September 19, 2015

Time For Bipartisan Action on Northwest Environmental and Climate Change Issues

Let's be honest.

Local efforts dealing with Northwest climate change have not been successful.
Even worse that that, our region is not even prepared for our CURRENT climate.

Let's talk about some of the failure modes:

1.  Our governor has failed to secure a carbon reduction plan.
2.  Wildfires are burning homes and ranches.
3.  Agriculture in parts of eastern WA is stressed for water.
4,  Traffic is choking major Northwest cities and rapidly getting worse
5.   Floods and landslides are killing our residents and doing substantial damage.
6.   Coal and oil trains are increasing on our rail lines and a major coal port is being planned in      Bellingham.
7.  The two political parties are not working together on environmental issues.  Rather, there is antagonism and name calling.

We need to try something different.  We must find a more effective approach to dealing with environmental/climate challenges.  These are not Democrat or Republican issues.  Liberal or conservative questions.  They affect all of us. And we will only make progress by working together in a logical, bipartisan way backed by the best scientific knowledge.

If I was the state environmental czar this is the program I would push.

1.  Get the best information possible on our current climate and how it will change this century

The truth is that our citizens, government, and businesses should have much better climate information than currently available to deal with current environment threats and to prepare for future climate change.

First, we need good climatological information: what has happened and is happening.   To do so, we need a strong Office of the Washington State Climatologist (OWSC), that has the resources to bring all the data together and make it highly accessible.   The current office does a wonderful job with what resources it has, but it is understaffed and underfunded.  The State should do better.

Second, we need to use state-of-the art science to determine what climate change will bring to our region.   As I noted in a previous blog, this will require more sophisticated regional climate modeling that is quite achievable, but currently prevented by lack of resources and organization.

Third, we need a strong effort that helps users and governments  to understand and apply climate information and model results.   This is something that the currently understaffed UW Climate Impacts Group could do.

Fourth, some media and advocacy groups are hyping and distorting climate information.  They should understand that their exaggerated information undermines true progress:  reducing public confidence in climate information, weakening bipartisanship, and encouraging wrong decisions.  As a reader of this blog knows, I have put considerable effort in dealing with inflated claims.

2.  Slow down the use of carbon by supporting the revenue-neutral carbon tax I-732 initiative.

If one accepts that increasing CO2 in the atmosphere is a problem (and it is), then using economic tools to reduce it makes sense.   There are two ways that have been proposed:  cap and trade and a carbon tax.   The Governor and some environmental advocacy groups have been pushing cap and trade, but the truth is that cap and trade has a history of failure.   Even the international climate group IPCC has noted this.  Furthermore, the cap and trade crowd want to use the funds from selling carbon use for social and other programs.  This is not acceptable to many Republicans, who are not fans of additional taxes.

The alternative is a revenue-neutral carbon tax, something supported by folks throughout the political spectrum and by many economists.   An initiative to make this happen in Washington State, I 732, is rapidly gaining signatures.  It puts a modest fee on carbon and uses the proceeds to reduce the sales tax by 1%, lower the B&O tax, and provide tax credits for lower-income folks.  It would make our State's tax structure more progressive and encourage lower use of carbon.  A win-win situation and one that deserves widespread support on the right and left (the I732 web site is here).   Amazingly, a few "progressive" environmental groups (e.g., Alliance for Jobs and Clean Energy) are not supporting I-732--they want support for their pet social programs.   They are not being helpful.

3.  Build regional climate/weather resilience

The truth is that we are not resilient to current extreme weather.  And we are certainly not ready for the impacts of the expected climate changes of the late 21st century.    Here are some examples of efforts that need to be done to increase resilience that could be completely bipartisan.

*  Fix our Eastside Forest/Fire Problem.   During the past decades we have seen many big fires over the eastern Cascade slopes, the Okanogan, and elsewhere.   Experts note that the big problem is NOT climate change.   It is that ill-conceived fire suppression and other forest practices have allowed our forests to evolve to a state radically different than their pre-settlement conditions in which widely spaced trees and natural grasses burned frequently but with less intensity.  I mountain bike frequently along the eastern slopes and see the mess we have made....dense undergrowth, slash debris everywhere, high density of trees.   A degraded forest that can burn intensely. And an invasion of non-native grasses than burn fiercely (e.g., cheatgrass) have spread within and below the forests, producing flashy, intense fires.

Forest experts know what needs to be done:  a massive effort to restore our eastern WA forests, by thinning the trees, removing and burning the debris between them, and restoring frequent fire to the forests as had occurred for millennia    It will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to fix this and some of our leaders (like Senator Maria Cantwell) understand what must be done.  The State's investment in fixing the forests have been minuscule and the Forest Service's raiding of the forest restoration budget for annual firefighting has been a disaster.

And as I have noted in a previous blog, weather forecasting support for wildland firefighters needs to be greatly improved, particularly for fires at an early stage.

*  Build Water Resiliency.   We are lucky to live in a region with enormous water resources.  Our best projections for the next century are that global warming will bring MORE water to our region, particularly in the winter.  But warming temperatures will reduce our snowpack, which is an important way that we store water.  And warming temperatures increase evaporation during the warm season, increasing water needs for agriculture and increasing wildfire danger.

So what do we do? First, we need to use water better, particularly in agriculture.  That means more drip irrigation, lined and covered irrigation canals, less daytime spraying, and a better mix of crops (less alfalfa and more grapes!).  Second, we need to consider more reservoir water storage to capture the winter rains.   The Yakima Integrated Plan moves in the this direction and other areas (like Seattle) could add to reservoir capacity to store winter precipitation.

*  Move folks away from environmentally dangerous places.

Increasing numbers of folks are living in environmentally dangerous places, like in the flood plains of rivers, below unstable, steep slopes, and in forested/grassland areas that frequently burn.  They not only endanger themselves but the folks that are called to save them, when floods, landslides, and fires occur.  The State needs to clearly identify these dangerous areas.  Land use planning and building codes should discourage new homes on environmentally risky places (like in the bends of rivers or on forested fire-prone areas).   Folks living in such areas should be required to take prudent protection steps (like removing wood and flammable vegetation around eastern-slope homes).    And when possible, governments should buy out property in very dangerous places and forbid later development.  Tens of thousands of home are in bad places....what are we going to do about it?

4.   Reduce our carbon footprint where it makes sense

Because of hydropower, our region already has a relatively low carbon footprint.   But we are still wasting huge amounts of energy and produce large amounts of carbon unnecessarily.  And little is being done to address this.

One example:  the traffic disaster of the Puget Sound region.  There has been an extraordinary lack of leadership in Seattle and neighboring communities about transportation and traffic.  Huge amounts of gas is burned by the increasing grid-locked traffic of our area, even with improvements in fuel efficiency.  Traffic also hurts the economy.  There is an acute lack of bus service, both within Seattle and between Seattle and the neighboring communities.  Bike paths are left to rot and there is still no safe bike route into downtown Seattle.  The light rail system grows at a glacial pace, with terrible
decisions being made (no parking near stations), routes in conflict with cars, and much more.  The city has no coherent, integrated plan for transportation and it shows.   And innovative approaches (like using boat transportation) are never discussed.  We need to build a coherent plan and act on it expeditiously.   But it will take real leadership, which has been lacking.

Another issue is the coal and oil trains, which cause traffic jams, pollute our air, reduce rail capacity for important cargo (food), and which will result in massive increases of greenhouse gases.  This is a lose, lose, lose, lose proposition for us.  Our political leadership needs to stop the oil/coal trains and prevent the building of a massive coal terminal near Bellingham.

5.  Develop the technologies that will eventually solve the greenhouse gas problem

In the end, solving the greenhouse gas problem will be based on science and technology.  Folks in the third world want to live like us and we ethically can't deny them that, so the need for energy will continue to grow.  Few regions have more technological capability to attack the problem than ours: to develop new energy sources, increase energy efficiency, and to remove CO2 form the atmosphere.  A region with UW, WSU, Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, and hundreds of other innovative organizations should be able to make major contributions to dealing with the essential technological issues before us.  Maybe pull in the help of the Silicon Valley crowd.

In short, there is much that our region can do to define and understand environmental threats, increase environmental resilience, to prepare for the impacts of global warming, and to reduce our regional carbon footprint.  None of this is ideological or partisan.    It is based on science, logic, and common sense.  And we can move forward on this together.  


  1. Thank's for letting me know about I-732, I'll vote for it.
    I think the biggest obstacle for any of this is the science deniers and I don't think education would significantly shift them from their current stance. Why, because I believe a lot of those folks have a financial stake in energy companies and choose to ignore the evidence.
    Up until now (right now!) I've thought that turning away energy related business (coal trains, oil rig repair work) was silly because someone was going to get the business anyway and the carbon would be released so why not us. Now I'm thinking the sooner we divorce ourselves from fossil fuels having a benefit to our economy the sooner we can get the politicians out of their pocket.

  2. There's a lot of information within this article. Very thought provoking to say the least. One of the points you make is in the area of fixing our 'Eastside Forest/Fire problem'. I suspect that one of the major roadblocks to accomplishing this has to do with the tree huggers among us. It is a known fact that trees are a renewable resource. It is also a known fact that forest management is key to limiting forest fires of the magnitude we have seen recently and still allow forest fires to occur, yet without the devastation we have witnessed. We need to convince the 'conservationists' among us to allow proper forest management, including (as you rightly point out) tree thinning and replanting, along with removal of undergrowth (the main fuel for fires). Only then will we reduce the devastating forest fires of the past as well as limit the amount of CO2 contained within those trees.

  3. Why pretend these are not Democratic or Republican issues? They certainly are. Democrats believe that people come together to formulate mutually agreed upon concerted actions to provide to society, including themselves, they themself, alone, can not provide (transportation, poliicing, public heatlh, environmental quality, national defense, aid to the indigent, and on and on). Republicans believe in very small, limited government, primarlly for the purpose of national defense and ensuring the accessibility of overseas resources and markets to US and multinational businesses. They believe some "market" guided by an "invisible hand" will take care of the public good. Grow up!

  4. Wow, less than ten comments…must be everyone’s watching TV. Thank you for being a voice in the wilderness of self-absorbed consumerism and blame game business as usual. Thank you for clear concise impeccable points. Indigenous North American cultures managed to live within this region for around 10,000 years, without affecting the levels of crisis we’re experiencing now. It seems the most ‘modern’ Homo Sapiens sapiens (as a group) are reaching their limits to growth; great tool users, larger brains but wholly inadequate self-awareness when it comes to environmental feedback loops. We can thank the Industrial Revolution, Cheap energy, Keynesian economics and Academic specialization for exacerbating this condition. Seattle and Washington State have been insulated (for now) due to enormous Fed subsidies and large windfall companies. Dennis Meadows points out Universal problems can be addressed by individuals or small groups (owning a Prius, solar panels, planting food forests), but large scale Global problems rarely, if ever, get resolved. It appears that the majority of human monkeys, each one looking through their own thin straw, can’t make systemic sense out of their world much less act in group consensus to give up what needs to go in order to make a proactive change to head off severe crisis. Patterns, being what they are, appear to be exhibiting themselves right now - in all of the examples you’ve given. You’re clearly pointing out a systemic approach towards being proactive (which tends to be unusual and also gets largely ignored). As each piece of the fractal pie falters, the overall resilience of the system will no longer be able to absorb the shocks and at that point the seemingly disconnected events (to the average person) will tell us we’re way past the pull date. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Much appreciated.

  5. The problem is not "science deniers", but the fact that people want to live comfortable lives and people in the developing world don't want to live miserable ones. Here in the US, if you live in a 4000 square foot house and drive and SUV, you are part of the problem whether or not you deny the science.

    This equation means that in the end, we need to find practical alternatives to burning hydrocarbons.

  6. I agree that transportation is the thorn in the Northwest's side, and hope we'll try out new ideas to tackle our emissions problem and improve traffic flow at the same time. A new system like this would help, for example:

  7. I will pass on your fire comments, what about the Deep Space Climate satellite, will that help with long range forecasting? Thank You

  8. Why are people ignoring the nuclear option? Thorium reactors are intrinsically-safe, more efficient and relatively cheap to build (about the same as a modern coal or gas plant). The waste needs to be sequestered for about 300 years and can be processed for medical isotopes.

    You want carbon neutral? There it is.

  9. Thanks for help getting the word out on I-732!
    Some on the left want to tie the climate-change fight to tax-levels debate, and not make progress on the former until we win the latter, so they oppose a revenue-neutral option. I think that is an incredibly foolish approach. It also should be noted that we currently have the most regressive tax system in the country, so that adding a revenue-positive carbon tax on top of our current system would make it even worse.
    As Rich said, the danger lies not with people who deny the science, but with those who acknowledge it is real and still would rather do nothing.
    Seek out a I-732 signature gatherer if you support DOING SOMETHING about climate change. Also, consider volunteering to collect signatures. The campaign still needs another 100,000 signatures before December to make it to the ballot next year.

  10. Even people who are not in denial continue to drive their cars solo when they could ride a bike or carpool or take the bus, have themselves and their families and their luggage transported around the planet, operate their power boats at a gallon a mile, eat beef, waste food and engage in dozens of other individual behaviors that add up to a collective destruction of the environment. Sacrificing these privileges, or at least being conscious and not abusing them, would not add up to "a miserable life." A great deal of misery is tied up in overconsumption, not least the self-inflicted financial misery of paying to support all of these behaviors.

  11. @fullcirclethinker: I'm as close to a "tree hugger" as anyone here, and I support restoring the east-side forests. They got to their current state by human intervention and the quickest way to restore them to health is intervention to undo the damage caused by over a century of misguided fire suppression. There is a huge difference between clear-cutting the last fraction of West Side old growth and selectively cutting East Side non-old-growth trees.

    I've seen east-side forests that have been restored by the process Cliff is talking about. They look great.

    The rub is, all of this tends to cost money: It involves leaving all (or at least most) of the most commercially valuable trees (the large old Ponderosa pines) and cutting down all the small, spindly, low-value firs that have grown up amongst them.

  12. Cliff,
    You appear to fault the political process in Olympia, as if there is simply a lack of bipartisanship. But what if one side of the aisle had no interest, none whatsoever, in the underlying science that you cite?

    But there is a way for you to dispel such doubts. You could demonstrate the feasibility of bipartisanship, by helping it to happen. To wit, could you please engage in a discussion with State Senator Doug Ericksen, the powerful Republican chair of the Energy, Environment, and Telecommunications Committee. To date, he has been a huge backer both of the GPT coal terminal and of the export of oil brought to port by rail. Doug sees no reason why we cannot power our way to export prosperity by shipping massive amounts of carbon fuels. When you and Doug have had some good discussions along the lines of your proposals, it would be good for you to report back on the success of your initiative in bipartisanship. Tell the blog readers how it went, and what changes Doug will implement in the future.

    Abe Jacobson

  13. Abe...I have talked to several Republican state legislators, folks from the Washington Policy Center, and to conservative business folks in eastern WA. Many are ready to act. We have to get beyond individuals and work towards getting groups to work together in a positive way. You you to be really careful to point everyone on the opposite side of the aisle from you as being intransigent. I think there is plenty of blame on the liberal side, including folks that won't compromise, call names, and won't work on moderate, but viable approaches (I732)...cliff

  14. Thanks Dr. Mass, very informative. The one disconnect I see is between your strong preference for revenue neutrality and the substantial costs of implementing the resilience measures you propose. Why not a bill/initiative that retains revenue to accomplish these and perhaps other similarly focused activities? Thanks again.

    Rick Brown

  15. Great post, thanks Cliff.

    I'm only 33 and the future doesn't look good given the current trajectory.

    There are so many big issues; we require a real paradigm shift to move forward without destroying everything we cherish.

    The ruling political class and establishment media ruined the best prospects for my entire generation; and due to environmental catastrophe possibly the generation following Millennials (the Last Generation).

    The reason we're screwed is because we (the American public) accepted anti-New Deal, pro neo-liberal public policy "choices" from the Republican Party and very often the Democratic party too. Public policies of slash and burn, extraordinary consumption, acceptance of violence, a short-term outlook, and near-total concentration of power.

  16. " Tens of thousands of home are in bad places....what are we going to do about it?"

    Millions maybe. Where do you propose we move all the people (yourself included) living on the Cascadia fault? Or how about the folks in the path of lahars of Mt. Ranier?

    The vast majority of homes that burned this year were not in remote places. They were on the edges of established communities next to major waterbodies. Are you proposing to evict everybody from Wenatchee and Chelan and Winthrop?

    Maybe we should just up and abandon the whole State. I hear Minnesota is nice.

  17. I signed I-732 today at a National Drive Electric Week event in Issaquah. It was well-attended and my 2015 LEAF was among probably 40 electric cars on display. Little by little, we make a difference.

    Thanks for what you're doing.

  18. Q. Are the model predictions 50 years from now or 100 or...?
    Q. What impact will all the cold water melt have from Antartica, the Arctic, Greenland, etc..
    Q. Considering the significant impact of the recent BLOB and El Nin'o, how will the oceans respond and impact these models. If we had been able to predict the BLOB and know it's impacts we may have been prepared.
    Q. Are there feedback loops in the atmosphere - oceans, that we might not be considering.
    Q. How much of this warming is a natural post glaciation cycle.
    Q. With a concerted effort to mitigate the negatives, what positives might there be from climate warming. Either way an Office in Olympia headed by an Atmospheric Scientist instead of a career politician would be a real bonus.
    Q. When dealing with climate change what unanticipated or anticipated consequences might there be from human intervention that may backfire on us.

  19. If anyone thinks they can just point to the other side of the aisle in the Legislature as the source of a problem (or the lack of a solution), and then go about their business, then you ARE the problem.

    As an independent, I see both parties as being far more alike than different, despite the campaign slogans and various myths they keep telling their partisans. Even worse, the dismissal of compromise and the acceptance of intransigence between parties is in itself a larger problem than anything either party does. If you self-identify as a Democrat, then your focus should be to work with Republicans, and vice versa. Shouting into the echo chamber of your preferred party is the ultimate act of futility. It's essentially burying your head in the sand with your mouth open.

    I blame the lack of action (not the rhetoric, which does differ substantially) of both parties equally for that failure. Effective actions are the only things we should care about.

    That said, I-732 is an example of an action. Public initiatives are one way to cut through political intransigence.

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  21. Nice post, Dr. Mass. Your expertise as a climate scientist is particularly persuasive in arguing for a bipartisan approach to acting on global warming.

    The conservative website suggests the following:

    "America must take three steps to stimulate a free-market solution. America must establish a carbon price to accelerate the adoption of clean energy, cut bureaucratic red tape that restricts the potential of clean energy, and lead a global drive to reduce carbon emissions. Leaders need to act now, before the costs of climate change climb even higher."

    I-732 is a good first start but it is modest and won't be sufficient to limit global warming to less than 2 deg C. The carbon fee and dividend proposed by Citizens Climate Lobby is better for reducing carbon emissions more quickly.

  22. Number One priority; get the politics out and get the science right...


  23. Re: your comments about dealing with traffic congestion. I think you have it totally backwards. Please consider this quote from David Owen who has written a bit about the intersection of climate change and urban planning:

    "There is a good example, too, of how we don't necessarily think clearly about environmental impacts. You look at the automobile, and people will talk about traffic congestion, for example. Traffic congestion is not an environmental problem. It's a driving problem. Driving is the environmental problem. So, if you think of congestion as the problem, then almost everything you do actually makes the real problem worse, the driving problem worse: Let's make traffic move more smoothly, but use computers, add more lanes, use computers to organize the traffic better, let's give cars a little computer thing that will tell you where the empty parking space is so that driving will be more convenient.... These all make being in the car more pleasant. They solve the congestion problem but they make the driving problem worse."

  24. Humans are very good at identifying immediate, local problems that cause inconveniences for them and seek simple-minded, inexpensive, immediate solutions. In addition they are given to ideologies, both religeous and economic that are self-justifing, and provide a feeling of solidarity, that are not meant to solve problems affecting all of humanity. We believe in winners and losers. Most wars have been resource wars that are intended to benefit families, clans, and countries. Trade agreements between nations are intended to lock in busness arrangements that benefit multinational corporations that are straight jackets preventing exibility economic flexibility.

    This "human condition" prevents us from ameliorating a self-inflicted condition such as global clmate change. Humans collectively have caused it, but humans can't collectively take action since everyone has to make sacrifices apportioned according to their share in its cause. Since the total economic activities in the world are unsustainable, the first step might be an equalization of living standards throughout the world whereby we reach sustainability. The "haves" and "have nots" would have to agree to share commodities and increase or decrease their standard of living, using the best, most efficient technologies.

    You go first.

  25. As an engineer who is responsible for evaluating technical development plans for a large aerospace company I have to ask.

    How are you going to measure success? How much is your plan going to reduce forest fires, Increase crop yield, decrease heat wave frequency and magnitude? What is the uncertainly on your estimates?
    If you can’t answer these questions you have a feel good plan that is opens us up to fraud and abuse.


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.