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Management in Practice

Is Seattle Prepared for Climate Change?

Seattle is already seeing the impacts of climate change, including record-breaking heat and smoke from West Coast wildfires; in the coming decades, parts of the city will be periodically inundated with floodwaters. Ann Grodnik-Nagle ’06, climate policy advisor for Seattle Public Utilities, says that Seattle is focusing on both mitigation—the city is committed to reach carbon neutrality by 2050—and adaptation, prioritizing vulnerable communities of color.

Seattle's Space Needle obscured by smoke from wildfires in September 2020.

Seattle's Space Needle obscured by smoke from wildfires in September 2020.

Chona Kasinger/Bloomberg via Getty Images
  • Ann Grodnik-Nagle
    Strategic Advisor, Climate Adaptation and Built Environment, Seattle Public Utilities

Q: Is Seattle prepared for climate change?

Seattle is preparing. It’s a process. There are some areas where we are very strong and others we’re still trying to figure out. We’re making a lot of investments in reducing our carbon footprint city-wide. We’re working to cut emissions from large buildings. We’re investing in electrical vehicles for the city and charging infrastructure.

The City of Seattle, King County, and the Port of Seattle have overlapping jurisdictions. Everyone has their own roles and priorities, but there’s a lot of really good coordination and alignment. Still, it’s challenging to come up with an orchestrated strategy for climate adaptation and preparedness.

Q: Which climate impacts is the city already experiencing, and which are you still preparing for?

The heat dome event in June was an example of a terrible climate impact that is going to become more frequent. The city is not equipped to manage 108-degree temperatures at all, let alone three straight days topping 100 degrees.

We’re starting to have a smoke season coming from wildfires burning throughout the West. We’re trying to figure out how we can address both extreme heat and poor air quality.

Sea level rise is a big one for us because it’ll be expensive. We’re looking at about two feet of rise by mid-century and five feet by the end of the century. Seattle is a city of bluffs, so it won’t mean portions of the city going underwater; it will be episodic inundation during king tides or storm surges. However, we have seven areas within city limits that are extremely vulnerable. They include low-income communities of color and industrial areas. We will need to invest in infrastructure as well as programs that will ensure community resilience.

Q: What’s the focus of your work?

I’m the climate policy advisor for Seattle Public Utilities. We provide drinking water, manage drainage and wastewater, and deliver solid waste services. I bucket our businesses based on how they fit into climate work—preparedness and adaptation or emissions reductions and mitigation.

For drinking water as well as drainage and wastewater we’re adapting to shifting water cycles—hotter drier summers when we need water and extreme precipitation in winters when we don’t need it. Our solid waste business has a mitigation focus. They’ve done a lot of work to seed circular economies within the city. We’re reusing some of our waste streams and putting those into new products that can be then sold, increasing local jobs and local revenues while reducing and diverting waste streams. It’s gaining a lot of traction including involvement from business.

Then an umbrella overarching both buckets is justice and how we prioritize communities and neighborhoods that have historically been underinvested in.

Q: What does that look like?

We’re very strong in terms of investing in green infrastructure and natural assets. We have an extensive green storm water infrastructure system and have plans for even more. The approach reduces greenhouse gas emissions, provides cooling impacts for neighborhoods, and absorbs precipitation. It’s a multi-benefit solution that combines mitigation and adaptation. That’s wonderful.

Even within that strength, we have challenges. Creating open green space that’s also floodable can have unintended consequences such as making places that are already expensive even more expensive. To deal with that, we’re trying to tie climate adaptation together with anti-displacement work.

In the Duwamish Valley, the tidally influenced river is already over-topping its banks, impacting lower-lying neighborhoods that are communities of color. That will become more and more frequent as sea levels rise. Another layer of challenge is that the river itself is a Superfund site. There are substantial historical and existing health inequities in this area. The residential communities are bearing the burden of pollution being put out by the adjacent industrial areas.

“We’re trying now to establish policies that will allow us to do development differently so that as we invest in sea level rise adaptation, we’re also investing in community wealth building and community stabilization.”

We’re working on development of a resilience district around two neighborhoods that are particularly exposed to inundation. We’re trying now to establish policies that will allow us to do development differently so that as we invest in sea level rise adaptation, we’re also investing in community wealth building and community stabilization. The goal is for the benefits of improvements due to public investment to accrue to the incumbent communities. We want to avoid further displacement and making the neighborhoods less affordable in a city that has so few affordable options remaining.

The resilience district is extremely exciting. We’re able to do this project because we’ve received grant funding first from the Center for Community Investment and then from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through a program that supports climate health and equity in cities throughout the world. The philanthropic funding has enabled us to partner in ways that we wouldn’t have been able to had we just been relying on municipal funding and Seattle Public Utilities’ budget.

Q: What are the barriers to making sure Seattle is as prepared as possible?

Preparedness and adaptation typically has a much longer timeline, especially when it involves big, complicated infrastructure. The projects are expensive; they require orchestration among different agencies and impacted communities. It gets tricky. It goes beyond electoral cycles and can span beyond the tenure of leaders of different city departments. And funding is always a challenge.

Along those lines, the federal government is taking great steps in the right direction with increased funding for some FEMA flooding mitigation programs and building resilient infrastructure.

As that money funnels down to cities and utilities and we start making investments, a success in San Francisco, New York, or Boston is a success for the whole sector because there’s a lot of collaboration happening among peer cities and peer utilities, especially coastal cities which face a lot of the same impacts. No one has done this before, so we need to learn from each other.

Q: What would it be like to do this work in a part of the country where there isn’t the same willingness to address climate change?

The tenor of our approach might be different, but you can’t ignore repetitive losses to property. You can’t ignore the loss of life that we’re seeing. Climate impacts are affecting people. They’re affecting children; they’re affecting vulnerable communities.

When I look around the country, I’m more hopeful than you might expect because even in areas where the political momentum isn’t there around climate action, there are things happening anyway, among students, among communities that are bearing the brunt of climate impacts. I think that’s powerful.

I’ve seen awesome community-based work in Texas after the major freeze and resulting infrastructure failure, on the Gulf Coast in the resilience work following all the storms, and all along the East Coast in the rebuilding from storms. It’s super inspiring.