Sarra Tekola landed in Sea-Tac Airport on Dec. 13, returning to a rainy Seattle after spending a hectic couple of weeks in Paris.
It was there, during the 21st United Nations Climate Change Conference, that Tekola fought what she considered a life-or-death battle for people in Washington and across the world: advocating for a legal and binding agreement that would cut global greenhouse emissions.
The issue is important to her because greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, contribute to the planet’s increasing temperatures. Higher temperatures will lead to rising sea levels, flooding some of the world’s low-lying regions and displacing countless poor people.
Tekola, 23, works as a legislative aide to Councilmember Mike O’Brien. A local activist, she is also a part of the climate-justice nonprofit Got Green?, which advocates for a “green economy” and the creation of jobs within the environmental sector.
For the two-week-long conference in early December, world leaders gathered to reach a climate deal to limit the increase of greenhouse gases in their respective countries.
Yet even while thousands took their concerns to the City of Light, perhaps with the belief that climate change must be solved on the global scale, for other activists, climate change is the ultimate local issue. Policies implemented on the city, county and state levels, they believe, have a more significant impact on Seattle’s residents. And those polices, they say, should consider social equity.
“Local officials are critical because they’re close to the people and are more accountable,” said Elizabeth Willmott, who works for the environmental nonprofit Climate Solutions to help cities like Seattle meet carbon reduction goals. “[Local officials] have the control and influence.”
In early November, King County officials rolled out a comprehensive Climate Action Plan, a renewal of the county’s 2012 plan. Bullitt Foundation President and Earth Day founder Denis Hayes called the recent update, which covers the next five years, “the best ever seen.”
The county’s plan presents a two-pronged approach to reaching goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for climate change impacts.
The plan contains lofty goals: phasing out coal-fired electricity, conserving open spaces throughout the county, planting one million trees in the next five years and working toward solutions for reducing greenhouse gases.
Megan Smith, environmental policy advisor for King County Executive Dow Constantine, said, “We worked with cities in King County to reach a shared goal in reducing emissions and to map out specific actions.” Building blocks are in place now to work toward minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, and the county has met some of its goals, including cutting 15 percent of greenhouse emissions in all county government buildings by this year.
Smith said per capita emissions are starting to drop, but because of a growing population in King County, progress is slower.
Going green in the Emerald City
As one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S., Seattle plays an important role in limiting greenhouse gas emissions.
The city’s climate movement began with Mayor Greg Nickels, who launched the U.S. Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement in 2005. Hundreds of mayors signed on to implement policies in their communities to put pressure on the feds to meet greenhouse gas emission targets.
The city published its own Climate Action Plan in June 2013. And on Dec. 11, Mayor Ed Murray, along with mayors from Portland, Eugene, San Francisco and Los Angeles, committed to prioritizing continued efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
“We have a leadership advantage in Seattle because we have a long history of using hydropower for electricity, and that is carbon neutral or emissions free,” Willmott said. Many other cities in King County rely on fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas.
“What we think of as our carbon footprint really comes from transportation and from our heating, [some of which] comes from natural gas,” she said. “Those problems are not easy, but we’re ahead of the curve.”
A ‘Trojan horse’ in Seattle?
Both county and city plans continue earlier goals to reduce the amount of energy used by government buildings. The plans also seek to increase public transportation, an issue that some local environmental activists say deserves particular focus.
“Seattle is trying to redesign itself in a way that one would not need a car to get around,” Tekola said. However, she said that proposed good intentions aren’t being implemented in ways that benefit all Seattleites. She pointed to Sound Transit’s Link Light Rail.
The light rail runs from downtown Seattle to Sea-Tac Airport, and next year voters will have an opportunity to expand service. But while this proposed expansion would deliver on a county goal to increase public transit users, its impact could have unforeseen consequences.
“A lot of people are feeling like [the light rail is] a Trojan horse,” Tekola said, noting that while light rail use could help curb climate change, the light rail has had negative effects on some residents, particularly in South Seattle.
Tekola, a Rainier Beach resident, said rental prices have risen in neighborhoods near the Othello light rail station, displacing low-income people. She emphasized the need to include discussions about social justice issues such as gentrification when talking about climate change.
“For a long time, mainstream environmentalists have dominated the narrative and made it about polar bears,” Tekola said. “But people are the most affected here, especially people of color and indigenous communities.”
Social equity goes enviro
So far, local officials and environmentalists have stepped up to make green issues benefit all communities.
In Seattle, Murray released a statement that echoed Tekola’s connection between climate change and social justice. He was joined by Climate Solutions and and another local environmental group called Puget Sound Sage.
Wilmott said Seattle is planing to create positions to ensure communication with potentially affected communities. “People have to be involved from the first step, not as an afterthought,” he said. “They’ve hired individuals to lead outreach to develop relationship capacity with people,” said Willmott. Seattle’s Office of Sustainability includes outreach to communities of color and low-income communities.
Meanwhile, King County’s plan implements social justice tools and an “Equity Impact Review process” to hold county officials accountable to their proposed commitments. County officials also intend to hire people to work directly with grassroots organizations, a strategy led by communities of color.
The current attention on climate change comes at a critical time for Seattle and other West Coast cities, particularly for those with mayors who have declared a state of emergency on homelessness.
“Homeless people are at the frontlines, too,” Tekola said. “They’re the ones that feel [climate change] the most.”
The need for a collective equity lens in tackling climate change is essential, Tekola said.
“These decisions being made now will affect us all 50 years out,” she said.