Early this year, while the Pacific Northwest endured one of the driest winters on record, 141 countries ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement to help curb global warming. The United States was not among them.
To Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle, the national no-show provided an opportunity for action on a smaller scale. "Local government can be a catalyst," he says. "In a lot of ways, we can try things that are risky and show the private sector that it is safe."
In February, Nickels challenged 141 cities to join Seattle in meeting or exceeding Kyoto Protocol guidelines, which call for a 7 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2012. One hundred and sixty-five cities from across the country, including Boston, New York, Albuquerque and Las Vegas, have now pledged their support for those goals.
And on June 13, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a unanimous resolution, sponsored by Nickels, that urges Congress to recognize global warming as a human-induced threat and enact the Kyoto policies. It is "inevitable" that the federal government will begin to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Nickels says. "The sooner it happens, the better," he says. "The danger is in waiting."
Nickels says that recent strange weather events — severe hurricanes in Florida, unusually destructive mudslides in California, drought in the Pacific Northwest — have given Americans, himself included, insight into the potential impacts of global warming.
"On an intellectual level, I understood that the science (of global warming) was very clear," he says. But "this winter, it really came home."
To guide Seattle’s march toward the Kyoto Protocol goals, Nickels created a "Green Ribbon" task force in February. Denis Hayes, a co-founder of Earth Day, and Orin Smith, the former president and CEO of Starbucks, head the group. At the end of the year, the task force will present a plan to the mayor that sets "attainable" emissions goals for the entire city.
Seattle has already reduced emissions from municipal operations by more than 60 percent and is on track to reduce net emissions to zero by the end of this year. Seattle City Light, the public electric utility, has made a major shift to cleaner power sources. About 80 percent of its energy comes from hydroelectric, which comes with its own environmental baggage. But the utility recently dropped a contract with a coal-fired plant in order to sign a deal with a wind farm. Additionally, the city’s "green fleet" of municipal vehicles now runs on biodiesel and electric power.
Seattle received the 2005 City Livability Award at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and was named one of the country’s five most sustainable cities on World Earth Day. Across the city, the mayor’s environmental efforts receive standing ovations from crowds. Though the press has dubbed Nickels the "green mayor of the Emerald City," and he and his family recently invested in a low-flow washing machine, he says he has never considered himself an environmentalist. Protecting the environment, he says, is just an obvious way to safeguard the health of the city that he’s served for over 30 years.
Although Nickels was overwhelmed by the unanimous support for his climate control resolution, he says actions need to follow those promises, even in the shadow of an unsupportive national government: "We have the opportunity to push the envelope and get people thinking, even when it is not politically popular."