TOPICS > Science

Clearing the Air

August 15, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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LEE HOCHBERG: On a misty July morning in Seattle, the cruise ship "Diamond Princess" steamed into port. It belched exhaust from its huge diesel engine. Under an agreement with the city of Seattle, the engine was shut down when the ship docked. As it loaded and unloaded passengers all day, it instead received power from an electrical connection recently installed on shore. The setup will keep almost 200 tons of sulfur oxide emissions from entering Seattle air over the summer, equal to taking 1100 cars off the road.

SEATTLE MAYOR GREG NICKELS: In most ports they would keep their diesel plant running. When they come into Seattle, they turn that diesel plant off, and so they have no emissions while they’re in our port.

LEE HOCHBERG: It’s part of Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels’ plan for Seattle to meet the terms of the Kyoto agreement, which called for the U.S. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 7 percent from 1990 levels by the year 2012. President Bush pulled the U.S. as a nation out of that treaty in 2001, saying the science about global warming was unclear.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The Kyoto protocol was fatally flawed in fundamental ways. No one can say with any certainty what constitutes a dangerous level of warming, and therefore what level must be avoided.

LEE HOCHBERG: But Nickels disagrees that global warming isn’t a proven problem.

SEATTLE MAYOR GREG NICKELS: This doesn’t appear to be a hoax; it doesn’t appear to be trivial. It appears to be real and very serious.

LEE HOCHBERG: Nickels had grown alarmed about global warming after last winter’s unusually warm Pacific Northwest conditions. They left snow pack in the nearby Cascade Mountains at a fraction of normal. The warm weather closed ski resorts and threatened the city’s water reservoirs.

SEATTLE MAYOR GREG NICKELS: Our dry winter, Florida’s hurricane season, southern California’s rain and mudslides, none of those necessarily is the effect of global warming. But taken together — the heat wave that Europe had that killed literally hundreds of people — the trend is clear. And it is also clear the kind of action we have to take in order to keep that from becoming an everyday occurrence.

LEE HOCHBERG: Fighting global warming fits the liberal eco-politics of Seattle.

SPOKESMAN: Resolutions will be considered…

LEE HOCHBERG: But mayors from a number of other cities in both blue and red states agreed with Nickels. They supported a climate protection agreement he put forth at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in June.

SPOKESMAN: Resolution 51 endorsing the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

LEE HOCHBERG: His initiative would reduce dependence on fossil fuels by promoting wind and solar energy, also more efficient motor vehicles and biofuels. It received unanimous support.

SPOKESPERSON: Those in favor say aye.

GROUP: Aye.

SPOKESPERSON: Opposed? Thank you very much.

LEE HOCHBERG: One hundred sixty-eight mayors in thirty-seven states committed their cities to the Kyoto treaty. The cities are a varied lot — conservative and liberal from Vermont to California.

Alexandria, Virginia, fears global warming will cause flooding of the Potomac. The mayor of Laredo, Texas, signed on; car and truck emissions at the Mexican border crossing are an issue there. New Orleans’ mayor says an increase in the Earth’s temperature could raise the water level on Lake Pontchartrain a foot over 30 years, submerging his low-lying city.

SEATTLE MAYOR GREG NICKELS: Another foot of water in the ocean and New Orleans is gone. So in his case it’s their survival; it’s the future of his city.

LEE HOCHBERG: In the Pacific Northwest, National Park Service geologist Jon Riedel says global warming could create a water shortage. Seattle gets much of its drinking water and hydroelectricity from this city-owned 90,000-acre watershed in the Cascade Mountains. It’s fed by melting glaciers.

JON RIEDEL: I’ve been working on this lake and in these mountains for 25 years, and I’ve never seen a snow pack this low.

LEE HOCHBERG: Riedel says the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in recorded history. With that, the average temperature in the Northwest has risen almost two degrees in the last century.

JON RIEDEL: We see very rapid retreat of glaciers. We’ve lost about 40 percent of our ice cover in the last 150 years. You know, I’ve never seen Jack Mountain look like that this early in the summer. It’s going to be the worst year we’ve seen on glaciers since we’ve started monitoring them. Global warming shouldn’t be debated; it’s happening.

LEE HOCHBERG: Lower water could put Seattle in violation of its license with the federal government to operate its huge hydroelectric project. The city’s also required to ensure there’s enough water in the system for both threatened salmon runs and recreation. Already, docks built for recreational boaters are landlocked ashore and being used only for sunbathing.

To try to solve the global warming problem, Seattle is offering developers incentives to build energy-efficient green buildings. At its new City Hall, a lush planted rooftop insulates the building from cold and catches rainwater for use in flushing toilets; that saves a million gallons of water a year.

The city has converted much of its fleet of city vehicles to biodiesel fuel. By the end of this year, Seattle City Light will be the only utility in the country with no net emissions of greenhouse gases.

But President Bush has maintained throughout his presidency that actions to reduce greenhouse gases are unacceptably costly.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I will not commit our nation to an unsound international treaty that will throw millions of our citizens out of work.

LEE HOCHBERG: Recently, he told Danish reporters that abiding by the Kyoto treaty would have wrecked the U.S. Economy The White House says Kyoto would cost the U.S. five million jobs. Senior White House advisor James Connaughton:

JAMES CONNAUGHTON: We have a growing population and a growing economy. Our goal is to first slow the growth of greenhouse gasses. Then as the science justifies, stop the growth and reverse it. That’s a sensible course of action. It’s similar to what happened with air pollution in the United States over the last 100 years.

LEE HOCHBERG: The mayors argue there are business opportunities in reducing greenhouse emissions. In Seattle, self-proclaimed "bioneer" John Plaza recently founded this plant to manufacture biodiesel fuel. It’s made from soybean oil. His eight employees process it to mix with diesel to create a low-polluting fuel. The city of Seattle committed its fleet to biodiesel and encouraged the state ferries to use it.

JOHN PLAZA: Our total revenue of sales will be between $8 million and $10 million and we can look at a 15 percent profit margin on that. So we’re doing it not because we want to change the energy policy of the United States only, we’re doing it because there is an economic benefit for us absolutely.

LEE HOCHBERG: Yet even if there are profits to be found in the new technology, the cost of conversion may be a problem for some businesses. Princess Cruise Lines says its cost to outfit its cruise ships for shore power was $1.5 million.

And even mayors who support curbing emissions worry whether a city-by-city approach will really work. Portland, Oregon, was the nation’s first city to adopt a plan to global warming. Since 1993, it has increased light rail ridership significantly; it’s purchased a significant amount of renewable energy and constructed almost 40 green buildings. On a per capita basis, greenhouse emissions have fallen 13 percent and the city’s economy has remained robust.

But with population growth, the region’s total emissions have only barely dropped below 1990 levels — far short of the city’s target of a 10 percent reduction by 2010. And though Seattle’s city government says it’s been able to reduce its own emissions 60 percent since 1990, greenhouse gases from all sources in the Puget Sound area are expected to increase 20 percent above the 1990 level within a few years — half of that is due to auto emissions. Nickels acknowledges there are limits to what cities can do by themselves.

SEATTLE MAYOR GREG NICKELS: Ultimately, we will make it impossible for the federal government to say no. They will both see that it can be done without huge economic disruption, and they will see that there’s support throughout the country to do this. It may be this administration; it may be the next administration. But the fact that it takes 15 years means that we better get started.

LEE HOCHBERG: The administration is advocating instead that industry voluntarily take steps to reduce emissions.