As a planet, we're hurtling toward certain climate destruction. In Seattle, we're nowhere close to meeting our goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.
Jenny Durkan, the self-proclaimed "climate mayor," has done little to move the needle on green policies. If the council hadn't made changes to her proposed budget, Durkan would have cut funding for Seattle's Green New Deal oversight board, stalling Green New Deal policy priorities until 2022. She hasn't fulfilled the entirety of the Move Seattle Levy, the sweeping transportation infrastructure plan voters passed in 2015. In fact, she actively fucked up one part of the Levy when she sided with the NIMBY's along 35th Avenue NE and killed sorely needed protected bike lanes.
It's clear that the next mayor will need to step up to the plate on climate unless we'd like to just dunk ourselves straight into the climate crisis abyss. Politicians at the state level finally got their acts together around climate policy this year, and now it's gotta be Seattle's turn. Seattle's mayoral candidates have already picked up on that narrative.
Last week, on Earth Day, both Bruce Harrell and Jessyn Farrell made a big deal about releasing their climate plans. Recently, architect Andrew Grant Houston also added climate priorities to his platform. Let's see how they stack up.
Jess Wallach, the campaign co-director for 350 Seattle, said Seattle mayors have been promising climate action since she was a kid, but the city’s climate pollution has only gone up.
Seattle's goal is to reduce its emissions by 58% of 2008 emission levels by 2035 in order to be on track for carbon neutrality by 2050. As of 2018, Seattle's emission levels were pretty much the same as they were in 2008, according to the Seattle Times.
For environmental activists like Wallach, in order to reach those emission reduction goals, candidate platforms must outline transformative changes in transportation and building sectors, the two biggest sources of carbon emissions in Seattle. For the most part, Harrell and Farrell tick those boxes.
However, for climate advocates, part of the appeal of Farrell's plan is how thorough it is. Farrell's 10-page platform dwarfs Harrell's 299-word platform, and it feels more like a comprehensive Green New Deal than a few climate change policies.
"Both plans are hitting the same themes and key areas—environmental justice, building emissions, focus on transit, green jobs, etc," Amy Wheeless, the senior policy advocate for NW Energy Coalition, wrote in an email. "Farrell’s platform has more detail on the specific actions that her administration would take to make progress in those areas."
Rather than bundling his plans into a single climate package, Houston weaves his detailed climate policy and pay-fors throughout his platform. And though he touches on some of the same issues as Harrell and Farrell, he proposes some policies that the other two politicians don't.
"It’s good to be integrating topics like this. If we’re going to meet our climate goals, it’s all about housing, transit, and workforce, and how we build things, so having more integrated solutions is great," Wheeless said over the phone.
Clean Buildings and Green Jobs
All the candidates promise to make Seattle buildings run on 100% clean energy and to decarbonize the construction process. Previously, Durkan committed to ridding "some" new buildings of natural gas. That's not enough to make a big difference. Harrell and Farrell want to kick natural gas out of all homes, buildings, and construction.
In an email, Sierra Club Seattle chair Brittney Bush Bollay said, "Building electrification is an area where Seattle has a chance to show real leadership, and we're excited to see both candidates commit to not only ensuring new buildings are free of fracked gas and other fossil fuels, but working to retrofit older buildings to use clean electricity as well."
Just like Harrell and Farrell, Houston wants natural gas and fossil fuels out of old buildings and new development. However, Houston wants to further disincentivize natural gas use in Seattle entirely by transitioning Puget Sound Energy, the local and politically active utility company still dependent on fossil fuels, to public ownership.
"The only way to guarantee a quick decarbonization of Seattle buildings by 2040, let alone 2030, is to eliminate the use of natural gas and to offset any self-interested pushback we would get from PSE," Houston's policy reads. In line with Washington state's 100% clean energy legislation, PSE committed to reducing its carbon footprint by 50% by 2040.
Houston explained that, as a private company, PSE is accountable to its shareholders, not the public, and "eliminating a major portion of their revenue is not a discussion they’re interested in having."
Bollay wrote that it was "reassuring to see candidates with concrete plans to counter the massive money PSE can put behind their gross and counterfactual campaign to make us all love fracked gas." According to Bollay, "PSE has been a major obstacle" in the Sierra Club's work to transition buildings away from fossil fuel.
With that "transition" to green buildings, Bollay pointed out, comes "new, green, union jobs." To help make sure workers exist to fill those jobs, Houston wants to fund an apprenticeship program. Harrell said he wanted to "develop a localized clean energy economy" with union jobs in "energy, transportation, and construction and retrofitting." Farrell aligns there, as well, but she takes it a step further, adding that "health care workers, child care providers, teachers, and artists are all Green Workers." She wants to create a Green Jobs Bill of Rights to prioritize economic stability for those workers.
Wallach agreed with Farrell's "Green Worker" classification because "investing in care-based work is key to building a healthy green economy," she said.
Transportation and Housing
On transportation, Harrell mentioned he wanted to "better connect Seattle neighborhoods," which means "strong transit networks, walkable and bikeable pathways" and developing more dense, affordable housing.
Farrell addressed those goals, too, but she identified specifics. She wants to "build out a network of 100 miles of bus-only lanes" and "100 miles of Stay Healthy Streets."
Houston wants to create a new ballot measure to increase the vehicle license fee and expand the bus service the city cut back due to COVID-19 shortfalls. In this section, Houston refers to notorious car-tab tax troll Tim Eyman as "he who must not be named."
Farrell also dove into her massive affordable housing plan, what she dubbed "ST3 for Housing."
Farrell plans "to build a robust mix of affordable and market-rate housing within walking distance of public transportation." To do that as mayor, she'll work to "speed up housing development" by working with private and public partnerships and by "acquiring, assembling, leasing, or land banking parcels to be developed into affordable housing," her platform reads. She'll have to pursue progressive revenue options, but Farrell didn't identify what those might be.
Houston wants to tackle the affordable housing crisis by creating a Public Development Authority to fund green buildings and to explore sustainable building strategies.
Bollay said that she wanted to hear more about "how the candidates would support increasing housing density [since] Seattle's widespread ban on apartments is a major obstacle in reducing both building and vehicle emissions." Neither Harrell nor Farrell mentioned amending zoning laws. Houston provides ideas for some zoning reform in his land-use policy.
Which Platform Is Sexier?
Wallach's issue with Harrell's platform is that he doesn't include dates, targets, or any specifics at all, really.
"What’s the plan?" Wallach asked. "[There's] no discussion of funding measures, let alone how to equitably fund investments so that the burden isn’t on communities already most impacted." While Farrell didn't identify specific funding measures for her plans, she identified where city funding was necessary.
Some other highlights from Farrell's platform include passing city-level Healthy Environment for All Act to prioritize environmental justice policy, lidding I-5, electrifying Seattle's energy grid, and creating universal birth–to–5 childcare.
Wallach pointed out that Farrell said how she would implement her policies to put Seattle on track to reach zero net emissions by 2030. "This level of detail is what we need from all candidates," Wallach said.
Houston offers a lot of that detail, too, and he explicitly says how he wants to pay for it. He wants to levy a 1% income tax to raise $400 million to pay for the green building PDA, to fund apprenticeships, to make equitable investments in historically marginalized communities, and to provide tax relief for minority and women-owned small businesses. He even included a projected implementation date (2023) for when Seattle could start seeing the impacts of that tax if voters choose him for mayor.
Houston also wants to create a city commission to preserve and expand Seattle's tree canopy.