Water Matters: Climate meltdown

It’s been a tough week. No one likes to lose. But the defeat of Initiative 1631 — setting a fee for carbon emissions — was especially irksome in its decisiveness, for me, as a trained scientist and water resource manager.

I can take my pick from a list of explanations for that defeat, but the fact remains that it’s 2018 and there still isn’t a plan for paying the cost of the pollution we humans cause.

Do we need a plan? I hope it’s agreed that yes, we do, and that this is not a political, or strictly an environmental, question.

All pollution is not always disastrous, but it has been known for decades that the buildup of certain gases including carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere is a cause of destructive global warming, originally called “the greenhouse effect” in the 1900s.

Down here on the earth’s surface, we know that air pollution causes asthma attacks—and a warming planet exacerbates drought, wildfires and smoke. Hurricanes and flooding destroy property, lives and livelihoods—and warmer ocean temperatures increase the likelihood of big storms. Glaciers that feed our rivers are melting faster than ever before—and a warmer planet exacerbates melting.

Climate change is already a wicked problem touching every aspect of life, but I believe almost everyone would agree that we ought to plan ahead to avoid leaving our descendants a world with even bigger problems. Our economic sector needs predictability. Our institutions and communities need practical, not Draconian, strategies. Ecosystems need to be protected. And, our kids need to see their elders taking action.

So, we need a plan. What’s next?

Taking steps

The first questions would be, “What are our goals?” “How do we reach them and how fast?” and the real kicker, “Who’s doing what?”

Ideally, leadership in planning is brought by governments and industries all over the globe. But the more people involved the harder it is to agree. At this global scale and at this time, agreement is decisively unrealistic.

Next best is probably leadership from a nation’s own government and industries. Unified leadership is unlikely in the U.S. right now, but there are great examples of federal programs supporting sustainability, clean energy and habitat restoration, among others.

Third would be leadership from our state government and regional industries. In Washington, the potential is there; for example, there were leaders from business, medicine, faith and tribal communities all supporting putting a price on carbon emissions as I-1631 would have.

Finally, we need leadership from local governments, community organizations, and even families. This is doable. Indeed, goals for zero emissions and zero waste are being set at this scale all over the world.

Resilience ahead

When you start at the bottom by answering “Who,” you realize there’s a sweet spot that each sector, community, or individual can find that moves the needle toward resiliency. Each could set its own goal of mitigating carbon emissions, adapting to a changing climate, responding to emergencies, or all three. A plan of action can be of any scale and written by anybody, with goals ranging from the lofty, “Reverse global warming,” to the pragmatic, “Drive less.”

Like most plans and projects, those involved will break it down to manageable actions.

That a majority of our state’s voters didn’t agree on the mitigation strategy proposed in I-1631 is not surprising when you think about it. Individuals have financial concerns, priorities, and approaches—it’s unlikely a majority will choose to pay for a lofty goal without a clear incentive.

Pay now or pay later

We do pay for energy in the form of gasoline, propane and electricity because we need it to get around and stay warm. But the majority of that money goes to those industries and does not cover the true cost of pollution to the environment and of climate change to our quality of life.

The irony is that we are paying in other ways and it will continue. As taxpayers we shoulder enormous, increasing costs of hurricane and wildfire emergency relief. What’s more, the cost to our collective human spirit transcends the monetary cost as individuals muster grit, cash, and energy to recover a flooded neighborhood or a community turned to ash.

In our small corner of the globe the biggest threats are drought, wildfire, and severe storms. If you happen to have asthma, live in the forest or on the shoreline, or rely on a stream for your water supply, you are probably aware of these threats and hopefully have a plan if disaster strikes. It would benefit the entire planet if enough of us also reduced our carbon emissions.

Like all wicked problems, solutions to climate change won’t be pretty, fun, or quick. But it will be much easier if it is recognized as a “quality of life” and a “community health” issue, and not strictly an “environmental” issue.

Geek Moment

For the 2019 water year (started Oct. 1):

• At the Sequim 2E weather station (Schmuck Road): Total rainfall = 2.5 inches; Highest temp. = 65 deg. F on Oct. 13; Lowest temp = 33 deg. F on Oct. 14

• At the SNOTEL station in the upper Dungeness watershed (elev. 4,010): Cumulative precipitation = 5.4 inches (80 percent of long-term average). Number of days temperature stayed below freezing = 0.

• At the USGS gauge on the Dungeness River (Mile 11.2): Max flow = 844 cubic feet per second (cfs) on Nov. 4; Min flow = 77 cfs on Oct. 24-25; Currently (Nov. 12): 143 cfs (below average)

• Bell Creek at Carrie Blake Park: Flow = 0 cfs; Bell Creek at the mouth at Washington Harbor = Flow generally about 0.5 cfs

Ann Soule is a hydrogeologist immersed in the Dungeness watershed since 1990, now Resource Manager for City of Sequim. The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not meant to represent policies of her employer. Reach Ann at columnists@sequimgazette.com or via her blog at watercolumnsite.wordpress.com.