Responding to the Climate Emergency in Whatcom County

by Ellyn Murphy

Three examples of the fuel mix for electricity in Whatcom County as reported on the utility websites. The last reported calendar year on the utility websites is 2017. “Other” represents mixtures that generally comprise less than 1 percent each. For the city of Blaine, “other” is their Environmentally Preferred Power, which is a mixture of electricity from Wyoming Wind Projects and Idaho Falls and Packwood Hydroelectric facilities.

The Community Research Project was conducted on behalf of the Whatcom County Climate Impact Advisory Committee. The purpose of this project was to reach out to community leaders and stakeholders on their suggestions for a revised climate action plan. The entire report is posted at

Eleven thousand scientists from around the world have stated clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency. (1)

Climate change is already impacting our health, environment and economy in Whatcom County, and these effects will only accelerate, both locally and globally. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have fluctuated between 170-280 parts per million (ppm) during the last 800,000 years before industrialization. The global average is now over 400 ppm.

The last time CO2 levels were this high may have been during the Pliocene Epoch (2 to 4.6 million years ago), when temperatures were 3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit higher than pre-industrial levels and sea levels were 60-80 feet higher than today. (2) There is already enough CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere to achieve these Pliocene Epoch conditions once Earth’s environmental systems have time to adjust or equilibrate.

Among the 11,000 scientists are biologists and ecologists who are alarmed at the changes currently taking place in Earth’s environmental systems, or ecosystem services, the systems that sustain life as we know it on Earth. These ecosystem services, when properly functioning, provide clean water and air, fertile soil, food, flood control and natural pollination of crops to name a few of the benefits. When one considers the large climate disruptions projected over the next few decades, the damage to environmental systems could be irreversible.

To provide a sense of the urgency we face in Whatcom County, one only needs to look at the projected impacts of climate change for the Nooksack River Basin. (3) Spring snowpack that feeds the Nooksack will decline by almost 30 percent by the 2040s and stream temperatures will increase by 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit. About 20 years from now, up to 40 miles of the Nooksack River will exceed salmon temperature limits for survival compared to zero miles today.

As our winter precipitation is increasingly dominated by rain rather than snow, and, as storms become more intense, floods will be more frequent and severe. We will have less rainfall and lower stream flows in the summer. Sea-level rise is already resulting in greater storm surge and flooding along the coast and these impacts will only worsen over time: during the December 2018 Birch Bay storm, storm surge was at least two feet higher than predicted. Clearly, we cannot continue on our current course. We need to act decisively before it is too late.

Whatcom County Climate Challenges
If we want to lessen the harmful effects of climate change, then we must do our part to immediately begin reducing CO2 emissions, often referred to as “mitigation.” This means changing the way we power our homes, businesses and transportation, as well as how we grow our food. We must start by keeping fossil fuels in the ground, aggressively conserving energy, and using renewable energy to power our buildings and transportation. This is a major challenge for Whatcom County, which is home to two oil refineries and an electric utility that is highly dependent on fossil fuels.

It is surprising how many residents in our county think that most of their electricity comes from hydropower. This may have been true in the past, but no longer. Although statewide fossil fuels account for about 25 percent of electricity generation, Puget Sound Energy (PSE) uses over double that amount. If you have a gas furnace and water heater, it is likely that over 80 percent of your energy use is fossil fuel, without even counting your transportation.

We have examples of alternatives that work already: households that purchase electricity through the PSE Green Direct or Solar Choice Programs and also use all electric appliances (e.g., furnace and water heater) are doing much better. Puget Sound Energy is a private, investor-owned utility that owns four natural gas plants in Whatcom County and a portion of the Montana Colstrip Generating Station. Fifty-nine percent of PSE’s fuel mix (coal plus natural gas) emits carbon dioxide. As public utilities, both Whatcom County PUD #1 and the city of Blaine purchase lower-cost power from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), resulting in almost 100 percent fossil-free electricity. The PUD #1 provides electricity to industrial customers (e.g., Cherry Point), and some of these customers produce a portion of their energy from their own fossil fuel feedstock.

Removing fossil fuel from electricity generation is a priority for the state of Washington. This year, the state Legislature approved and the governor signed the Clean Energy Transformation Act, which requires all utilities to phase out fossil fuels for electricity generation by 2045. A fossil-free electric grid combined with highly efficient electric appliances goes a long way towards lower costs for homeowners and businesses and a cleaner environment.

Without clean, fossil-free electricity, it will be difficult to reduce emissions from another major greenhouse gas contributor, transportation. Electrifying our transportation will occur over the next few decades, not only because we need to reduce carbon emissions and pollution, but also because electric motors have one-tenth the moving parts, are cheaper to maintain and last twice as long as gas-powered vehicles (a future Whatcom Watch article will have more information on this topic).

Another challenge for Whatcom County is mitigating the impact of CO2 emissions from two large fossil fuel refineries, which account for a quarter of all Whatcom County greenhouse gas emissions. (4) The county does not have authority to regulate the existing emissions from those facilities that are already permitted. The “Cherry Point ordinance,” if passed, would only regulate new or expanded fossil fuel facilities and transshipment facilities at Cherry Point. The ordinance would require additional reviews on greenhouse gas impacts and require local carbon offsets to these emissions.

While the city of Bellingham is focused on ways to mitigate carbon emissions from the “built environment” (e.g., energy, buildings and transportation), Whatcom County has substantial opportunities to reduce emissions and adapt to changing conditions in the “natural environment” (e.g., water and lands used for agriculture, fisheries, forests, wildlife habitat and recreation). To address our climate emergency, we need to aggressively reduce carbon emissions in the built environment, while at the same time emphasize new approaches to adapt to climate-induced changes in the natural environment.

Protecting ecosystem services in the natural environment will not be easy. It will involve changing some current practices in agriculture, forestry and land use. Our agricultural community is already looking at water conservation methods and developing more drought and heat-resistant crops. Unlike agriculture, forestry must plan on a much longer timeframe, often 40 to 50 years. Which tree species will survive the temperature and moisture regimes in 2070? Should we be planting genetic stock from southern seed zones? Although many forest managers are incorporating practices to reduce fire risk, they are only starting to consider the survivability of seedlings in a changing climate.

General Themes Emerged
Three general themes emerged as volunteers interviewed community leaders and stakeholders regarding the county’s progress on climate change: 1) lack of leadership in confronting the challenge of climate change, 2) lack of accessible data, and 3) a desire for more proactive actions and solutions to address climate change.

A general lack of leadership or fragmented leadership was a recurring theme during our interviews. Many county employees expressed concern that climate change is not emphasized or even considered by their leaders. Interviewees highlighted contrasts between the City of Bellingham Climate Task Force, which has three staff members supporting its effort and the County Climate Impacts Advisory Committee, which has 10 percent of one staff member’s time. Many large organizations, worried about the impact of climate change on their business, have a strategic advisor in climate change reporting directly to senior leadership.

The lack of readily accessible data is a major concern and inhibits timely optimal decision making. For example, information on topics like county building energy use and savings from energy upgrades was not available. Many organizations throughout the county collect information on natural resources, such as streamflow levels, water quality, and restoration of streams, wetlands, and wildlife habitat. Yet, there is no combined database that can be used to observe trends and use this information for decision making.

Tied to the desire for leadership was the desire for more action in developing solutions to climate change, all of which will have indirect as well as direct benefits. Protecting forests and restoring riparian habitat means more fish spawning in streams and more economic activity from commercial and sport fishing. Reducing energy use in government-owned facilities saves taxpayer dollars. Integrating climate change science into the planning and design of county projects and programs reduces financial risk and costly repairs and retrofits in the future.

Cost Now Vs. Future Cost
The financial risk of climate change for Whatcom County could be substantial. Should the county be approving coastal developments when those developments and road access to them are likely to incur damage from sea level rise and storm surge over the next few decades? Taxpayers will ultimately pay for poor decisions made today. “Climate change will cost us even more than we think,” according to a recent article of the same title by Naomi Oreskes and Nicholas Stern. (5)

Climate change is occurring faster and having more severe effects than anticipated by scientists. As a result, economists have underestimated the costs, which are based on historical experience. Because conditions are changing so fast, history or experience in this case is not a reliable guide to the future.

Another problem facing both scientists and economists is how one quantifies the value of ecosystem services. A recent study by Thurston County showed that, by focusing development in urban areas, they could prevent ecosystem service losses of $343 million to $542 million over 50 years. (6) The benefits included avoided costs to homes and infrastructure from reduced flooding, as well as avoided costs of water treatment. In many economic analyses, these hard-to-quantify damages are completely omitted.

Since historical experience is not enough, insurance companies now employ climate scientists to help predict these higher costs that directly affect their bottom line. Insurers in California have started canceling homeowners’ insurance in widening areas of fire risk. This has prompted the insurance commissioner to put a one-year moratorium on insurers from dropping policies. (7) Insurance is not only important for financial recovery from fires and floods, but also an important climate-adaptation tool.

Oreskes and Stern illustrate an even more difficult economic problem — cascading effects, which can lead to serious and possibly irreversible damage. For example, increased heat and drought decreases food production, which leads to food shortages, disease, loss of productivity, economic depression, and an inability to prevent further climate damage.It’s a simple fact that protecting sensitive environmental systems in the county is much cheaper than repairing damaged systems. We cannot risk waiting for a better understanding of climate change or more evidence of direct damage from climate change, since then it may be too late.

To maintain a prosperous Whatcom County, we must adopt mitigation and adaptation strategies that maximize our resilience to flooding, water shortages and wildfires. Our economy and health depend on clean water and air and our ability to produce food. Future articles from the Community Research Project will emphasize the need to address and protect our natural environment with adaptation, while we continue to mitigate the carbon emissions from our built environment.

1. “More than 11,000 scientists from around the world declare a ‘climate emergency.’ ” The Washington Post, November 5, 2019.

2. NOAA August 1, 2018, “Climate Change: Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide” by Rebecca Lindsey.

3. Floodplain by Design and The Nature Conservancy, 2018. Climate Change in the Nooksack River: A quick reference guide for local decision-makers:

4. The 2007 Whatcom County climate action plan indicated 24 percent of all emissions were from industry, which was a low estimate given that electricity and fossil fuel usage was unavailable from at least three industrial facilities.

5. “Climate Change Will Cost Us Even More Than We Think” by Naomi Oreskes and Nicholas Stern. The New York Times, October 23, 2019. Dr. Oreskes is a professor of science history at Harvard. Professor Stern, London School of Economics, published what is now known as the Stern Review on the economics of climate change in 2005.

6. “Earth Economics, Benefit Cost Analysis of Selected Actions” from the Thurston Climate Adaptation Plan, October 2017.

7. “California bans insurers from dropping policies in fire-ravaged areas” by Joseph Serna. Los Angeles Times, December 5, 2019.

Ellyn Murphy was a research scientist and division director at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA, before retiring and moving to Bellingham. As a hydrologist, she is very concerned with climate change and sustainable communities. Ellyn was recently appointed chair of the Whatcom County Climate Impact Advisory Committee.

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