The greening of Greg Nickels

Seattle Mayor Nickels' Climate Action Plan brought him global glory as "America's green mayor." But is it civic transformation or eco-opportunism? Or how about both?
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Mayor Greg Nickels

Seattle Mayor Nickels' Climate Action Plan brought him global glory as "America's green mayor." But is it civic transformation or eco-opportunism? Or how about both?

Editor's note: The following story originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of Seattle Metropolitan magazine, and is reprinted with permission.

In February 2005, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels started an urban green revolution with 24 simple words. Frustrated with the Bush Administration's inaction on global warming, Nickels decided to work the problem himself. "If the federal government is not going to sign on to the Kyoto Protocol," he said in his State of the City speech, "why can't we just do it at the local level?"

Since then, 850 cities have signed onto Nickels's brainchild, the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. They've pledged to cut their greenhouse gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. The mayor's bold gesture inspired hundreds of other city, state, and regional climate change initiatives.

For Nickels, the move paid off handsomely. Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and Time hailed him as America's green mayor. The Sierra Club, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Harvard's Kennedy School of Government showered him with awards. The word "visionary" became part of the mayor's biographical boilerplate.

Now, three years later, Nickels's national reputation has become so tied to green urbanism, it's easy to forget that it wasn't always so. When he came into office in January 2002, Seattle's priorities weren't climate change and carbon footprints; they were gridlock and crime. The mayoral election of 2001 seemed to pit the two issues against each other. Nickels, a transportation wonk and longtime light-rail champion, was the gridlock grinder. Mark Sidran, a no-nonsense former city attorney, was the crime fighter. In a city forever stuck in traffic, and still reeling from the WTO and Mardi Gras riots, gridlock jitters trumped law and order–barely. Nickels's margin of 3,158 votes made it Seattle's closest mayoral race since 1912.

Margin, schmargin: Nickels took office as if he'd captured every vote except Sidran's mother's. The city's chattering class worried that Nickels, a protégé of former Mayor Norm Rice (aka Mayor Nice) would let the city stagnate in Seattle process, a governing style that seeks consensus, avoids hurt feelings, and results in policies as clear and strong as mush. Not to worry. Candidate Nickels campaigned as a "Seattle-style" politician, but it turned out he'd bought his mayoral style at the shop of Richard J. Daley & Son. Moving quickly to consolidate power, Mayor Nickels fired four department directors, including popular Department of Neighborhoods chief Jim Diers, and replaced them with his own loyalists. In years past, city staffers worked directly with council members to develop legislation. Nickels put an end to that, sending a message that city departments would dance to the mayor's tune. He threatened to cut funding for a Greenlake-based fire engine if the council didn't restore an increase in the mayor's office budget — normal hardball politics elsewhere, but a little nastier than Seattle was used to. By the end of his first year in office Greg Nickels had established one incontrovertible fact. He wasn't just the mayor. He was the boss.

He wasn't a green boss, though. Nickels sailed through his first term without much in the way of an environmental agenda. Sustainable planning and building design were the hobbyhorses of his predecessor, Paul Schell, a developer and former city planning director. Nickels wasn't against green buildings per se, but the new mayor was a bare-knuckled pothole fixer, not a bow-tied architect. His environmental policy was unfocused and unambitious — Nickels himself described it to me recently as "a nice list of random acts of kindness for the environment."

Then came the mayor's climate-change conversion. It happened over the winter of 2004-05. In November the reelection of President Bush confirmed that the federal government would ignore climate change for four more years. Then winter failed. Warm temperatures scuttled the Northwest ski season. Officials at Seattle Public Utilities spelled it out for the mayor: No snowpack meant no water for the city. Cascade mountain snow was Seattle's natural reservoir. Warmer winters meant more of it would fall as rain and not get stored for the summer, when city water use peaked. And this wasn't an anomaly. Snowpack levels had been falling since the 1950s. "That was my 'aha' moment," Nickels said when I sat down with him in his seventh-floor office at City Hall. "The U.S. wasn't participating in the Kyoto Protocol, but we here in Seattle were experiencing the direct effects of global warming."

So on February 16, 2005 — the day the Kyoto agreement went into effect — Nickels announced that Seattle would cut its greenhouse gas emissions in the year 2012 by 7 percent compared to 1990 levels. To reach that goal, the mayor created an ambitious Climate Action Plan for the city, a $37 million to-do list that included everything from denser zoning to bike lanes. The idea caught on. Last November, at the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Summit in Seattle, host Greg Nickels triumphantly announced that Seattle had already surpassed its goal. The city was Kyoto-clean five years ahead of schedule. The assembled mayors gave him a rousing ovation. Nickels beamed, triumphant.

There's an open secret about that triumph: Mayor Nickels's Climate Action Plan had nothing to do with meeting the city's Kyoto goals. The results were based on the city's 2005 greenhouse gas emissions, measured before Nickels's plan went into effect. So how did the goal get met?

To find out, I paid a visit to Roel Hammerschlag, a greenhouse gas expert at the Seattle branch of the Stockholm Environment Institute, a sustainable development research group. He sports funky glasses, wears heavy wool sweaters, and works out of a cheap office in the University District. He's the consultant the City of Seattle hired to compile the city's greenhouse gas inventory, no easy task. "Countries generally have good accountings of their fossil fuel use, and states have good data, too," Hammerschlag told me. "But once you go below the state level, everything falls apart. No city tracks the goods that go in and out of its boundaries." City greenhouse gas inventories are so new that standards and practices are still emerging. "It's not entirely clear what you should do," Hammerschlag said. ICLEI, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, is working with other consultants on a standard protocol for cities. It's an inexact science — Hammerschlag is helping invent the process as he goes along.

Still, his report titled "2005 Inventory of Seattle Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Community and Corporate" gives a clear 52-page snapshot of the city's CO2 output. Because hydropower supplies so much of our electricity, the city has a leg up on most other American cities. Our problem can be summed up in three words: cars, cars, cars. Nearly 60 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, the vast bulk of that from road traffic — and that increased 5 percent between 1990 and 2005.

If you read Hammerschlag's report closely, you can see how the Kyoto goals were met. Between 1990 and 2005, the price of natural gas fell relative to home heating oil, causing many home owners to switch to natural gas, which produces less carbon dioxide than oil. That was a 1 percent drop. Old landfills at Interbay, Genesee, Judkins Park, and South Park slowly dissipated their methane, an enormously potent greenhouse gas. That was another 1 percent. The biggest drop — 5 percent — came from Seattle City Light, which made itself carbon neutral by selling off its share of the Centralia coal-burning power plant and buying wind power. City Light had been working since 1999 to get its footprint to zero, and it finally reached that goal in 2005. The man most responsible for zeroing out City Light was Nickels's predecessor, Paul Schell, who started the process more than a year before Nickels took office. So far, so good: we're at a 7 percent decrease already. But that's partly offset by emissions from more cars, more boats, and more construction over the past 15 years.

In fact our Kyoto-clean status currently hinges on one fickle factor: cement plants. Cement manufacturing uses heat like a steel blast furnace, 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and most plants stoke the fire by burning coal. That heat decarbonates limestone, which results in the release of CO2. Two cement plants, Ash Grove and Lafarge, operate in the Duwamish industrial area, and they alone accounted for more than 10 percent of the city's CO2 emissions in 1990. Both were already undertaking carbon reduction on their own, but the City helped kick their efforts into higher gear. By updating their facilities and scaling back production, Ash Grove and Lafarge cut their emissions nearly in half by 2005 — delivering a 4 percent drop in the city's greenhouse gases.

The upshot is this: Without the reductions from City Light and the two cement plants, Seattle would be nowhere near its Kyoto goal.

And one small accounting practice could change everything. For its forthcoming city inventory protocol, ICLEI is considering excluding heavy industry. "We're trying to not create perverse incentives," explained Hammerschlag. "We want industry to locate in or near cities to lessen transportation costs and emissions, and put people closer to their jobs. We want cities to attract industry. But in a citywide inventory, a single new cement plant could wipe out years of vehicle emission reductions."

In Seattle's case, the reverse is also true. Excluding industrial emissions would wipe out the city's cement-plant reductions and, perhaps, put Seattle back out of Kyoto compliance — all with the stroke of a pen.

If it's that easy to boost or efface the city's greenhouse gas reductions, is it even meaningful to try to measure progress? The question is on the minds of City Council members as they eye the coming budget battle in September. For the past two years, the mayor has spent about $1.5 million of the city's $666 million general fund on his climate program. Come autumn, he'll probably ask for more. (Nickels calls it a $37 million program, but $34 million comes from the Bridging the Gap transportation levy passed by voters in 2006.) After a two-year free pass, the council may start demanding some data. "We need to ask: Has it worked?" said City Council president Richard Conlin. "Does the proposal still make sense?"

The cost of climate plans has become an issue in other cities, most notably San Francisco, where a member of that city's Board of Supervisors recently called Mayor Gavin Newsom's green program "a case where eco-chic has gone out of control." San Francisco faces a $233 million budget deficit, and it's hard to justify hiring climate specialists when you're talking about cutting back hospital hours. Seattle's budget was healthy through the end of 2007, but a recession-driven downturn in retail spending this year could mean cuts in the 2009 budget — and a hard look at climate programs.

"I struggle with the question of how we measure this sort of thing," said Councilmember Sally Clark. "Everybody likes climate protection. Nobody wants the polar bears to drown. But is the money we're spending producing any results?"

Here's the short answer: Nobody knows. Not even Roel Hammerschlag. "Inventories are great at making clear where the greenhouse gases are coming from," Hammerschlag explained. "What they're not so good at is actually tracking progress."

We do have data on a few things. More people are getting to work without their cars. Last year Metro posted its biggest ridership gains in a decade. Every weekday, buses carry 50,000 more passengers than they did four years ago. That trend may continue, thanks to the rise of gas prices and 500 new hybrid buses coming into service over the next five years. Seattle City Light's popular Twist and Save program subsidizes compact-fluorescent lightbulb sales, reducing one model from $4.59 to $1.59. Twist and Save has made the fluorescents competitive with old-fashioned incandescents, and sold nearly 1 million bulbs in six months. That's more than 30 million kilowatt-hours saved, which translates into CO2 reductions of nearly 20,000 tons, or 0.3 percent of the city's total emissions. Here's how it helps: When demand spikes, City Light sometimes has to buy power on the open (non-carbon-neutral) market. Lowering demand decreases spot-market buys and lets City Light sell its carbon-clean hydropower to other utilities, reducing the use of coal-fired power nationwide.

It would be great if we could put a bubble over the city and measure what wafts up. But all experts like Roel Hammerschlag can do is cobble together best estimates from thousands of on-the-ground CO2 sources. Year-to-year progress is tough to detect; there are only a few solid sources like City Light's metered energy-use data. The City's annual carbon footprint updates are vague, and detailed estimates are scheduled for three-year intervals, which means the next inventory, of 2008 data, won't be available until 2010 — after the next mayoral election. Even so, it's hard to say whether that inventory will reveal much change. "To a certain extent," said Hammerschlag, "we have to take it on faith that taking these actions is having an impact."

Still, $3 million buys something. To see the mayor's Climate Action Plan in action, I met Jill Simmons one cold spring morning at Seattle Center, in the shadow of Memorial Stadium. Simmons oversees the city Office of Sustainability and Environment's work on the plan. In my hand I held a 10-page list of climate plan projects. Simmons warned me that the sights wouldn't be all that spectacular. "We'll see a few this morning, but a lot of projects are hard to see," she explained. "The climate plan is so big and diverse, you can't go to one person and say, 'Tell me about it.'"

It's true. The mayor's plan includes a lot of invisible improvements to the planning code — things like reducing parking requirements (to discourage car use) and clustering multifamily housing near commercial districts and transit centers (to encourage walking and bus riding). But the $1.8 million allocated to new climate-friendly projects last year also bought tangible improvements, and Seattle Center is a good place to see a few of them. Mike Moon, Seattle Center's facility manager, showed us its new 500-gallon biodiesel tank, which fuels the compound's fleet of maintenance trucks. Around us buzzed some of the center's 14 recently purchased electric scooters. "Of a 42-vehicle fleet, only three don't run on alternative fuels," Moon said. "And we're looking to up the bio component of our biodiesel, from B-20 [20 percent plant oils] to B-40."

Calculating the payoff of moves like this can be challenging. The switch to electric scooters is an easy win-win. They emit no greenhouse gases and draw cheap electricity from carbon-neutral Seattle City Light. The 500-gallon tank is trickier. Biodiesel, once an eco darling, has lost much its bloom in the face of soaring food prices and recent studies contending that its carbon impact nearly matches regular diesel, thanks to all the energy and fertilizer needed to grow soybeans. And the price of soybean oil has tripled in the past two years, pricing biodiesel well above petrodiesel. Of course that could change. A couple years ago biodiesel was cheaper.

As Simmons and I walked down Mercer Street toward South Lake Union, she pointed out a bicycle lane installed just last year. It's part of a new bicycle master plan meant to encourage people to ride instead of drive. Last year 15 miles of new lanes and sharrows (shared-lane arrows) were painted on city streets. To that carrot, the mayor added a stick. Simmons and I strolled past private parking lots that were hit last summer with a new 5 percent parking tax, recently raised to 7.5 percent. Next year it'll rise to 10 percent — one more disincentive to driving.

At Westlake Avenue, we hopped aboard the new South Lake Union streetcar. The streetcar wasn't part of Nickels's climate plan — it was meant to spur development in Paul Allen's neighborhood, a fact that's piqued critics who see it as a pricey distraction from needed bus expansion. But it's one more way to get people out of cars, directed at those who refuse to ride buses. During the ride Simmons described her eight-person department, one of the smallest in the city. "We're an idea shop, an incubator," she said. She doesn't have the budget to pay for grandiose projects, so Simmons and her colleagues try out new ideas on a small scale, then move the good ones into the appropriate City departments. Some of the best ideas are borrowed or stolen. Her boss, Office of Sustainability and Environment director Steve Nicholas, chats up his counterparts in 15 cities in a monthly conference call. "We're all looking for new ideas that work," Nicholas later told me. "They move pretty quickly on the grapevine." "The city has been committed to sustainability for a long time," Simmons told me. "We realize that. It's not like Seattle magically began looking at climate change in February of 2005. But the mayor's Climate Protection Initiative really gave everything a kick in the butt."

To hear his critics tell it, it's the mayor's butt that needs to be kicked — for not going far enough. While other cities worry about overspending on climate programs, some local leaders think Nickels is too timid. Peter Steinbrueck, the former City Council member who's on the list of Nickels's potential 2009 challengers, thinks we're lagging. "Our reputation is bigger than our accomplishments," he said. "We're still hugely dependent on our automobiles, and we're the only city on the West Coast without a workable mass transit system."

Exhibit A, for Steinbrueck and many others, is (or rather was) Mayor Nickels's support for a $3.4 billion Alaskan Way tunnel. On the one hand Nickels advocated a reduction of vehicles in the city. On the other he wanted to rebuild a main artery bringing them here. Mass transit boosters, already feeling burned by Nickels's torpedoing of the planned monorail, seethed. "Mayors that are serious about fighting climate change don't build highways through the centers of their cities. They tear 'em down," wrote Stranger editor Dan Savage in a blog entry whose headline displayed all the venom of a monorail supporter scorned: "Greg Nickels: Lying Sack of Shit."

Last year Seattle voters rejected both Nickels's tunnel and Governor Chris Gregoire's $2.8 billion elevated highway. The loss seemed to chasten the mayor. Seattleites, it turned out, were more gung ho about kicking cars out of the city than he thought. "My mistake on the viaduct was accepting the State's assertion that we had to replace the roadway that moved 110,000 vehicles through the city every day," Nickels told me. "We still need to have commerce take place in the city. But now we're thinking in terms of how we replace the movement of goods and people, as opposed to the movement of vehicles."

Nickels's bike plan also gets mixed reviews. Seattle has the third-highest percentage of bicycle commuters in the nation but little room to ride — only 22 miles of on-street bike lanes. San Francisco has 44 miles. Minneapolis has 79. Portland has more than 100. The mayor's Bicycle Master Plan, a centerpiece of his Climate Action Plan, would add 118 miles of bike lanes over the next 10 years. Bike groups like the Cascade Bicycle Club, which helped develop the plan, think it's a good start. But others are calling for more drastic steps. "They've set the bar way too low," says Cathy Tuttle, a leader of Spokespeople, a group that advocates for safe bike routes in Seattle's neighborhoods. "If the mayor wants 35 percent of the population moving from cars to buses and bikes, we need to give up 35 percent of our roads to those uses. Giving over 2 percent of the city's Department of Transportation budget to paint stripes on the road won't get it done." (A Seattle DOT spokesperson says most street projects "now include some spending on bicycle improvements," and there's no way to sort out how much it adds up to.)

Others want a much stronger push, and point to international cities as examples. Over the past 30 years Curitiba, Brazil, has cut its car traffic by one-third while doubling its population (to 1.7 million), thanks to strict vehicle limits and one of the world's best bus systems. London, Stockholm, and Singapore already have congestion pricing up and running. Since 2003, drivers in London have paid $16 to enter the city center between 7 am and 6 pm on weekdays. Earlier this year London's then-Mayor Ken Livingstone announced an additional $35 charge for vehicles with high CO2 emissions.

The gulf separating Mayor Nickels and his counterparts in Curitiba and London is the distance between gradual evolution and radical revolution. Even Steinbrueck (who said, "Congestion pricing? Absolutely!") allowed, "I don't think we're ready for a toll to get into downtown." To give him his due, the mayor included a hard look at congestion pricing in his Climate Action Plan. "We found that state tax law won't allow it," Nickels told me. "Mayor Bloomberg in New York City is running into the same problem. He needs permission from Albany."

That permission is proving hard to come by. In April the New York State Assembly killed Bloomberg's plan to charge drivers $8 to enter a lower Manhattan during rush hour. Outerborough and upstate Democrats considered the idea an elitist burden on their working-class constituents. The same dynamic could well play out here, with Eastsiders and others balking at paying tolls to drive their Ford Expeditions down Second Avenue. Beyond the political challenges, there's the simple fact that congestion pricing depends on supercharged mass transit — you've still got to move people into town — which doesn't yet exist.

Short of congestion pricing, Nickels has grasped at other ideas for cutting down car use. Earlier this year he and Senator Ed Murray proposed a statewide auto carbon tax, pegged to gas mileage. A Hummer owner would pay $180 a year, a Prius owner $60, with the money going to mass transit. But this is a state that suffered political convulsions over the high cost of car tabs 10 years ago. Legislators, mindful of that history, let the idea die a quiet death.

Greg Nickels is many things, but a poor politician isn't one of them. Last February, as if sensing that other cities were catching up, the mayor made a bold new promise in his State of the City address: "We must go an order of magnitude beyond the goals of Kyoto and cut our emissions 80 percent by 2050. Skeptics will say that it can't be done. We will show them how it can."

When I asked him about that pledge, Nickels smiled. "Easy for me to say that, right? I'm not going to be around in 2050. I'm not going to get to an 80 percent reduction. But we can change the way we behave, the way we live in the city. This is a multigenerational partnership. It's going to take a long time to fix."

Any reporter who covers environmental affairs in Seattle has heard this refrain from local activists: Mayor Nickels may sound green, but he's really anything but.

Consider their argument. The City Council and Mayor Paul Schell were out in front on Kyoto and sustainable buildings years before Greg Nickels discovered the issues. Peter Steinbrueck led the way on the surface-street option for replacing the viaduct. Urban creek activists have fought Nickels tooth and nail on City-caused damage to wetlands in the South Park neighborhood. When Nickels proposed building a new waste-transfer station in Georgetown, City Council president Richard Conlin convinced him to instead adopt a zero-waste strategy.

There's no question that Greg Nickels has been lucky: He enjoys the kudos when green policies set by his predecessors bear fruit. But that's politics. And give him credit: The mayor is a genius at leveraging power. Seattle hasn't seen a bully pulpiteer like him sinceâ'ꂬ¦well, since never. The City Council adopted the Kyoto goals back in 2000, but only Nickels made it a citywide quest. He knows how to make the grand gestures that resonate throughout the city and the nation. Witness his recent order to stop City departments from buying bottled water and his (and Conlin's) proposed 20-cent-a-bag tax on plastic grocery bags.

Those moves send messages. City workers I talked to, like Seattle Center facility manager Mike Moon, were absolutely psyched to find the greenest, most efficient products and systems available. (The nice thing about an overbearing boss is that everyone down the chain of command knows what he wants.) On the national scene, Nickels has made Seattle a symbol of climate-change progressivism without turning it into a Berkeley-style caricature of lefty loonyism. For proof look no further than last May's visit by John McCain, who used the Cedar River Watershed, source of Seattle's drinking water, to outline his climate change plan. Liberal bastions like Seattle are notorious for passing hollow resolutions about national issues: Stop funding the Nicaraguan Contras, end the Iraq War. Nickels did the opposite. He's the first American mayor with the brains and political savvy to mobilize the U.S. Conference of Mayors on a national issue. He took the local and made it global. That the issue happened to be green was just a lucky break for the earth.

In the end it may not matter how green Greg Nickels really is. The greenest progress sometimes results from ulterior motives. Most of America's bedrock environmental laws — the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act — were signed into law by Richard Nixon, who cared more about squashing political enemies than saving bald eagles. What Nickels seems to care about is creating a city that works. Thirty years ago he probably would have championed jobs and industry over the environment. But we live in a time when environmental sustainability dovetails with urban efficiency and commercial success. The cost of poor environmental performance is going up so fast that Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the notoriously hard-nosed buyout firm, recently partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund to green up the companies in KKR's portfolio. "Green-collar jobs" is no longer a quaint hippie notion; the smart money is flowing to alternative fuels, green buildings, and sustainable materials. Global energy companies like BP and Shell are pouring resources into alternative fuels. The venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins, famous for nurturing Google and, recently announced a $500 million fund dedicated to green technology start-ups.

With Greg Nickels, it's not about being virtuous. It's about being prosperous. And all those symbolic gestures create an atmosphere that draws next-generation talent, entrepreneurial energy, and investment to the city. "We're not just living out our environmental values; we're encouraging the growth of a new, robust clean-energy economy," said K. C. Golden, the former director of energy policy for Washington State. Golden, now policy director at the research group Climate Solutions, is a consultant to the mayor's office on climate change issues. "This should be the next Boeing and Microsoft put together," he says. "We've got to replace 80 percent of our fossil fuel industry, which is the biggest enterprise in human history. That's the scale of the commercial opportunity here."

Near the end of our interview, I asked the mayor what he hoped people would remember about him 20 years from now. He didn't mention the environment. He didn't even mention climate change.

"I hope this is remembered as the time when Seattle moved from a big town to a big city," he said. "You can't hate sprawl and despise density. I want people to say, 'This is when we figured out how to act as a big city.' The second thing is light rail. I worked on it for 20 years. I was attacked on the issue when I first ran for mayor. It was hard, heavy lifting. And now we're opening the first line next year." You can hear it in his answers: The main thing is to keep the city moving and booming. Clearing gridlock just happens to coincide with cutting emissions. Light rail's contribution to a carbon-neutral strategy is a side benefit, but if it gets the line built faster, then the mayor is happy to wave the green flag.

We closed the interview. Nickels had a full schedule that day before catching a plane to Austin to attend a conference on energy and urban sustainability. As he stood up to leave, I noticed a bumper sticker sitting on a coffee table in his office: "KYOTO: We can't get there by car." As a conversation piece, it seemed a bit obvious and self-congratulatory. But you have to like the fact that it's there. As much as it reminds visitors about Seattle's most pressing problem, it also reminds the mayor.


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