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Why Seattle Will Stay Dry When Your City Floods

Exports from the Rainy City: Microsoft, Starbucks, and...urban climate change survival tactics?

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Editor's note: What's the best way to adapt to our rapidly warming world? That's the question journalist Mark Hertsgaard asks in his new book, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. The following article is the first of a two-part adaptation about how American cities are preparing for global warming. Join Grist's live chat with Mark Hertsgaard here at noon PST/3 p.m. EST.

As a father living in the era of global warming, I have my good days and my bad days. The bad days you can probably imagine. Writing this book has taught me more than I'd like to know about our climate dilemma: about how drastically our civilization must change course to avoid catastrophe, how stubbornly some people and institutions resist even minor shifts in direction, and how destabilizing the impacts that are already locked in are likely to be.

But I have good days as well, and these are usually inspired by stories that show that the climate fight is not hopeless after all. One of my best days came in June of 2008, when I went to Seattle to interview Ron Sims. As the chief executive of King County, Sims was the top elected official of a municipality that encompasses the city of Seattle, some of its suburbs, and the corporate headquarters of Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, and Boeing. Over the past 15 years, Sims had pioneered a fresh, farsighted, effective response to climate change that local governments across the United States and around the world were beginning to copy. He had linked his climate policy to a larger agenda of advancing social justice and pro-business economic development. And he had done this while remaining strikingly popular with voters, winning three straight elections by comfortable margins.

What most set Sims apart was the two-track climate strategy he employed. "We absolutely need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but we also have to adapt to the impacts we can no longer prevent," he told me outside his office in downtown Seattle. "The scientists say our region will see warmer, wetter winters in the future. The snowpack [atop the Cascades east of King County] will shrink. That means there won't be enough water for everyone if we don't get going on adaptation."

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Although Sims' ecological commitment was ardent enough to earn him the nickname "Mr. Salmon," his argument for taking early action to prepare for climate change was based on tough-minded economics. "We think people and businesses will want to move to King County in the future because we took action to prepare for the world of 2050," he said. "We're taking steps to make sure we'll have enough water, we'll have levees that don't break, we'll have alternative energy sources, economic growth in the right places, a green work force. There are going to be winners and losers under climate change. I don't want King County to be a loser."

One of Sims' ideas was to make climate change central to the mission of every department in county government. "Ron is always telling us, 'Ask the climate question,'" said Jim Lopez, Sims' deputy chief of staff. "That means: Check the science, determine what conditions we'll face in 2050, then work backwards to figure out what we need to do now to prepare for those conditions."

"A levee breach here would cost $46 million a day"

The stories told by the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest often bear an uncanny resemblance to the tale of Noah's ark. As in the Bible, the native stories include one or more morally upstanding people who, joined by children (but not animals), are loaded into a gigantic canoe to ride out the storm while bad people are left to perish.

That so many such stories exist suggests that flooding was a recurrent aspect of ancient life in the Pacific Northwest. Then as now, storms blew inland from the ocean and traveled east until they collided with the Cascade Range, where they dumped precipitation in the form of rain or snow. Modern science tells us that higher temperatures will cause more precipitation to fall as rain rather than snow and also cause more of the snowpack to melt. As a result, more water will flow down the mountains, increasing the likelihood of flooding in the flatlands that stretch westward through King County to the sea.

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