A shot of last summer's haze from the water taxi.

Image: Jane Sherman

By now, you’ve probably seen the news: Seattle summers are getting more dangerous as the planet gets hotter. A recent study found that hundreds more Seattleites, falling victim to longer and more frequent heat waves, will die every year if emissions continue apace. And that's before factoring in the wildfire smoke that choked Seattle last summer, which is expected to worsen.

The mayor's office urged residents to stay indoors or seek shelter at public libraries during the worst of last year's haze. But candidates in Seattle's hotly-contested District 4 race, which Crosscut called a microcosm of city politics, argue the city hasn't done enough. Cathy Tuttle, a longtime environmental activist, has made climate adaptation a focus of her campaign. As the effects of climate change intensify, she says, “there are going to be times of the year when it is going to be unsafe to be outside."

Tuttle wants the city to prioritize funding for emergency shelters in community centers and other public spaces, which would require upgraded filtration systems and additional healthcare workers. That's in part to address the inequitable nature of heat and smoke emergencies. The burden falls squarely on the most vulnerable people in the city, the unhoused and elderly. Last September, Real Change reported that its vendors continued to feel the effects of smoke a month later, in the form of “prolonged coughing…and even vomiting blood.”

In fact, the city has taken some first steps, though not as quickly as candidates might want. The mayor's office recently announced a plan to upgrade filtration systems in five public buildings—two in community centers and three around Seattle Center. Julia Reed, a policy analyst for the city, says that the spaces could then be used as emergency shelters from heat or smoke, although there aren't specific plans on the table. Right now, she says, the goal is to upgrade public spaces where people naturally spend time, so that smoke "disrupt[s] people's lives as little as possible." Similarly, the city council unanimously endorsed a Green New Deal resolution to implement environmental justice and carbon reduction policies—but hasn't specified what those policies will be.

Shaun Scott, perhaps the most strident environmental justice council candidate, bolstered by a Sierra Club endorsement, says using only existing infrastructure to address the crisis is "shortsighted." Even Alex Pedersen, Scott's most direct foil in the race, agrees that the city needs to step up its approach. While Pedersen declined to endorse specific adaptive strategies—he wants the mayor to propose policies first—he pointed out that Jenny Durkan's 2018 climate plan needs an update, as it only addresses mitigation.

Scott's plans are more concrete, if harder to enact. Though he thinks the city should take immediate steps, like funding emergency shelters and handing out masks on smoky days (Reed notes that masks can pose their own health risks), Scott says the problem can only really be solved with systemic changes. He's championed large investments in publicly funded housing for the sake of affordability and carbon reductions, claiming such housing would also allow the city to adapt to the hot, smoky new normal by giving people shelter in their own homes.

Of course, the city also has a plan in place to reduce emissions in line with Paris Agreement goals, which, if met, would dramatically reduce the severity of heat waves. We've even set our sights on carbon neutrality by 2050. But a study released earlier this year shows that total emissions have continued to rise, driven largely by Seattle's transportation sector—which, as Scott notes, contributes not just to emissions but smoke and smog emergencies. Without dramatic changes to our climate plans, then, it seems likely the city will be stuck playing catch up.

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