by Stevan Harrell
Whatcom County’s Climate Action Manager Lauren Clemens has been on the job for five months, and she has been busy. What with wildfire smoke, flooding, extreme heat, and the beginnings of sea level rise, coordinating climate action and planning for the future have been a full-time job. Mid-July, I sat down with Clemens to hear her take stock of the issues she’s facing, her work so far, and her ideas about what we need to cope with increasing risks and reality of climate change.
Clemens is a Washington native, growing up in Gig Harbor, but she spent the past seven years in Indiana, where she received a master’s degree in Public Affairs and Sustainable Development, and served for three and a half years as the Assistant Director of Sustainability for the university town of Bloomington. When the Whatcom County Climate Action Plan, approved in late 2021, recommended establishing an Office of Climate Action, the first step was to hire a Climate Action Manager. As County Executive Satpal Sidhu says, “It’s vital to have someone who shows up and focuses on climate issues every day. Otherwise, it’s too easy to get distracted and ignore these issues with time horizons beyond the immediate future.”
Combination of Urban and Rural
Clemens saw the Climate Action Manager position as an opportunity to return to the Pacific Northwest and lead an important local effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change. “This position is a great opportunity to create a lot of momentum in climate action, starting up a new office and working with all the different departments. Supporting the work that had already been going on, but also looking at new opportunities for different climate programs that can help the county achieve its objectives. I think Whatcom County is unique in that there are a lot of opportunities for things like carbon sequestration projects, because it’s a great combination of urban and rural environments,” said Clemens, explaining her enthusiasm for her job. “A lot of thought has gone into what the position would be doing, so I have been excited to join my other colleagues who have been advancing all this work for the past few decades.”
The hiring committee was delighted when Clemens accepted the position. She moved to Bellingham and started work in the Division of Natural Resources in February of this year. I asked her what she thought were the most important climate issues that Whatcom County was facing: “What’s most on my mind is the way that climate is already impacting people’s quality of life. Things like wildfire smoke, flooding, sea level rise are going to become even more prevalent over time, so I think local government has a unique responsibility to respond to the needs of the public, making sure that we’re anticipating future trends and that people have connection to the resources they need.”
New Climate Issues
Clemens pointed out that we still don’t know how to deal with many climate issues, because they are so new to our region. The wildfire smoke that has plagued us for several recent summers, along with extreme heat such as we experienced in June and August 2021, are new problems that the county has perhaps lagged in confronting in the past, but that we now urgently need to address. Vulnerable populations in particular, she pointed out, are even more susceptible to health impacts from smoke and heat, rarely have air conditioning in their homes, and haven’t previously needed to think about going to cooling shelters or wearing masks to prevent inhaling smoke.
In response, Clemens is working with the Department of Public Health, which has received a grant to compile a vulnerability assessment that will soon lead to specific actions to protect vulnerable people from smoke and heat. She also pointed out that both tax credits through the federal Inflation Reduction Act and incentives offered by local utilities can help lower-income households in particular purchase heat pumps that can be run in reverse to provide home cooling.
Sea level rise is another climate-related issue that is going to impact our coastal communities in particular, and where we are only beginning to understand the actions we need to take. Clemens praised the work of Chris Elder of the Public Works department, who has recently used his geographic information systems expertise to map vulnerable areas and forecast how soon we will need to take actions such as buying out residents in flood plains or moving critical infrastructure back from low-lying shorelines.
Climate Commitment Act
I was naturally interested in the projected effect of Washington State’s Climate Commitment Act, which requires emitters of greenhouse gases to purchase emissions allowances, essentially licenses to pollute, and thus provides pressure to emit less of the planet-warming gases. I pointed out that the first two emissions auctions, in February and May of this year, have brought in more revenue that projected, and asked Clemens about a controversy that has been circulating in local media. Some critics have alleged that, by making it more expensive for fossil-fuel companies to do business, purchasing the emissions allowances has driven up the price of gasoline, with Washington surpassing California as the state with the highest prices.
“I think it’s more complicated than that,” Clemens explained. “There have been some other factors that have affected fuel prices in particular. I do think we should recognize that the increase has been more than we’d been expecting, and people are really sensitive right now because of price increases after Covid-19 and inflation. So that’s a very valid concern — this is a very expensive state to live in. And, so any changes that affect the cost of living should be considered carefully.”
“However,” Clemens went on, “there is a flip side. A lot of important climate programs have previously either not existed or been underfunded, and the revenue from the Climate Commitment Act is going to provide consistent and enduring support.” These programs, including clean transportation and carbon sequestration, will have a lasting effect: “As the projects start moving forward and we accelerate our transition to renewables and other projects, I think people are going to recognize the benefits to a greater degree than might be evident right now. Also, in the context of the climate emergency, I think showing leadership in this area at the state level creates an environment where it’s more possible for local governments to implement measures like their climate action plans.”
In the longer term, Clemens emphasized that our biggest task is decarbonization — electrifying our buildings and vehicles, and converting our electric power generation from fossil fuels to renewables. This touches on the role of Whatcom refineries, which are both a mainstay of our county economy and a big contributor to global warming. In Clemens’s thinking, “the Climate Commitment Act and regulating point source emissions or areas where carbon emissions are being created is going to be pretty transformational across the state for creating an incentive to decarbonize.” But, she doesn’t necessarily think the so-called climate-versus-jobs contradiction will inevitably stall either climate action or economic progress: “there have been some local commitments looking towards more sustainable aviation fuel and other ways to move to the next stage — you can have green economic development, and that’s becoming more evident now that jobs are growing pretty significantly.”
And, there is another factor to consider, said Clemens: “Consumer preferences are changing or going to be forced to change. So people will choose to buy electric vehicles, and eventually they will mandated away from choosing internal combustion machines, so the demand for petroleum and gas will decline, and decline globally so that creates other forces where the transition will happen more quickly than it otherwise would have.”
It came out strongly in our conversation that Climate Action Manager is a multidimensional job. Not only does Clemens work daily with other departments in the county government, but, to be effective, climate action has to be coordinated regionally and further afield. In addition to coordinating with the City of Bellingham, the Port of Bellingham, the Lummi and Nooksack Tribes, and our smaller cities, Clemens has joined Urban Sustainability Directors Network’s Cascadia Climate Network, which includes managers from Oregon, Washington, and B.C., bringing the added challenge of learning how local government works in Canada so we can share knowledge with our northern neighbors. As County Executive Sidhu points out, “Local governments do not have dedicated resources for climate work, but opportunities are emerging to access funds from Washington State’s Climate Commitment Act and the federal Inflation Reduction Act.”
In conclusion, I asked Clemens what she saw as the greatest challenges she faced in her work. She named three. First, she said, “I think government is intended to work slowly and methodically, generally, but this is a very fast-moving issue. So that’s inherently a challenge because there are situations that need immediate resolution, and I think there will be an increasing number of things that we designate as emergencies.”
Second, she said, “I don’t think any jurisdictions, even ones that have invested quite a bit, have the necessary resources to address this alone. Vermont, for example, is flooded right now, and the response is incredibly expensive. You’re still recovering from the last one as you’re trying to address the future ones as well.”
Third, Clemens pointed out, she’s trying to do two separate jobs. She has to address the climate impacts of the county’s own operations while attacking the larger tasks of networking and building public commitment to climate action. She stressed the importance of public events such as the City of Bellingham’s ALL IN for Climate Action Week, coming up in September. “I think the biggest piece is that it can be very discouraging — in the news when climate is mentioned, people’s response is often to turn off or disengage. And it’s a very important time to engage, even if you think your own participation or actions are insignificant. Without that engagement, we won’t collectively get anywhere.”
To meet all these challenges, the county will probably still need to expand its climate action workforce. Funds to address present and future needs are available from the federal Inflation Reduction Act and the state Climate Commitment Act, but application processes can be cumbersome and take time. For now, all agree that Clemens has made a good start.
Stevan Harrell is a retired professor from UW Seattle School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. He and his wife Barbara live in Bellingham. He is a member of the Whatcom County Climate Impacts Advisory Committee.