question. Was it just a one-time event? Since 1950 we've seen a reduction of 50 percent in the average snow pack in the Cascade Mountains. So we're very concerned. It's not a life-or-death situation, but it is a question of whether 100-year-old systems can continue to be relied on into the future.

Darren Samuelsohn: Surrounding Seattle are a couple of ski resorts, have they seen any sort of an effect yet?

Greg Nickels: Last year there was basically no ski season in the Cascade Mountains. This year we're having a lot of rain and a lot of consecutive days of rain, but it's a warmer than normal pattern. So we're getting relatively little snow compared with the overall moisture. So it's warming up. It's unpredictable exactly what that impact will be, but we've seen that it's not far in the future and it's not a long way away. It's right at home.

Darren Samuelsohn: Right. I remember actually a couple of years ago there were record snowfalls up in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie area. So there has been maybe some natural variability?

Greg Nickels: There certainly is a variability. And we also have the El Nino and La Nina effects, but over a 55 year period to see a 50 percent decrease, that's a trend that we think is very troubling. In fact, this year we're having a ski season, but one on Mount Baker had to close down because they had 100 inches of snow in a week.

Darren Samuelsohn: Oh, wow.

Greg Nickels: So there is something going on there. And what I found in challenging mayors across the country is everyone's experiencing it a little bit differently. We're getting a lot of mayors in Florida signing on for instance because they've seen these hurricane seasons, last year and this. Mayor Ray Nagin, of New Orleans, is one of the earliest to sign-on and he quoted, in fact I've thought a lot about this since Katrina, that New Orleans was the most vulnerable city in America to climate change.

Darren Samuelsohn: What's the status right now of the mayor's agreement? How many mayors are we talking?

Greg Nickels: As of this morning, Baltimore has signed on and Baltimore was the 200th city to sign on.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK and you were starting around how long ago and where did you start at the beginning?

Greg Nickels: I called the challenge on February 16, toward the end of March eight mayors joined me in sending a letter out and that's really when the campaign began.

Darren Samuelsohn: Do you imagine that the cities coalescing, it could have any effect on the federal government?

Greg Nickels: I absolutely do. I think that there's a great tradition in America of grassroots movements that ultimately make it safe at the state, regional and ultimately national level. I think, whether it's this administration or the next one, it's inevitable that the United States will join and at some point provide leadership to the community of nations on this.

Darren Samuelsohn: Have you had a chance to talk to President Bush or anyone in the federal government about the mayor's agreement?

Greg Nickels: I have not had a chance to talk with the president or anyone directly with the White House. I learned this past week that I've gotten an award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for climate protection. A little ironic, I might not have had that opportunity had the federal government been doing what I think it ought to. But we certainly have spoken with people all over the country. I think this is one of those issues where the people are really far ahead of the politicians.

Darren Samuelsohn: Let me ask you about the numbers. There's 70 cities that have, I guess, been measured at reducing emissions by 23,000,000 tons. Those are the numbers that I heard last month in Montreal. To put that number of perspective though, the United States, in 2004, had nearly 6 billion tons of CO2. How can this initiative make any difference when we're talking about two completely different numbers?

Greg Nickels: Well I think that it's important that we show, at the local level, that we can meet these objectives and that we can do it without destroying our local economies. I mean that's the contention that's been made by the federal administration, is that it would cause great economic disruption. We just flatly disagree with that. We think there's great economic opportunity in creating green industries and we intend to show that. Ultimately we will need the federal government to take this on and provide us the tools. One of the things that I advocated and our legislature passed was clean car legislation so that we will meet much stricter pollution standards. We couldn't do that in Washington State alone. It's only our proximity to California and that huge market that allows us to do that. The federal government has the power to make this happen. We need to show them that it's safe.

Darren Samuelsohn: Seattle is known of course for its coffee, for Boeing. Are you saying though by joining this initiative that Seattle's not open to the big industrial powers that you would think that create the CO2 emissions?

Greg Nickels: Well, I think we have to figure out a way to power our cities in a way that doesn't toast the planet. We have to figure out a way to run our industries and to transport our people and goods and services in ways that are not damaging to our long-term existence. We think that's a transition that can be made and must be made.

Darren Samuelsohn: Obviously Midwestern cities have a totally different perspective on this.

Greg Nickels: Yes, they do.

Darren Samuelsohn: I mean what's your message? Seattle has maybe an easier time meeting greenhouse gas limits than a Pittsburgh or an Indianapolis.

Greg Nickels: It's actually more difficult because we've already gotten the easy stuff. You know when we have a hydro plant we don't have a coal plant to clean up anymore. So I've appointed a green ribbon commission that's going to give me a plan and that plan's going to be very difficult to meet. But it is different in the Midwest. And it's different in every part of the country. In the Midwest they have a lot of coal power. There are ways for you to make those coal plants cleaner. And there's certainly alternatives to those coal plants that are available longer-term. And we've had mayors from the Midwest who have signed on. I met earlier today with a Mayor Ryan from Bellevue, Neb. And the mayor of Denton, Texas, and I talked yesterday. We're having good conversations about how you talk about it differently in different parts of the country. But ultimately what the people are concerned about is having a sustainable and healthy place to raise their families.

Darren Samuelsohn: In some parts of the country though job loss is a bigger issue than in the Pacific Northwest, I'm guessing. And wouldn't setting up some of these caps though maybe hurt the jobs, economics for these areas?

Greg Nickels: I don't think so. And I think that's the kind of issue that we've got to hit straight on. We have to have a healthy economy for people and the false trade that we've been told is we'd have to give up that economy in order to make these goals. I don't think that that's the case.

Darren Samuelsohn: Have any mayors told you no, they don't want to be a part of the energy initiative?

Greg Nickels: Yes, certainly there have. And we've worked with a lot of different mayors, some of whom are taking a wait-and-see, but for 200 mayors to sign-on and agree they're going to take local action I think it's been very, very successful.

Darren Samuelsohn: Have you had mayors who told you they don't believe in the science behind climate change as well?

Greg Nickels: I haven't. I've had senators, but not mayors.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK and your efforts in terms of talking to Capitol Hill, what's been the reaction from Congress about what you're doing in Seattle?

Greg Nickels: Well from the Washington delegation I've gotten a very good feedback. They've appreciated, they believe in the science and they believe that action needs to be taken. And they think what the mayors are doing in the absence of a federal government action is very appropriate and they've been very supportive of that. So I've been pleased with that.

Darren Samuelsohn: You were joking in your blog I believe at the Montreal convention that somebody shouted out Nickels for president. Do you have any aspirations ...

Greg Nickels: Oh no, no, I'm a mayor of a city. It's a city I live in. I want to spend my life in that. That's, I think, the best job that's out there.

Darren Samuelsohn: How about Congress?

Greg Nickels: No. Absolutely not.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK. Seattle headed to the Super Bowl obviously.

Greg Nickels: Yes.

Darren Samuelsohn: The Super Bowl is a carbon neutral event. Can an event be carbon neutral?

Greg Nickels: It's surely can be and there are a lot of interesting, I think, experiments in showing how that can happen. You know just as Seattle City Light puts out zero greenhouse gas emissions, part of how we do that is we buy offsets. I had a meeting not too long ago with a member of the Pearl Jam organization and he was telling me that they offset not only what they do within their concerts, but also people coming to and from the venues that they play at. I think those are very important demonstrations that you can do this. You can recognize it, you can measure it and you can offset it.

Darren Samuelsohn: Have you paid off your bet with Mayor Williams on the playoff game?

Greg Nickels: Mayor Williams and I had lunch earlier today at Ben's Chili Bowl.

Darren Samuelsohn: OK.

Greg Nickels: And I don't know about the carbon loading on my lunch, but we had a great time and we met some of the folks who were having lunch there.

Darren Samuelsohn: Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for coming on the show and of course good luck to the Seahawks in the Super Bowl.

Greg Nickels: Thank you, my pleasure.

Darren Samuelsohn: Until next time this is Darren Samuelsohn for another edition of OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



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