Thoughts on climate change | City Corner

By Phil Williams | Aug 30, 2019

I usually stick to updates on City capital projects when it's my turn to provide a column for the Beacon.

As stimulating as I'm sure it would be for you if I recounted our recent progress in water, sewer, and drainage pipe installations, I thought I might go a different direction this time and provide some comments on the important topic of climate change.

These are (spoiler alert) my personal thoughts and are not official City policy.

I don't think most Americans were very focused on climate change until sometime after the publishing of "An Inconvenient Truth" by Al Gore in 2006. Although that book was well received overall, it spawned a furious backlash by those who did not, and perhaps still do not, accept its conclusions and predictions regarding a warming planet and whether or not we humans are predominantly responsible for it.

Now, over 13 years later, where are we on this critical issue?

If anything, the prevailing scientific research on climate change has gotten more certain, more one-sided, and more ominous in its implications regarding what life will be like on our planet from here forward unless our policies, practices, and personal choices are radically altered.

It will be the primary challenge of our lifetime for those now alive and generations to come. To be successful, we must make a huge shift away from a society now based heavily on the combustion of fossil fuels.

Our local government (us!), our state government, and our federal elected officials will need to, first, be convinced of the enormity of the potential consequences of failure and, second, held accountable to initiate the long-term programs necessary to get us to near-zero or, better yet, zero net carbon emissions in the next 20-30 years.

They must also work with the other industrial nations of the world to make certain we are all making the required progress. This must be a global effort. We will especially need the cooperation and focus of China, the most rapidly growing industrial state on earth.

We have, in some significant ways, fallen further behind on this challenge over the last 13 years. Global emissions of carbon have actually increased rather than decreased over that time span. Had we aggressively begun this transformation 13 years ago, the pace of change could have been a little slower than it will need to be now.

That is unfortunate, but unchangeable.

There is insufficient space in a few hundred words here for any scientific discussion. Although I have a science background, I am no expert in climate science. All I can do, and perhaps all most of us can do, is to read as much as we can on the topic, reach our own conclusions, and then act accordingly.

With that in mind, I would like to recommend a book I read recently. I would guess many of you have beat me to it and are already familiar with it. The book is "The Uninhabitable Earth – Life after Warming" by David Wallace-Wells (2019 Random House Publishing).

This book is not particularly technical, nor does it require a chemistry or physics background to understand the author's point of view. It is, however, accompanied by almost 70 pages of author's notes and an extensive bibliography for those wanting to explore specific issues further by viewing source materials.

The first half of the book goes into significant detail regarding all of the changes that will be spawned by a temperature increase of 1.5, 2, 3, or even 4 degrees Celsius in average global temperatures. To many these seem like trivial numbers.

But the impacts are projected to be massive. The book is clearly not meant to be comforting or full of optimism about the likelihood of success considering the size of the challenge ahead. But the impacts go far beyond sea-level rise and polar bears.

This transition will affect every aspect of life on the planet, even life itself, if we do not embrace the challenge in front of us.

At this point many of you may see me as pessimistic or negative, but I don't feel that way at all! I feel challenged and energized. This topic needs to be "front of mind" for more and more of us. We have clearly taken a step backward at the national level over the last two to three years in achieving the consensus needed for aggressive action.

On the positive side, our governor has made combatting climate change his No. 1 issue and has also raised awareness nationally during the presidential debates. This needs to be the No. 1 issue we ask all candidates for office to address going forward at all levels of government.

Many of you may say "Climate change is important, but right now we need to address social issues, poverty, financial disparity," or any number of other issues that seem more acute at the moment, more pressing, more interesting.

That is understandable. But addressing climate change is likely the best thing we can do for the fragile and less well-off people in this country and around the world. Climate change will create devastating financial, social, and safety burdens on everyone but even more so on our more vulnerable populations.

Phil Williams is City of Edmonds Public Works Director.

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