A Light in the Fog
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.