Questions Answered

Jessica Finn Coven Wants to Save Us from Ourselves

The director of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment has no patience for climate change deniers.

By Jessica Voelker March 1, 2016 Published in the March 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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Jessica Finn Coven photographed in Capitol Hill on January 23, 2016.

Image: Lou Daprile

In 2002, Jessica Finn Coven traveled to China to work for an NGO and quickly discovered the connection between human rights and climate change. She joined Greenpeace, tackling the Sisy-phean task of converting Exxon Mobil to the cause. “I became completely hooked,” says Finn Coven, today the director of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment. Five months into the job, Finn Coven was in France witnessing the December 2015 watershed Paris Agreement, when 195 countries came to historic consensus around carbon emissions. On March 10, she speaks at the Climate Leadership Conference in downtown Seattle. 

Explain the connection between climate change and social justice.

Globally, the folks who have contributed least to the problem of climate change are set to suffer its worst impacts. When you look at climate impacts from heat events to flooding, our lowest income communities—and often communities of color—are ones who are set to suffer the worst.

Do you see that connection here?

In Seattle there aren’t a lot of places set to see devastating impacts of sea level rise. But the ones that are, are largely in the lower Duwamish Valley, where many of the residents don’t have the resources to prepare.

How are you working with them?

Seattle Public Utilities is making infrastructure decisions based on anticipated future sea level rise. With the South Park Pump Station currently under design, it’s evaluating options to protect critical components of the station to withstand potential flooding.

Do you encounter people who still doubt the impacts of climate change?

I did from time to time when I worked in Olympia. You know, the questioning of climate science seems to be unique to this country. It doesn’t happen outside our borders. 

You didn’t experience it in China?

Absolutely never. Even the people who weren’t supportive of taking the steps to solve the problem didn’t doubt that the science was real. There was a very clear international scientific consensus. 

What’s the most important thing Seattleites can do to tackle climate change?

Stay informed. We have lots of community members who call me all the time and say: “I have an idea.” And then taking those ideas to their community—that’s how we’re going to win. Sometimes you see a global problem and it seems so hard to solve, but we are solving the problem at the city scale, and that starts in our neighborhoods. 

Is it too hard, or maybe too late?

Looking at the science, we are set to see some impacts of climate change, but we can still avoid the worst ones. I don’t think it’s too late. It’s certainly not too early, right?

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