Thursday, August 6, 2015

Heat and Drought. Is This The New Northwest?

Sockeye salmon (Barry Sweet/AP)
Some summer: Consecutive days of record high temperatures, little rain and low river runoff, rising water temperatures in rivers and Puget Sound... You staying or planning to leave?

In the environmental organizing business we talk about events like oil spills or fish kills or finding toxic chemicals in breast milk as “wake-up” calls that could be communicated in a way that would move people from awareness to action.  In many cases, like a one-day sale, it worked in the short term but could not be sustained in a longer campaign.

You might or might not find the science of climate change compelling but you have to admit if you’ve been here awhile that this isn’t the Northwest that we thought we knew. Maybe next month enough rain will fall and temperatures will moderate so rivers will flow again for returning salmon and toxic algae will dissipate when Puget Sound’s temperature drops. Might even be able to forget about this summer and return to our lives as usual.

That’s human and understandable, and that’s what we’ve been doing for years about carbon emissions and the decline in Puget Sound’s health. Wake up to a crisis event, then go back to our lives as usual. Our government has done it for years, lurching forward and backwards in gridlock.

Last weekend we entertained family from out of town and drove to dinner and plays in Seattle and Skagit County round trip from Bellingham. There was no way those trips could be done on a mass transit schedule and for now, the most rational alternative was to fill up the tank with gas and drive. One day, some day but not today, owning and driving an electric- or hydrogen-powered vehicle or taking mass transit will be a reasonable alternative.

Last month I answered the door and chatted with a young lady working for Puget Sound Energy promoting their Green Power program where, for a few extra dollars each month, I would be buying and using non-fossil fuel generated electricity. I asked her how selling the virtues of the Green Power program jibed with Puget Sound Energy’s Energize Eastside project  which proposes to construct a new transmission line on the east side of Lake Washington so the utility can sell its dirty Colstrip coal power outside the state. I got a polite smile from the young lady and a promise that she would look into it.

My neighbor David this summer had solar panels installed and is rightly proud of the amount of solar energy he is collecting. On a trip to Hawaii this summer, I saw solar panels galore on rooftops; the main problem was the bottleneck created by the local utility’s footdragging in buying back energy generated by individual households.

One day, some day but not today, I’ll have an affordable solar array and wind turbine system with battery storage so Puget Sound Energy is an energy partner rather than an energy purveyor.  One day, some day but not today, there will be rational alternatives that enough people can partake in to reduce individual carbon footprints in a way that makes a difference in moderating climate change.

But why not today? Bill McKibben in a June 29 New Yorker article “Power To The People” finds hope in the results of the energy make-over done for Mark and Sara Borkowski in Vermont. “The numbers reveal a sudden new truth—that innovative, energy-saving and energy-producing technology is now cheap enough for everyday use,” McKibben writes. The take-away? “Why the rise of green energy makes utility companies nervous.”

One of the early slogans in protecting Puget Sound was, “We all live downstream,” meaning the rain that falls in the Puget Sound basin ends up in Puget Sound. This summer wake-up call is that life in the Sound is stressed by low water flows in the rivers and by higher water temperatures. Dead zones due to oxygen depletion, early shellfish harvest closures, toxic algae, fish kills... (‘The Blob’ may warm Puget Sound’s waters, hurt marine life )

This summer’s stress brings to the fore many of the problems of Puget Sound’s health discussed and grappled with mixed success for at least the last 30 years. We now have another in a series of wake-up calls like the past discovery of liver lesions in English sole, an early morning oil spill in the fog, sea star wasting disease, death of an endangered orca whale... After all these years, do you need another wake-up call about the declining health of Puget Sound?

Another wake-up call can’t hurt but the problem is that there really isn’t anything I can do about dead zones or toxic algae or fish kills or liver lesions or ships spilling oil or shellfish disease or a dead orca. I can pick up dog poop and recycle and conserve water but those, honestly, are nice-to-do actions that have very little to do with the real problems of Puget Sound’s declining health. Someone once angrily said in a meeting, “People are the problem with Puget Sound.” I don’t think so. We just haven’t figured out where we fit in solving the equation of Puget Sound’s health.

The state’s Puget Sound recovery goals now include measurements for human well-being and human values in considering the Sound’s resources. ( Healthier Puget Sound depends on healthy people, report finds ) These human values, the result of scientific research, are meant to help determine how money and effort are spent in Puget Sound recovery. If you fix those things people value most, people will be happier. I might be missing something but I’m not sure this puts us any closer to knowing how I will be meaningfully engaged in actions that result in fixing the problem I think most important to fix.

One day, some day but not today, there will be reasonable and meaningful alternatives that I can take to reduce my carbon footprint from my transport and my energy use. One day, some day but not today, there will be reasonable and meaningful actions I can take to remedy the real problems of Puget Sound’s health. One day, some day but not today, my actions and your actions will be measured in a way that shows the power of acting in concert. Until that day comes, there will continue to be wake-up calls that will echo and pass over us as we go back to our lives as usual.

--Mike Sato


  1. Hi Mike,
    Great post. You're right we continue with our lives as usual. There are so many warning signs that we need to put the earth first, it is our beautiful life support system after all, but we just can't seem to get out of the way of ourselves. I love PSE's green washing, were they willing to run a direct line from the renewable energy you purchase to your house? Hard to a renewable electron from a coal-generated one, although there are RECs, wonder if they were offering that?

    1. Thanks. PSE was selling me 'their' renewable energy, as far as I could tell from the pitch. Like Jon Stewart advised, "If you smell something, say something."

  2. I'm a little late weighing in - a lot to chew on! But then I read The Big One post. Now - if some experts were able to tell us that a 6.7 earthquake was going to strike along I-5 in 6 months - I can be pretty sure that there would be a lot of reasonable and meaningful things right now that a lot of folks would do.

    I think of so many of the commercial buildings in the older parts of towns and cities around here - you can usually see daylight around some of the doors and windows. Many windows are old single pane. A great deal of energy could be saved and carbon dioxide reduced if those kinds of things were fixed. Smart thermostats. Cutting out just one or two trips to the store a week. But these things maybe don't seem "worth it" or take too much effort or just don't make it up the to do list. It may take a big wakeup call.

    About Puget Sound? When saving the whales is a necessity, but people catching salmon is also a necessity, then most people just yawn and go find something else to do. The public that cares has got to keep hammering on the powers that be to talk crystal clear about problems and solutions and then bring all hands on deck together to fix them.



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