Seattle broke ranks with President Bush in 2001 over climate change. Declaring that every city could lessen the threat that greenhouse gases pose to lives and budgets, then-Mayor Paul Schell promised that by 2003 Seattle’s electric company would add no greenhouse-gas emissions to the atmosphere. “We can’t afford to wait for the federal government to do this,” he said. Bush subsequently parlayed a terrorist assault on America into an invasion of one of the world’s prime oil exporters. Evidence continually confirms that greenhouse gases, of which oil and other fossil fuels are prime suppliers, are radically disruptive. Now that the United States has expanded its writ to pump and consume oil, an inspection of what Seattle tried, and how other cities can follow, seems timely.

Some of Schell’s promise rested on tricky accounting and local peculiarities, but much of it counted on the widespread adoption of more efficient power consumption. The city-owned electric company, Seattle City Light, pays roughly seventy workers to purge unneeded power consumption from every home, factory and office in town. By tailoring rebates and incentives toward investment in new, efficient equipment (from industrial processors to washing machines), Seattle shows how a city can meaningfully reduce fossil-fuel consumption without disrupting livelihoods. It also poses a question: whether this sensible approach can overtake political resistance in areas where officials mimic Bush’s consumption-first ethos.

Seattle makes an ideal testing ground for greenhouse-free electricity. Drawing 82 percent of its power from greenhouse-free rivers and dams, it also boasts a population that has long embraced conservation. Marya Castillano, director of the utility’s energy management services, says the idea that led to Schell’s promise began in the antinuclear 1970s. City Light workers sold retrofits as ways to spare the utility from having to buy additional nuclear power. And little by little, with a door insulator here (to save heating costs) and a sealed window there (to reduce air conditioning in summer), Seattleites became explicitly conservation-minded.

In the mid-1990s, this political current led the city to apply for federal grants to undertake in-depth projects with corporate partners who wanted to show off their ecological responsibility. Endorsers included the Pike Place Market, a tourist lodestar whose managers upgraded 1,500 light fixtures in five months in 2000, and Macpherson Leather, whose plant acquired long-lived, specially fitted lightbulbs. “This should not be mistaken for a paradigm shift, but at least we made a small impact [on consciousness],” says Jack Brautigam, who ran the program, called Climate Wise. “And with the city continuing to raise the bar, we are getting more companies interested in the climate issue.”

The most vivid example of raising the bar was Schell’s July 2001 announcement that Seattle would meet or exceed the greenhouse-gas emissions reductions outlined in the Kyoto Protocol, and that City Light would stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere entirely. Meanwhile, Climate Wise wound down–its funding covered Brautigam, who has switched to marketing greenhouse-free power to customers–but the city propelled its logic all over town. City Light teams have continued to research, select or market small innovations that seem likely to reduce waste. Their local heroes, says commercial and industrial conservation services chief Jean Shaffer, were manufacturers of ingenious gizmos like the VendingMiser. “They save 35 percent of the energy of a vending machine and keep the pop cold,” says Shaffer, with the earnestness common to her peers. The teams adopted the VendingMiser after testing it in the office; it worked so well that the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency providing wholesale electricity to utilities in the Pacific Northwest, picked it up. Savings like these positioned Seattle to defend Schell’s audacious promise.

When thinking about how to export this model, one must understand its technicalities. The way Seattle honors the pledge can require optimistic logic about how global warming works. The city’s power supply now generates 380,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. So Seattle invests in “offsets”: The city solicits proposals, then funds efforts to prevent the emission of a corresponding number of tons somewhere else on the planet–for example, energy-efficiency improvements or the propagation of clean fuels. Eventually, Seattle intends to quit fossil fuels; by 2004 it will have acquired 175 megawatts of wind power, which releases no greenhouse gases. “Seattle is presenting a useful model for any city,” says K.C. Golden, a project manager at Climate Solutions, an engineering and marketing consulting firm.

But it also presents warnings. After overspending on electricity during the Enron-swollen energy crisis of 2001, City Light is in a weak financial situation. With the budget for conservation consulting and spending reduced this year, Shaffer’s annual conservation goal–the amount of energy wastage she hopes to eliminate from businesses–has shrunk from 7.1 average megawatts to 5.6. The offsets program has yet to produce results that can be studied, and the zero-emissions date has slipped to 2005.

Meanwhile, Seattle has embraced one of the strongest long-term strategies: redesigning buildings to use more sunlight and waste less fuel. Governments, as deep-pocketed customers for architects and engineers, can be signal purchasers of “green buildings.” The new Seattle Justice Center, according to City Light sustainable building coordinator Peter Dobrovolny, recycles the storm water that runs off it and uses vegetation on its roof to lower the need for air conditioning in summer. Dobrovolny says the city has committed to fourteen buildings, representing $800 million in construction activity, with energy-efficient features. The current mayor moved into a City Hall with extensive natural light, systems for reusing water, and showers for biking commuters on June 23. Beyond providing environmentally beneficial prototypes, such buildings invigorate civic architecture and save public dollars by lowering utility bills. Other cities are embracing them too. Landscape architect William McDonough designed a rooftop garden for Chicago’s City Hall in 2001, and the Staten Island Ferry Terminal building under construction in Manhattan features panels that conduct solar energy.

But all this–and all of Seattle’s ingenuity–will have no atmospheric effect unless much bigger constituencies, like the United States or India and China, enact similar pledges quickly. Greenhouse-gas concentrations know no ZIP code: Wherever they build up, they forge climate instability over the entire planet. Joel Swisher, a principal with the Rocky Mountain Institute energy consultancy, says local programs provide a “laboratory” but no scientific relief. Even so, Burlington, Vermont, has made a pledge similar to Seattle’s–with its eyes open. “The hope continues to be that if local governments act, the federal government might follow,” says Mayor Peter Clavelle. “There is a level of frustration that without global coordination we’ll never get out of this mess, but balancing the frustration is an understanding that we need to clean up our own act.” Bush’s EPA foresees increased emissions through at least 2012, and the Iraq occupation means that industrialized economies almost certainly will be prejudiced toward greenhouse gases for long enough to do irreparable damage.

Dobrovolny’s e-mail signature includes the famous aphorism about how the only thing that has ever changed the world is a small, dedicated group of individuals. Seattleites take note: You can get a $100 rebate if you buy an approved washing machine before July 15.