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Climate Change - What is to be Done?

By Jill Sterrett, FAICP

The Seattle Times front page article of September 22 headlined: “Study says natural factors, not humans, behind West Coast warming.” The authors - Nate Manutua and Jim Johnstone (former UW scientists) - have concluded that changing wind patterns are responsible for more than 80% of the warming in our region's coastal areas. This may sound like they dispute that global climate change is occurring. However, to quote the article by Craig Welch, Seattle Times environmental reporter: “Both authors were quick to point out that their study does not in any way refute that temperatures are on the rise or that humans are responsible for that trend.” Their conclusion is that local and regional factors that are not included in the global models can make important differences.

The New York Times' recent coverage on climate change also talks about our area of the country. Their September 22 article by Jennifer Kingson is titled: “Portland Will Still Be Cool, but Anchorage May Be the Place to Be: On a Warmer Planet, Which Cities Will Be Safest?” They predict that the Pacific Northwest and Alaska are likely to see an influx in climate refugees escaping the storms, floods, and droughts that will be increasingly damaging in other parts of the U.S. over the next century. While this does suggest that our region will suffer less from the effects of climate change than other areas, it does not indicate that we will escape the consequences.

Closer to home, Carol Tobin's April, 2014 MRSC Insight article, Sea Level Rise: A Challenge for Washington's Coastal Communities, talked about sea level rise due to climate change and the challenge for Washington's communities. She noted some of the effects of sea level rise as:

  • More frequent flooding events, including storm surges and extreme high tides
  • Damage to low-lying infrastructure in coastal communities (such as wastewater treatment facilities)
  • Disruption of port and harbor facilities and low-lying transportation networks
  • Increased inundation and flooding of low-lying coastal lands, including farmland
  • More potential bluff erosion and landslides, resulting in property damage and potential human casualties
  • Loss of beach and nearshore habitat and resulting effects on fisheries resources
  • Drainage problems

Tobin's article also provides examples of cities, such as Olympia, Shoreline, and Bellingham, which are responding to the challenges of sea level rise in their long term planning programs.

Can We do Anything About It?

Sometimes it all seems like too much. We hear about the dire consequences of climate change almost constantly. Yet, these are long-term problems and there are always immediate issues of the economy, or crime, or a thousand other things that seem more pressing in the planning and management of our cities and towns. How can we responsibly spend public funds and staff time on problems that seem so far away? What can we do that makes a difference, anyway?

Nationally, the causes contributing to climate change have become a political issue, with a common divide along party lines. While the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change and 97% of the scientific community are convinced that there is a causal relationship between human production of carbon dioxide and climate change, many in the political arena remain unconvinced and object to efforts to cut carbon emissions.

But even in communities where the causes are a subject of debate, there is little doubt that the consequences will occur and should be considered in our plans. It is at the local level where the consequences of climate change will be felt most directly. It is also at the local government level where long range planning for land use, transportation, water supplies, stormwater systems, sewers, communication, public health, and energy systems occur. All of these involve major commitments of public funds. All of these involve planning for infrastructure systems that are intended to serve for 20, 30, 40 years, or more.

When you think about the long-term life of these major investments, can we responsibly plan to spend money on these systems and not consider the changes that are predicted to occur?

Predictions for the Pacific Northwest

So what will be the effects of climate change for our region? The UW Climate Impacts Group has projected the effects of climate change for our region on seven different sectors, including: water, forests, plants and animals, coast and ocean, infrastructure, agriculture, and human health. The Climate Impacts Group (CIG) is an internationally recognized interdisciplinary research group studying the impacts of natural climate variability and global climate change. Research at the CIG considers climate impacts at spatial scales ranging from local communities to the entire western U.S. region, with most work focused on the Pacific Northwest. Their 2013 full report, “Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation in Washington State: Technical Summaries for Decision Makers (2013),” and a summary report are available on their web site.


For our coastal areas, Tobin's April article clearly presented many of the impacts that CIG projects. For other sectors, the CIG projections, as presented in their summary report, include:

  1. Water Resources - Washington's water resources will be affected by projected declines in snowpack, increasing stream temperatures, decreasing summer minimum streamflows, and widespread changes in streamflow timing and flood risk.
  2. Forests - Washington's forests are likely to experience significant changes in the establishment, growth, and distribution of tree species as a result of increasing temperatures, declining snowpack, and changes in soil moisture. A rise in forest mortality is also expected due to increasing wildfire, insect outbreaks, and diseases.
  3. Species and Ecosystems - Areas of suitable climate for many plants and animals are projected to shift considerably by the end of the century. Challenges are expected for many federally-listed, endangered, and threatened species dependent on cold-water habitat, including salmon, trout, and steelhead.
  4. Built Infrastructure - Climate change isexpected to affect the longevity and performance of built infrastructure in Washington State. Most climate change impacts are likely to increase the potential for damage and service disruptions.
  5. Agriculture - Washington crops and livestock will be affected by climate change via increasing temperatures and water stress, declining availability of irrigation water, rising atmospheric carbon dioxide, and changing pressures from pests, weeds, and pathogens. Some impacts on agriculture may be beneficial while others may lead to losses, with variations by cropping systems and locations.
  6. Human Health - Health impacts include higher rates of heat-related illnesses (e.g., heat exhaustion and stroke); respiratory illnesses (e.g., allergies, asthma); vector-, water-, and food-borne diseases; and mental health stress (e.g., depression, anxiety).

What Should We do Locally?

The Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA) is working to define ways that local and regional governments can better address climate change and many of the other issues expected to be impacted. Currently, APA has Working Groups comprised of local planners and experts discussing these topics:

  1. Address Climate Change - Step up to address climate change mitigation and adaptation at State, regional and local levels
  2. Enhance Regional Decision-making - Strengthen regional decision-making to address regional problems
  3. Restore and Protect Eco-Systems - Restore and protect healthy natural systems and incorporate the value of ecosystem services in decision-making.
  4. Link Health & Urban Planning - Plan communities to combat the growing epidemic of obesity
  5. Increase Local Government Capacity - Provide local governments the capacity to do the job and educate the public on local fiscal constraints
  6. Support Economic Development - Empower sustainable economic development and incentivize local business growth
  7. Foster Social Equity - Incorporate issues of mental health, displacement, and affordable housing in planning for local communities
  8. Support Sustainable Agriculture - Address sustainable agriculture and healthy food systems in both rural and urban areas.
  9. Build Social Capital - Build social capital by increasing civic engagement, supporting a culture of education & fostering leadership & entrepreneurship
  10. Rebuild Infrastructure - Plan and fund updates to infrastructure (water, roads, transport, energy, storm-water, communications) to create sustainable, smart, and energy-efficient systems.

I look forward to sharing more information on climate change and the results of our Working Groups in future articles. In the meantime, you (or your staff) can learn more about these topics by joining us at the statewide APA conference in Spokane on October 16th and 17th. You don't need to be an APA member - or a planner - to attend.

Hope to see you there!

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Photo of Jill Sterrett

About Jill Sterrett

Jill Sterrett writes for MRSC as a guest author.

Jill has more than 30 years of experience as a planner and consultant to federal agencies, utility companies, and local governments in Washington State, Oregon, and California. Jill's areas of expertise include planning for climate change, comprehensive plans, historic preservation, strategic planning, and environmental planning.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.