Was all of Jesus work in city council last year all for nothing?
Was Jesus's work in city council last year all for nothing? Screenshot from Seattle Channel

Last year's climate change conversation—sparked by activists such as Greta Thunberg, Artemisa Xakriabá, Tokata Iron Eyes, and Vanessa Nakate—feels so far away now.

The youth-led Friday marches to Seattle City Hall and the students walking out of class to host environment rallies at parks across the city spurred elected officials to pass legislation that outlined commitments to the climate, but those commitments now seem more like empty promises.

That's because Seattle's Green New Deal, the 2019 legislation the Seattle City Council passed to mirror Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's national plan on a local level, is the sacrificial lamb for the 2021 proposed budget.

Seattle's GND committed the city to investing in and electrifying public transit, expanding affordable housing, retrofitting inefficient buildings, and more. But the city council wouldn't make actual policy around those areas. Instead, the city would select a 19-person Green New Deal oversight board comprised of climate justice organizations, experts, and community members to create the package of environmentally-focused plans.

In the year since the ordinance passed, however, the city hasn't moved on that front. And as the planet continues to melt, it looks like Seattle won't get real about the climate this year or even next year.

Budget cutbacks outlined in Durkan's budget proposal released last week mean the city won't seat a GND oversight board until 2022 at the earliest. That leaves $20 million in allocated funds hanging in limbo.

The budget also sidelines policy plans such as transitioning buildings away from fossil fuels, something Durkan committed to in an executive order back in January.

The council learned about the cuts at the select budget meeting last week when the Office of Sustainability and the Environment presented its budget. In a line item, OSE announced it was not hiring the Green New Deal Advisor in 2021 to save $132,000 from the salary and to comply with the city's hiring freeze (though the hiring freeze can be lifted on a case-by-case basis).

While the city chalks up the vacant advisor position to the hiring freeze that started in the early days of the pandemic, that position and the seats on the board were supposed to have been filled by now.

"The board should meet every month, or as needed, beginning in January 2020,” reads the language in the ordinance passed last year. The law also directed the board to submit “an initial workplan... to the council and the Mayor by July 1, 2020.”

According to Councilmember Kshama Sawant, this is Durkan's fault. "Durkan has continually refused to staff the Green New Deal oversight board," Sawant told The Stranger.

Though Durkan did start a Youth Climate Council in January, that group hasn't met yet.

Jill Mangaliman, the executive director of Got Green, one of the organizations involved with Seattle's GND, agreed with Sawant. "There were no attempts to even resource the board and staff it," Mangaliman, told The Stranger, "the mayor wasn’t appointing anyone."

Mangaliman acknowledged the upheaval of the pandemic but also lamented that the board was meant to develop research projects about labor and jobs in the environmental sector during this time period.

At the budget meeting with OSE, Councilmember Tammy Morales raised the point that the council allocated $20 million to invest in the Green New Deal through the new JumpStart payroll tax. The city can't spend that money to fight climate change if they won't hire and seat the people they selected to spend it for two years, she argued.

Finn Coven suggested that other OSE committees could help allocate the money in the interim. "To be totally honest," OSE Director Jessica Finn Coven said, "I don’t have a plan to put in front of you right now."

For Sawant, this is a harbinger of "the establishment" trying to find ways to "directly or indirectly siphon those funds back into the coffers of big business."

Durkan also plans to cut $150,000 from OSE's budget for "building energy benchmarking and tuneups," which amounts to 68% of the funds allocated towards making Seattle buildings fossil-fuel free. The construction and use of commercial buildings account for 39% of the total national greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

At the meeting, Council President Lorena Gonzalez, looking at the figures, hesitated. "What does that mean to our broader climate change goals and what I think is a universal commitment to addressing climate change?"

In her reply, director Finn Coven said the program will still continue but with lower compliance rates than originally forecasted. She didn't know what the impact would be on the city's climate goals.

Finn Coven emphasized that "there are no easy cuts," and that OSE is already using its full budget "to the best of our ability." Ben Noble, director of the City Budget Office, reminded the council that these cuts weren't permanent.

The council's job right now is to modify the mayor's budget proposal. They have until mid-November to pass a completed 2021 budget. Gonzalez, Morales, and Sawant openly expressed concern about the budget proposal's impact to climate policies.

For his part, Councilmember Alex Pedersen asked how OSE will implement his mostly-symbolic "climate fiscal note," which filters all new policy through a climate lens. Finn Coven said that wasn't OSE's role but rather the role of the departments involved in a given piece of legislation. Pedersen didn't express any concern about Green New Deal budget cuts.

We'll have to wait and see whether the council revives the Green New Deal after budget deliberations.