Seattle’s Green New Deal

Earlier this year, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives “recognizing the duty of the federal government to create a Green New Deal.”  It hasn’t gone anywhere, but it started a conversation about how to address the looming climate crisis while also creating new economic opportunities.

Activists, understanding that the current political reality of Washington D.C. means that federal action is unlikely anytime soon, have begun to focus their efforts instead on local actions in cities with progressive political leadership — Seattle being one of those cities. In June, the Council signed a letter expressing their conceptual support for a Green New Deal. More recently, a group of activists representing Got Green, Mazaska Talks, and the Sierra Club presented to Council member O’Brien’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee on a Seattle version of a Green New Deal.

O’Brien has taken up the charge and is moving forward with legislation. This week, he introduced a resolution laying out the agenda for a Green New Deal for Seattle, along with an ordinance creating a Green New Deal Oversight Board. Let’s look at what they say.

The resolution, “establishing goals, identifying actions necessary to meet those goals, affirming the Federal Green New Deal resolution, and calling for the federal government to enact policies to advance a Green New Deal,” lays out five goals:

  1. Make Seattle free of pollutants that have climate impacts by 2030;
  2. Prioritize investments most harmed by economic, racial, and environmental injustices;
  3. Advance an equitable transition from an extraction-based economy to one based on “regeneration and cooperation;”
  4. Ensure that those with the least amount of power and wealth are positioned to lead during the transition;
  5. Create stable, living-wage jobs that prioritize local hiring, and protect jobs with Project Labor Agreements and Labor Harmony Agreements.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The Green New Deal resolution is a restatement of the broad policy agenda of the progressive majority on the City Council. To that end, it’s both a sweeping document (longer than the federal Green New Deal resolution, as Council member Mosqueda pointed out this morning) and a document that contains little that is new or unfamiliar to those who follow City Hall closely. It contains a long laundry list of initiatives across seven categories:

  • Building efficiency;
  • Transportation efficiency;
  • Housing affordability;
  • Renewable energy;
  • Climate preparedness;
  • Emergency management;
  • Job training.

On the “process” side, it emphasizes centering vulnerable and “frontline” communities who are at risk of falling farther behind in a major economic transition: “Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, immigrants and refugees, low and no income people, houseless people, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, youth, vulnerable elders, and people who work in outdoor occupations.” It also commits to exploring the creation of “Free, Prior and Informed consent policies” with federally recognized tribal nations.

As far as the initiatives go, the list is lengthy, and includes:

  • Limit construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure in Seattle and King County;
  • Equitably increase building energy efficiency;
  • Decrease use of fossil fuels in homes;
  • Encourage weatherization of existing residences, focusing on renters;
  • Transition from natural gas and heating oil to electricity, while ensuring that renters are not impacted by conversions to electric heating and appliances;
  • Develop options for “community-scale, community-owned, distributed generation of electricity in low-income communities;”
  •  Strengthen green building standards for new construction to reduce emissions during construction and maximize energy efficiency;
  • Expand acess to “healthy, affordable, locally-produced, and culturally relevant foods;”
  • Promote community food production;
  • Encourage the consumption of more plant-based foods;
  • Explore locations on public property for urban agriculture and gardening;
  • Invest Sweetened Beverage Tax proceeds to increase access to healthy foods;
  • Make transit more affordable, reliable, and widely accessible;
  • Convert all transit vehicles to be fully electric, and explore fare-free transit, “while ensuring that service and reliability are not negatively impacted;”
  • Facilitate more transit-oriented development;
  • Create a comprehensive system of bus and bike lanes across the entire city;
  • Pilot new electric vehicle and transportation projects in communities with the greatest need for transportation options;
  •  Create a city-wide goal of 100% electric vehicles for ride share, car share, and freight by 2025;
  • Implement congestion pricing that is both equitable and creates revenues to support transit expansion;
  • Encourage City departments and local businesses to encourage their employees to telecommute;
  • Create more housing, especially affordable housing, near transit hubs, green space, and neighborhood amenities;
  • Explore alternative housing models such as community-owned cooperative housing, community land ownership, and community land conservation;
  • Increase housing density;
  • Require that landlords who participate in the city’s weatherization programs limit rent increases for ten years;
  • Remove financial barriers and increase outreach for ADUs;
  • Ensure that neighborhoods experiencing displacement can engage with developers regarding proposed projects in their neighborhoods;
  • Continue investing in the Green Pathways fellowship program, and invest in job training programs;
  • Establish limits on emissions for businesses, especially industrial businesses, and establish a “just transition plan for employers and workers;
  • Support labor unions’ efforts to protect workers’ rights;
  • Support workers’ efforts to unionize;
  • Strengthen worker protection laws;
  • Continue developing strategies to reduce and eliminate solid waste;
  • Invest in climate preparedness and emergency management;
  • Require climate impact planning in all infrastructure projects during design, construction and maintenance;
  • Require that proposed infrastructure projects that use city funding estimate upstream and downstream greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Invest in protection and restoration of natural ecosystems;
  • Create more green spaces and adapt existing ones to make communities more resilient to floods and extreme heat;
  • Promote infrastructure projects that adapt to sea-level rise;
  • Fortify brownfields and other contaminated sites against extreme weather, and expedite cleanup of those sites;
  • Invest in drinking and wastewater systems;
  • Invest in electrical grid modernization;
  • Provide heat shelters and home air filters for vulnerable populations;
  • Place more street trees in low-income neighborhoods, and incourage planting of more street trees city-wide.
  • Develop a strategy such as Green Zones “to prioritize public investment in neighborhoods that have historically been underinvested and disproportionately burdened by environmental hazards and other injustices.”

(yes, it’s all in there; read it yourself)

There are some obvious problems with this:

  • This is “everything but the kitchen sink.” With the exception of programs directly addressing the homelessness crisis and criminal justice reform, pretty much everything from the Council’s progressive policy agenda is in the list. As such, it’s less “New Deal” and more “The Same Deal, Just Everything Written Down In One Place.” But there are no priorities given, nor any notion of where to start. The climate crisis is urgent and requires many simultaneous efforts starting immediately, but there is a limit to how many initiatives can be successfully pursued at the same time.
  • From a legislative point of view, it’s also “logrolling” — an individual City Council member has to take it all-or-nothing. That means even if they still have doubts about congestion pricing (as Sawant does), or if they wonder whether all the increased process and bureaucracy added to construction will decrease housing production in the middle of a major housing crisis, they still must decide whether to sign their names on the entire list – or take a political risk and try to get some of the items removed through amendments.
  • There’s little discussion of how to pay for it — and make no mistake, there are plenty of items on the list that will be extremely expensive. The resolution says that it wants to create a fund and “establish dedicated revenue sources,” as well as “leverage other resources including from the private sector,” that doesn’t even begin to answer the questions regarding how much Seattle’s Green New Deal will cost above and beyond reallocations within the existing city budget and who will pay for it.
  • While it’s a resolution, not an ordinance, and as such is not legally binding, this still represents a nine-person City Council with somewhere between four and seven lameduck members trying to cement a multi-decade progressive agenda for the city (and for the next City Council)  in the final weeks of their term. It would make more sense for the next City Council to pass something like this in January of next year, when they would be setting their own agenda for at least the following four years. But this is a relatively new thing with far-reaching implications (unlike the MHA legislation that was in the works for years), and it’s strange for an outgoing Council with a low approval rating to be pushing for something so all-encompassing. In fact, it smacks of a combination of virtue-signaling in an election year, and a mad rush to push through as much of the Council members’ personal agendas as possible before they leave office.

O’Brien’s Green New Deal ordinance directs the Office of Sustainability and Environment to establish a sixteen-member Green New Deal Oversight Board, “to provide recommendations on the design and modifications of policies, programs and projects related to the Green New Deal for Seattle, and monitor progress in meeting intended outcomes and goals.” True to the resolution’s stated goal of centering the most impacted and vulnerable communities, the Board would consist of:

  • eight members of communities “directly impacted by racial, economic, and environmental injustices,” one of whom should be a tribal member.
  • three representative of organizations engaged in environmental justice work;
  • two representatives of labor unions;
  • three individuals with “depth of experience in greenhouse gas reduction and climate resiliency strategy relevant to cities and their residents, in fields such as public health, infrastructure, sea-level rise, or extreme weather events.”

Missing from that list: representatives from industries and businesses that will be required to make substantial changes, including transportation, construction, and freight. By no means should industry representatives have majority control over the Board, but having no representation at all ensures a disconnect between the city and a set of businesses whose involvement will be critical to the success of the Green New Deal. That’s a recipe for a repeat of the “head tax” debacle.

There is also little discussion as to how this new Board will interact with the existing Environmental Justice Committee, other than a brief mention in the ordinance that they should “coordinate their efforts.”

The ordinance also requires the Office of Sustainability and Environment to convene an Inter-departmental Team to drive the Green New Deal, to support the creation of plans, targets and metrics for all city departments. All city departments will be required to deliver their climate plans to the City Council by July 1, 2020, and provide annual progress reports in the following years.

O’Brien hopes to vote the Green New Deal resolution out of committee tomorrow, with a first discussion of the ordinance tomorrow as well.

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