Community Voices / Addressing climate change in Whatcom County - Salish Current
August 17, 2021
Community Voices / Addressing climate change in Whatcom County
Stevan Harrell

Deadly heatwaves deemed virtually impossible without climate change have broken records in the Pacific Northwest and southwestern Canada this summer, and tested capabilities to keep animals as well as humans safe. At left, a cow at Steensma Creamery in Lynden keeps her cool under a misting hose on a 106-degree day.  (Photo courtesy Kate Steensma)

August 17, 2021
Community Voices / Addressing climate change in Whatcom County
Stevan Harrell


The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Climate change has come to Whatcom County. If we didn’t know it before, record temperatures in June and August should convince us. According to an international science team, these extreme temperatures would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change.

Fortunately, the County now has a plan. Volunteers from the Climate Impact Advisory Committee have produced the County’s Climate Action Plan, which was presented to the County Council on Aug. 10. 

The plan’s most important recommendation is to establish an Office of Climate Action in the county government, in order to deal with the multiple problems we face now and in the near future. The office, to be headed by a senior climate advisor to the county council and executive, would coordinate and expand the work that county departments are already doing to face the challenges of a changing climate.

The plan lays out two principal tasks: 

  • Move quickly to a low-carbon economy that stops contributing to global warming, and
  • Adapt to those changes that are already here or will inevitably happen soon. 

The plan emphasizes that we need to approach these tasks with urgency, equity, transparency and accountability. 

Greening our county: climate mitigation

Greening our county economy means climate mitigation: reducing and eventually eliminating net emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG). Whatcom per capita GHG emissions are among the highest in the state. Almost all those emissions come from burning fossil fuels — about half from the refineries at Cherry Point and the rest mostly from transportation and building heating. 

The recently passed historic “Cherry Point Amendments” to the county Comprehensive Plan guarantee that there will be no new refineries built in the county, but it will be difficult to reduce emissions from the current refineries unless they convert to processes other than petroleum refining. This will require creative and cooperative solutions among refinery owners, scientists and engineers, labor unions, and representatives of the public. 

We can move quickly and aggressively to electrify both our buildings and our transportation system. The plan recommends that new buildings be all-electric and that retrofits of existing buildings replace natural gas with electricity for space heating, water heating, and appliances. 

Because Puget Sound Energy, our largest electric utility, still generates about two-thirds of its electricity from fossil fuel sources, electrifying is not enough. Our electric grid needs to green as it grows. We need support for local wind and solar power generation, including rooftop solar and distributed generation such as community solar, which will make renewable power affordable for communities of color and economically disadvantaged populations. 

We also need to electrify transportation. The county government can lead the way by electrifying its own fleet, but the main task is to make charging vehicles convenient, with more charging stations. 

Preparing our county: climate adaptation

Even if we can slow and then stop greenhouse gas emissions, climate change is already here, and its effects will get worse. The second part of the Climate Action Plan deals with climate adaptation, making our neighborhoods, fisheries, farms and water systems more resilient to inevitable changes. 

In the next few decades, not only will our county get warmer, but precipitation patterns will also change. Less rain will fall in summer and more in winter, and much of what now falls as snow in the Cascades will fall as rain. This means less snowpack and less water available for fish, farms and families in the summertime. Summer dry periods will also lengthen. 

To adapt to these changes, we need to distribute and use water equitably and efficiently. Any solution must take into consideration how climate change will affect the rights and needs of tribes (whose senior rights are guaranteed by treaty), farmers and municipal users. The first step is an accurate assessment of current and projected future water supplies. We can also economize on water use, particularly in agriculture, through developing new crops and new technologies. County support and collaboration with universities and research institutes can help farmers and other water users adapt to drier summers, wetter winters, and hotter temperatures. 

Importance of the Office of Climate Action

There is a lot to do and not much time. The county should immediately establish the Office of Climate Action and move to fund it in the next biennial budget. In addition to the senior climate advisor, the office will include an information specialist to create and maintain publicly available databases of climate change and climate action. This will give us the human and financial resources to implement the plan’s recommendations before the worst impacts of climate change are already upon us. 

Climate change requires climate action. Whatcom County has the opportunity to be a climate leader. The County Climate Action Plan provides guidelines for climate mitigation and adaptation, starting now. 

Commentary by Stevan Harrell, with contributions by Ellyn Murphy and David Kershner 

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