It's Getting Hot in Here

Seattle City Council Candidates Eye a Green New Deal

As the Democratic Party wrestles with a Green New Deal and Washington makes climate progress, city council candidates are bringing new urgency to Seattle’s environmental efforts.

By Philip Kiefer May 3, 2019

Shaun Scott, who has been campaigning for District 4 with a Seattle Green New Deal platform, speaks at March’s Youth Climate Strike in Cal Anderson Park.

Image: Philip Kiefer

This year’s class of liberal city council candidates would like you to imagine a very different Seattle—one where the city meets its emissions goals, invests in green buildings, provides affordable public transit, and pays for it all with progressive taxes. The idea might sound familiar if you’ve watched the rise of Democratic stars like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Here, the candidates are calling the vision the Seattle Green New Deal.

National interest in the Green New Deal has begun to filter down into local races, and many of the candidates in this year’s crowded city council race are vocal climate hawks. That momentum complements a burst of bills passed by the state legislature during the last two weeks. The most significant commits the state to a carbon-neutral grid by 2030. Another will require buildings over 50,000 square feet to conform to strict emissions standards. The success contrasts the last few years, when carbon pricing laws (a 2016 tax, then a 2018 fee on polluters) were knocked down.

Shaun Scott—a reporter, historian, labor organizer, and poster child for the Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America—has released the most strident version of a Seattle Green New Deal so far. He’s running for Rob Johnson’s seat in District 4  (Eastlake, Wallingford, the University District, etc.). So far, he’s raking in contributions on an unabashedly progressive plank: as of today, he had access to $56,000 in Democracy Vouchers, $5,000 more than any other candidate. And the primary is still months away.

Scott’s Seattle Green New Deal has been shared widely on social media as an easy-to-digest infographic. On one side is a list of policy goals; on the other, how to pay for them. It includes everything from free public transit and an expanded bike lane network to a LEED-certified affordable housing push. To finance it, he’s proposing a range of revenue streams: a tax on private golf courses, a real estate speculation tax, and even public debt. “We need to explore debt as an option,” he said during a talk last week in the University District. “It’s a question of would you rather be paying off debts in 40 or 50 years as we do with big sports stadiums? Or would you rather not have a planet to live on?”

But Scott is hardly the only person running on climate action. An ascendant group of youth activists, including Fridays for the Future and Sunrise, are pushing the conversation forward. District 3 incumbent Kshama Sawant has embraced a Green New Deal, and mayor Jenny Durkan just announced an electric-vehicle charging program. Also running for District 4, Emily Myers, a University of Washington neuroscience PhD candidate and labor organizer, emphasizes efficiency in buildings: In 2016, electricity and heating in buildings were responsible for 16 percent of the city’s emissions. And she’s proposing incentives for landlords to retrofit their buildings. “A lot of candidates are talking transit, and we’re trying to go beyond,” she says. 

Cathy Tuttle, another District 4 candidate, wants the city to account for carbon emissions in all its decision making. “The only way we can get started is making a note of it,” she said. She also wants the city to begin investing in climate resilience policies (like cooling centers for the elderly) and sea level rise management to deal with warming that’s already locked in. “The whole energy of the Green New Deal is changing the conversation,” Tuttle says.

Last week in the University District, both Scott and Jessyn Farrell, a former state legislator and self-described “recovering politician,” said that to win environmental policy battles, activists need to change the “master narrative.” Effective climate change policy, said Farrell, “drives a different story.” It’s convincing people that “investments in the environment are investments in people, and investments in people are investments in the economy.”

Still, the Seattle Green New Deal and the national one, in their current forms, are more storytelling tools than concrete policy prescriptions. When I asked if he would tackle any of his platform immediately if in office, Scott pointed towards more cautious first steps. “The first thing I will want to do is compile the possible incentives we could have for all of the actors in the region’s economy—homeowners, housing providers, big business—[to] make decisions from a climate-conscious perspective.”

Despite the new urgency, successful policy is going to have to win a broad coalition of supporters. Still, he said, this isn’t a just a flight of fancy. “Is [my plan] theoretical? Theoretically, I think we should have a planet that we can live on. That’s my big commitment—knowing that there’s so much we can do at the city level, and the longer we wait to act, the harder we’re going to have to work on it later.”

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