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Exploring a Carbon Neutral City - Notes from Seattle's Unconference
Justus Stewart, 11 Apr 10

A huge thank you to everyone who came downtown on a blustery morning to participate in last Saturday's unconference on a carbon neutral Seattle!

Carbon neutrality is a simple idea with complicated details: it's hard to define and far-reaching in its implications. Carbon neutrality implies a city that uses no fossil fuels and produces no unused waste - a city where every system functions differently than it does today. Yet the idea of Seattle becoming North America’s first carbon neutral city - and achieving that goal by 2030 - has taken hold. Becoming that city would be a response commensurate to the challenge of global climate change. It would establish Seattle as a global leader in sustainable development, urban innovation, and the burgeoning green economy. Last Saturday's small group of leading thinkers - “a renegade crew of Seattle’s green rock stars” - came together to address the question: 'where do we even start?'

In an energetic and inspiring day, hosted by Mithun, we heard from over 40 presenters and panelists on an amazing range of potential solutions, guiding principles, and significant hurdles. The day's discussion covered understanding regional transportation funding to using art to illuminate our relationship to the planet. From the political, such as the need for political accountability in our State legislature, to the financial, such as the potential of a national infrastructure bank to finance large projects such as light rail. We discussed the challenge of defining 'neutrality' and using meaningful metrics, and the importance of non-local actions such as placing a global price on carbon, to avoid a game, as Sightline's Eric de Place put it, of "carbon whack-a-mole". City Council President Richard Conlin presented the City’s current efforts to promote sustainable urban agriculture, while Cary Moon of the People’s Waterfront Coalition and Joshua Curtis of Great City discussed three steps that could transform how we plan Seattle's future. Participants learned about radical improvements in building efficiency, district-wide green building solutions, and how we design our neighborhoods for better social outcomes. Speakers addressed considerations of equity, both economic and intergenerational. Can climate neutrality be achieved through a system that requires nothing of the extremely poor, allowing those with the means – and the historical responsibility – to pay? How do we involve Seattle’s fourth-graders in our discussions? Today’s 10-year-olds will be our mid-career workforce in 2030. There was discussion on the challenges and responsibilities of journalists who report on climate, with a call for a northwest climate journalism summit.

Space constrains us from writing about every great speaker and idea; you can follow the ongoing conversation via Twitter with the hashtag #0co2. A huge thank you to every one of an incredible lineup of speakers: Alex Steffen, Richard Conlin, Ashley de Forest, Sean Conroe, Rob Harrison, Cameron Hall, Stephanie Pure, Eric de Place, Peter Erickson, Charlie Cunniff, Critter Thompson, Erin Christensen, Brian Geller, Joe Brewer, Anima Lavoy, Lisa Stiffler, Paul Fleming, Cary Moon, Joshua Curtis, Chris Jordan, Ben Beres, Dan Albert, Charles R. Wolfe, Diana Vinh, Liz Dunn, Jesse Kocher, Nate Cole-Daum, Cathy Tuttle, Charles R. Wolfe, Rob Johnson, Jemae Hoffman, Blake Trask, Craig M. Benjamin, Chris Rule, Erica C. Barnett, Mike McGinn, Sol Villareal, Michael Grenetz, Luis Borrero, Sara Nikolic, Roger Valdez, Jill Simmons, and Mike O'Brien!

Three talks anchored the day's events; Alex Steffen's morning opening talk, Mayor McGinn's lunchtime call to action, and Councilmember O'Brien's closing discussion on next steps.

The day kicked off with Worldchanging’s Alex Steffen – who first suggested the goal of carbon neutrality for Seattle last fall – providing context for the day’s conversations. Steffen pointed out that Seattle is in a unique position to pursue this goal, with both a head start in clean energy, thanks to our hydroelectric system, and a global image as an environmental leader that makes our decisions resonate beyond the size of our population or economy. If we're going to do it at all, it should be here, and it has to be now.

In a short lunch-time speech on the politics of transportation and climate, Mayor Mike McGinn laid out how much of our problem is political, not technical. He declared that we have the voters on our side; that we have the data on our side; and that we have the good ideas. So why aren’t we winning? Why do our major transportation investments actually increase our emissions, while our policies say we will reduce them? McGinn’s message was clear: “The politicians in this region don’t care about what we care about – they just don’t.” Politics matter, and McGinn framed the conversation as a division of approaches: the wonks and the hacks. The wonks - the policy and data crowd, believing in the power of a good idea - were definitely the majority in the room. “We need to tap our inner hacks,” the Mayor said, “because we will win or lose this fight in the political realm, not the realm of ideas.” The results we’re getting on our regional transportation future are not about the best solutions, they are an expression of the political will of powerful interests. As McGinn said, "the other side isn't stopping.”

There was a heavy focus throughout the day on transportation, which reflects its central role in our regions discussions on sustainability. Right after McGinn spoke on transportation, a panel of transportation experts and activists, moderated by Publicola’s Erica Barnett, discussed Seattle’s commitment to ‘Walk, Bike, Ride” – a non-auto transportation future. If the region is to achieve any of its sustainability-related goals, we must make make car-free living a realistic option for more people. Building on some of the points made by McGinn, the panel discussed how our spending priorities reveal our values on transportation; how if the Central Business District grows as much as expected, and people continue driving to work at current rates, we'll need 20 blocks of new parking garages; how at current rates of funding, no one alive today will see a completed pedestrian master plan; and how our city funds non-automobile infrastructure with millions of dollars while, the region funds auto infrastructure with billions.

The event culminated in an open discussion, moderated by Seattle City Councilmember Mike O’Brien, of the day’s most important details, addressing three significant questions to emerge from the day:

1. The ‘choir question’: how do we expand the discussion in a meaningful way to include a more diverse group of participants?

2. Identifying our principal barriers: what stands in the way of progress toward carbon neutrality?

3. Now what? Where do we go from here, and what are our next steps?

In addressing these three questions, the group identified an array of solutions, ideas, and needs. The principle takeaways were that our combined efforts could be powerful, but we lack tools for coordination and collaboration; that we can include more diverse voices by speaking clearly about the range of benefits associated with carbon neutrality; and that we will not win this fight if we don’t engage the politics and become a movement. We must express our vision with a unified voice, and hold our leaders accountable for its implementation. The full list of ideas generated through the closing session is temporarily available through google docs here. We are in the process of creating a little wiki where this list can be used to generate further discussion.

Saturday was a great beginning to a much larger conversation. The group was unanimous in its desire for more ideas, more interaction, and more momentum. We will follow up the day's events with online resources for communication and collaboration, and will begin planning future events. In the meantime, it is up to all of us to keep these conversations going - here are a few ways to start:

Most importantly, whether you attended the unconference or not, please let us know what you think by filling out this short survey to help us plan for the next conversations.

Check out - and upload - photos from the event.

Read a longer article on the day from Grist.

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It was a fantastic event. Thanks to Justus and Alex for pulling us together!

Joe Brewer
Project Coordinator
Seattle Innovators

Posted by: Joe Brewer on 11 Apr 10

The worlds social, political, economic, environmental and global consciousness is coming together to build a sustainable future, based upon the Common-Unities of humanity and it's desire for creating Peaceful*Change...

In the knowledge that nature offers he'r very*best, and demands only the same in return... for...

One is neither part of the problem nor the solution one is merely a consequence of a situation, therefore to improve the situation simply change the consequence.

Unite the C.H.A.O.S.

Posted by: Bruce Larson*Moore on 15 Apr 10

Reply by Campionatul Mondial de Fotbal 2010: I am presently, and for many decades have been, a resident of the Seattle area. So, I remember what a truly "green" environment the Seattle area was before we were invaded by the "developers" who have ruined this area with their greed.

The "inconvenient reality" is the green jobs are going where all the other jobs have gone -- to third world countries where the labor is cheaper than it is here, especially to China (who is now the leader in all things green, just in case you didn't know).

If the green jobs aren't real, then who in the Seattle area is willing, or even able, to pay for the massive infrastructure changes required by your green insanity?

You also speak of green justice, which I think is ironic because Seattle and Washington State in particular are some of the most economically unjust areas of our country (i.e. if you don't have a lot of money, don't bother coming here, or you can spend your life watching other wealthier people living theirs -- right in your face, usually).

The net result of all these green ideas are simply going to increase the population pressure in Seattle (and, hence, economic pressure) on a very limited land area that cannot even support the population we have now.

Wait! I know what we can do to provide all the money for greening up Seattle! It's so simple that it is a wonder no one has thought of it before. We can change the tax laws to force the wealthy to actually pay their fair share for a change. Unfortunately, they would simply leave, sticking us with bill anyhow, so I guess it won't work after all. But then, neither will any of your ideas either.

By the way, lest you think I am simply some ill-educated "redneck," I am a retired CPA/MBA who used to work in senior management for several of the hi-tech and aerospace supply companies (for Boeing) that are no longer here, having been "outsourced" to Asia.

If you can't understand history, you are doomed to repeat it. I suggest you take a look at our history and try to understand how we got here, before handing out simplistic solutions to complex problems.

If you find this reply designed to "disrupt a conversation rather than contribute to it" or "insulting and abusive," I would be interested in being afforded the courtesy of hearing exactly why (you do, after all, have my email address).

Sometimes the truth can be a little painful and, apparently, you need a good strong dose of it.

Posted by: shb on 14 May 10

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