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The king tides that swamped Alki last winter might be a harbinger of the effects of climate change on Seattle. Diminished snowpack in the Cascades could mean less drinking water and less cheap hydroelectricity. A 3-meter rise in sea level could swamp the Duwamish Waterway, the working port, Sodo and its industrial lands.

While steps Seattle takes to reduce emissions would have little effect on the global climate and those potential threats, they could demonstrate what one city can do to dramatically reduce its own sources of greenhouse gases, said City Councilmember Mike O’Brien.

That’s why city leaders this month are unveiling an ambitious Climate Action Plan, with the goal of making Seattle carbon neutral (zero net emissions of greenhouse gases) by 2050, with much of the work initiated within the next 15 years.

The plan will almost certainly be expensive. It calls for new funding to improve and expand bus service, to build the infrastructure to make it safer to walk or bike around, and to build out the region’s light-rail system, all to reduce the approximately 40 percent of greenhouse gases that comes from cars and trucks.

The plan also calls for making energy use more visible to consumers through smart meters and energy audits that could improve the largest and least efficient commercial and multifamily buildings. The city also could require energy-use disclosures when houses or apartments are rented or sold.

There is not yet a cost estimate, but ideas to pay for the plan include a 1.5 percent motor-vehicle excise tax, a renewed Bridging the Gap levy and other local funding that would be less regressive than the failed $60 car-tab fees.

O’Brien, who has championed making the city carbon neutral, said the benefits are not just in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, but in creating a more livable city.

“We can do something meaningful, not just for the planet, but also to create the city we want to live in, one that is safer to walk and bike and has cleaner air and water,” O’Brien said.

Former Mayor Greg Nickels stepped into the climate-change debate by urging the nation’s mayors to adopt the Kyoto Protocols to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions back in 2005 after the Bush administration refused, saying it would hurt the nation’s economy. Since then, more than 1,050 U.S. mayors signed on to reduce carbon emissions to pre-1990 levels by 2012.

In 2011, the Seattle City Council set a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050, with short-term accomplishments along the way. The city then hired the Stockholm Environmental Institute, which has a Seattle office, to explore whether that could be done.

The findings, said O’Brien, show that with aggressive action, the city could achieve that goal. The next step, he said, was to re-create Nickel’s Green Ribbon Commission, a 28-member group of community, business and government officials that made recommendations in those areas the city could most influence: transportation, land use, building energy and waste.’

The Climate Action Plan was presented to the City Council on Earth Day, April 22.

O’Brien said Seattle’s goal to become carbon neutral is among the nation’s most ambitious, but many other cities have also adopted climate action plans, including Chicago, Vancouver, B.C., and Portland.

Seattle also can prove that a strong economy and climate solutions go hand in hand, said K.C. Golden, policy director of Climate Solutions, a Seattle environmental organization.

He noted that Seattle City Light was the first carbon-neutral utility in the country, that Seattleites enjoy some of the cheapest energy in the form of hydroelectricity and some of the cleanest air.

“People are often skeptical about what one city can do. Seattle has actively demonstrated it can do a lot about its own emissions,” said Golden, who served on the Green Ribbon Commission.

But he called the plan to move coal from Montana through Seattle to Asia, “one of the top five climate-destroying projects on the planet.” Stopping that plan, he said, “is one of the things the city can do to make a difference on a global scale.”

One part of the Climate Action Plan would be to reduce the approximately 21 percent of emissions that come from residential and commercial buildings in the city. After a rocky start, a city project to offer energy audits to homeowners, and connect them to building contractors to make efficiency improvements, is showing results.

Seattle received a $20 million federal grant for weatherization projects in 2010, but in the first year only weatherized three homes. That number has since climbed to more than 2,000 and has generated more than 164,000 hours of work by contractors and energy auditors, according to the Community Power Works website.

Corey Fitch, home-performance manager for Puget Sound Solar, which participates in the retrofitting program, said the program has allowed him to double his staff from four to eight. Last year the company completed 100 Power Works projects, from attic insulation to high-efficiency home-heating systems, saving an estimated 1 million kilowatt hours of electricity per year.

Not only does the city save energy, he said, but homeowners get the benefits of more comfortable interiors, better indoor air quality and lower utility bills.

“Incentivizing efficiency projects in homes is a cost-effective means of producing deep impacts to our city’s carbon footprint,” Fitch said.

The federal grant runs out this year and the city is advertising for an entity to take over the program coordination and seek new funding.

City leaders say there is also a social-justice component to taking steps to lessen climate change. The poorest people are often the most vulnerable to superstorms, urban flooding and extreme heat.

“In any natural disaster, the shakier the foundation you live in, the worse off you’re going to be,” said Dr. David Fleming, director of Public Health Seattle-King County.

Fleming, who also served on the Green Ribbon Commission, said that a part of the action plan is to prepare the city for the impacts of climate change.

“We need to be making investments now to respond to an emergency. Those investments will pay off next year when a storm hits, even if it’s not caused by global warming,” he said.

Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or

On Twitter @lthompsontimes