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Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn Talks Climate and Carbon


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, I'm Ira Flatow. He's been called Mayor McSchwinn for riding his bicycle to work. He's pledged to turn his town of Seattle into a model for what one city can do to lower its carbon footprint, and for good reason. As the climate changes, coastal cities like Seattle are challenged by rising sea levels.

Seattle saw its highest tide on record last December. So what's a Seattle mayor to do? Well, we're going to ask him today. We're at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, and Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is here. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MAYOR MICHAEL MCGINN: Glad to be here.

FLATOW: Did you ride your bike here?


FLATOW: Do you ride it every day?

MCGINN: Pretty much.

FLATOW: Is it symbolic of something?

MCGINN: It's a great way to get around.

FLATOW: Tell us what you think that you can do as a mayor to encourage people to be aware of climate change and to participate in actually doing something about it.

MCGINN: Well, you know, the question you were raising in the intro: What can a city do about climate change, so the changes that are required are at all levels of government? So we have to take a look at the local level, what are the things we control and have the greatest influence over. Land use is one of them, what types of buildings you can build where.

Our local streets, how we design them to support walking, biking and transportation - and buses as opposed to driving is another one. And so those are things we focus on in terms of the policies we set, and they can make a big difference. Incentives for people in their home energy use and green buildings.

And then at the - to try to influence the state and the federal government. We have a major issue here, which is we're a - they're going to be shipping coal through Seattle from the Powder River Basin in Montana, Wyoming, to China. And, you know, that's something I think the state and the national government need to take a look at. That's not very good national energy policy.

FLATOW: Is there any way that you can influence that shipment?

MCGINN: Well, here's what we're doing. And just to state again what the problem is, since we're on national audience, we're somewhat more familiar with it here - there's huge reserves of coal in Montana and Wyoming in the Powder River Basin. And what's been happening is they are selling less coal. You know, the electricity producers are going to other sources. So they need new markets.

So they're looking to China to do it. So they're talking about shipping, you know, 18 trains a day worth of coal from Montana, Wyoming, to western ports to head over to China. And it's - more carbon emissions would result from that coal than the carbon emissions that would result from the fossil fuels that come from the Keystone Pipeline, which is, as you know, a national issue as well.

So I've been working with tribal leaders and other city leaders up and down the train line to talk about the impacts on local communities, which would be substantial. The trains lose about two percent of their load along the way, they're uncovered coal cars; very significant traffic impacts, economic impacts, health impacts, as well, of course, the impacts of the pollution coming back across the Pacific Ocean towards us, the mercury in fish, the global warming pollution.

So we've put together a leadership alliance against coal, and we're going to do our best to convince the decision makers to make a smart decision about that.

FLATOW: Back on the other coast, another mayor you might be familiar with, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, announced a $20 billion plan to fortify the city from sea level rise, and amazing things he's called for, levees and sea walls, a high price tag. Does your city face those kinds of challenges too, of holding back the sea? And are you planning for those?

MCGINN: Yes, and in fact we're replacing our sea wall. We have one on our - on Elliott Bay. It was built about, you know, 50-plus years ago, wasn't built for earthquakes, and one of the things we had to do was look at how tall do we have to build it for the future, because we want it to last 50 to 75 years. And a lot of our industrial areas are built on the tide flats of the Duwamish River. So we're going to have to look at how we protect that as well.

And kind of a lesser known problem, but the storm water outflows - you can build a sea wall, but the water will back up the storm water outflows into the city too. So there's a host of issues in adaptation.

FLATOW: If you're like to ask the mayor a question, we have two microphones open here on both sides of the room, and also you can tweet us @scifri @-S-C-I-F-R-I. The city council has a plan to make the city carbon neutral by 2050. Do you support that plan?

MCGINN: I do. Here's the thing though. Whether you're talking about 80 percent reductions by 2050 or carbon neutrality by 2050, that means you have to do a lot in the near term. And probably the first steps for any target are the same, and they need to be substantial. So very supportive of that, and - but the harder part is not what the end outcome should be but what can we do immediately that sets us on a path towards that outcome.

FLATOW: And for Seattle, what would carbon neutral mean? How do you balance the carbon there?

MCGINN: Well, you really have to look for very deep reductions in building energy use. And we have here a new building called the Bullitt Foundation's Headquarters, the Bullitt Center, which is actually - can live off of the energy that hits its roof from the sun, which is pretty dramatic. So that's - those are the types of deep reductions in building energy use we're talking about.

In terms of getting people around, you really have to start building communities that have all the uses people need that are connected within walking and biking distance or connected with electrified transit, and those are big changes as well. And then of course there's always just a certain amount of fossil fuel use that's very hard to get rid of, so you'd have to find ways to offset the remainder by taking other actions that would - might help pull some carbon out of the atmosphere.

FLATOW: In fact, is it true - is it not true that you've made a push to divest the city's pension funds from fossil fuel investment?

MCGINN: I did. Bill McKibben, whose 350.org came to town, gave a speech here at Benaroya Hall. And he spoke to a bunch of us that afternoon that were on our Green Ribbon Commission, which had come up with the plan to reduce our carbon emissions. And he spoke about why he was pushing for divestment.

And after I heard from him, I called my finance director into my office and asked him some questions about our finances, and we can and did divest ourselves immediately from our cash holdings. Far more complex will be getting out of our pension holdings. And that process is now underway. And I announced that night with Bill McKibben that we would start doing that, the first city in the country to do it.

We've gotten 10 other mayors so far to join us, and we're asking others to join as well. We don't expect that, you know, that that will make the fossil fuel companies stop drilling for, you know, fossil fuels or coal or digging it out of the ground, but it's a statement of our values and what we believe the future requires. Because the fact of the matter is, if you - we can get more and more efficient, and we're working on that in the city.

But if we're going to take massive amounts of coal out of the ground, for example, and ship it to China, that will swamp all of the efficiency savings and all of those land use savings we have. We really have to find a way not just to get more efficient and show a better way to grow economically and build great communities - we have to leave those fossil fuels in the ground.

Otherwise we will so overload the atmosphere with carbon that the consequences will be even more severe.

FLATOW: Let's see if we have a question from the audience there. Yes. Step up, please, step up to the mic.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Speaking of local initiatives, I'd like to give you an opportunity to address the question that stumped Al Gore: paper or plastic?


MCGINN: Oh, you know, bring your own. That's the correct answer.


FLATOW: Bringing your own to the supermarket, yeah?


FLATOW: Recyclable one. OK, let's - yes, ma'am, step up to the mic.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi. We banned plastic bags and we all bring our own now, and doomsday didn't happen. So I'm wondering: Would doomsday happen if we banned bottle water in the city?

MCGINN: You know, great question, and one of these things, as I have my bottle of water in front of me that I have not cracked and am feeling a slight bit of carbon guilt if I did.

I think that we need - we've got, in Seattle, we have incredible water. We have our own valley up in the mountains, the Cedar River Watershed. There's no logging in it. It's one of the cleanest water sources in the nation. And we deliver it to you really cheaply. So I'd encourage people in the city to not drink bottled water.

And the issue of a ban is probably one that maybe there's some city council members who'd like to start working on that one.

FLATOW: Do you find common cause with other mayors? Do you find that mayors are taking the leadership roles here?

MCGINN: Absolutely, and I - you know, I've got to sing the praises of my fellow mayors. You know, mayors are, I've discovered, I've just had this job for three years, and this is my first elected official job, I was an advocate in the community before that. Mayors are very close to the people.

We talked about delivering the water, the electricity. You've got to pave the streets. And we also are very close to the impacts on us of these changes that are coming at us due to climate change. And we have the ability to see a difference in our cities. You know, changing how we get around is great for our city's economic vitality, and people want to come here and be part of a walkable, bikable place with great transit.

People want to open up offices in energy efficient buildings. It's part of our appeal as a city of the future, this 50th anniversary of the World's Fair here. So it's good economically for us...

FLATOW: But there's got to be obstacles that you face.

MCGINN: There are huge obstacles, and the huge obstacles are change is always hard. We've got set patterns of doing things. But what I find is that mayors around the country are consistently leaders in innovative new approaches. The mayor of Indianapolis, a Republican, a war veteran, he wants to get his fleet fossil fuel free in Indianapolis.

So I went to my fleet, and I said, hey, we can't let a Republican beat a Democrat here.


MCGINN: Right? We've got the greenest fleet in the nation. We've been given that award multiple times. So we're not making as bold a claim as he is, but we're going to reduce our fossil fuel, a million gallon challenge about shifting off our fleet. And these - our fleet includes fire trucks, utility trucks, you know, the parking enforcement vehicles, police cars, lots of things.

But we're going to keep driving down our fossil fuel use, and in doing so we drive a market for new types of vehicles and more efficient vehicles, and that's something we can make a difference every day.

FLATOW: Can you bring more electric vehicles into town?

MCGINN: Absolutely. We've got a - if you're in Seattle, you see these three-wheel kind of scooter that our parking enforcement officers use right now. It's gas powered. We're going to switch those to electric powered, and it has a bike rack on the back so now that two people will go out to a neighborhood, one on the electric scooter, and then the other one will get on the bike, and they'll cover twice as much territory.

We have hybrid trucks for our utility trucks as well. So you don't have to leave the diesel engine running while you're using the lift, so all sorts of different things we're doing.

FLATOW: I have about 30 seconds. If you could - if I give you a blank check, what would you do with it? What's the one biggest thing you'd like to change?

MCGINN: Oh man, I think for this city our leading use, our leading fossil fuel emissions come from driving, so investing in walking, biking, transit, getting a really seamless transit network and seamless biking network throughout the city, as well as making the city more walkable, huge benefits to economic vitality, quality of life, health, pollution, that would be it.

FLATOW: Well, you certain are a walking, biking example of that.


FLATOW: Thank you very much, Mayor.

MCGINN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Mayor Mike McGinn, a Democrat, Seattle mayor right here at the Pacific Science Center. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

MCGINN: Glad to be here.

FLATOW: We're going to take a short break, and when we come back we're going to take a journey to the center of your brain, no walking or biking required. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.