There are two kinds of opposition to action on the climate crisis. The first is the one we’re all familiar with: outright denial that it’s happening, or that humans are causing it.
However, it’s the second kind that is more powerful–and less well known. These are the elected officials and leading public voices who argue we should not take action to reduce carbon emissions if it costs money or requires a tax increase.
The climate crisis is the result of spending nearly 100 years building an infrastructure that requires lighting fossil fuels on fire and putting carbon into the atmosphere. Building our way out of that will not be cheap, but it will be much cheaper than doing nothing and watching as the costs of global warming add up.
Here in Washington State, climate denial carries little political power. Yet our legislature has failed to pass a comprehensive climate bill, in part due to fear of the political consequences of a tax increase. Oil companies played on anti-tax sentiment to kill Initiative 1631.
Meanwhile Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is busy scaling back transit, pedestrian, and bicycle projects that are essential to reducing carbon emissions, citing cost concerns. These are examples of how politicians are undermining climate action by prioritizing costs, ensuring carbon emissions will continue despite their known effects.
Americans have overcome huge obstacles before. We waged a Civil War to end slavery. We destroyed the Nazis. We sent people to the moon and brought them back safely. We eradicated terrible diseases.
None of those things would have been possible had costs been the primary concern. Governments found the revenue needed to get these important projects done because they knew failure was not an option. During World War II the federal government taxed the wealthy at a 94% rate. They used deficit spending on a massive scale, with war bonds playing a central role.
Those are the kinds of solutions one comes up with in a crisis. Yet Mayor Durkan is claiming that rising costs mean we have to scale back transit projects promised to voters in the Move Seattle levy. In 2018 Durkan has built just 4% of the planned bike projects.
In a crisis, a true leader would not use a problem like the length of a streetcar as an excuse to fail to act. Leaders solve those issues and innovate where needed in order to keep projects on track because they feel the intense urgency of achieving the larger goal–in this case, reducing Seattle’s carbon emissions.
The recent IPCC report and the recent National Climate Assessment make it very clear that we are running out of time to act. The longer that elected officials in Seattle prioritize austerity over climate action, the worse the consequences will be–and the higher the costs will be–for Seattle.
Mayor Durkan and Seattle stand at a crossroads. Let’s hope our elected leaders make the climate crisis a priority and work to accelerate, rather than delay or cancel, the projects needed to build a sustainable infrastructure that doesn’t require emitting carbon.
Robert Cruickshank is a transit rider and progressive campaigner who lives in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood. From 2011 to 2013 he served as Senior Communications Advisor to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.