In November, residents in Washington State will vote on I-1631—a new proposal to put a price on the heat-trapping carbon emissions that are at the root of the climate change impacting us today.
The Pacific Northwest has already warmed by at least 1.5°F since the first half of the 20th century. If emissions keep growing on a business-as-usual emissions trajectory, the region is on track to warm another 8.5°F in the next 80 years. These and other sobering statistics highlighting the latest science on the impacts of climate change in Washington are summarized in a fact sheet published by the Union of Concerned Scientists earlier this year.
Washington’s current climate impacts
Warming is one of the many factors already driving up wildfire risks in Washington State, and warming temperatures could as much as quadruple the average area burned each year in the Pacific Northwest in the next 60 years. Hotter temperatures also mean less of the snowpack that acts as natural water storage for the state and shifts in when that water melts as runoff. This puts Washington’s abundant hydroelectric power and iconic snow-fed rivers at risk, and could mean less water available during the hot summer months when demand from communities and ecosystems is highest.
Increased carbon emissions are also impacting Washington’s coasts. Sea level in Seattle has already risen by around 8 inches in the last hundred years as a result of increasing global temperatures. In the next 30 years, over 7,000 homes along Washington’s coast could be at risk of chronic high-tide flooding worsened by sea level rise. And as that built-up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves into the ocean, it’s also making the ocean more acidic, corroding shell-forming species like oysters that are the backbone of the state’s $270 million shellfish industry.
But how much better could things be with initiatives like I-1631 in place?
The Washington state legislature set greenhouse gas reduction targets almost a decade ago to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 25% below 1990 levels by 2035, and 50% below 1990 levels by 2050. The price that I-1631 puts on carbon pollution takes those targets into account, with checks in place to ensure that the state’s emissions trajectory is on the right path.
What if Washington’s emissions reductions become the example for other places? How much better could the climate we live in be? Let’s break it down.
Global emissions of carbon dioxide in 1990 were around 22.4 billion metric tons (or 22.4 GtCO2). In 2017, global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels alone climbed to 36.8 GtCO2. But if the rest of the world reduced emissions in line with Washington’s targets, we’d bring our global emissions down to around 16.8 GtCO2 by 2035 and around 11.2 GtCO2 by 2050. This could put us on track to keep global-mean warming below the 3.6 °F (2°C) target set by the global community in the Paris Agreement. It’s important to note, though, that we’d need to keep pushing to net zero and then net negative emissions very, very quickly to stay on track.
How different would WA’s climate look with climate action?
The federally-mandated Climate Science Special Report (CSSR) recently assessed the latest science on climate trends and impacts in the United States. With the lowest emissions trajectory assessed by the CSSR, temperatures in Washington would be at least 3.5°F less hot by the end of the century than where we’re currently headed. And global cuts in line with Washington’s standards would actually put us on a lower emissions trajectory than the lowest CSSR trajectory, so could help slow warming down even further.
Those cooler temperatures could help decrease wildfire risk. One study found that the risk of the largest wildfires in the Pacific Northwest would be half as high by the end of the century, if emissions get down to the lowest CSSR trajectory rather than continuing to grow on a business-as-usual trajectory.
Reduced warming worldwide on a global trajectory in line with Washington’s targets could also shave around a foot off of sea level rise in Seattle by the year 2100.
And if global emissions decreased at the same rate as Washington’s targets, global ocean acidification could be 5 times less intense by the end of the century compared to business-as-usual. Combined with cooler ocean temperatures, this would create a much healthier ocean environment for Washington’s coastal ecosystems and the economies based on them.
A constellation of climate efforts
It’s important to recognize that Washington’s current emissions targets are an important first step on a journey, and I-1631 creates space for more ambition. Washington’s Department of Ecology has recommended strengthening the 2050 target to 80% below 1990 emissions levels, and there are a slew of climate damages that can only be prevented by getting to net zero emissions worldwide by mid-century.
Achieving these benefits and preventing the impacts of climate change in Washington and across the planet requires sustained efforts by everyone to reduce emissions, not just in Washington. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report shows that this kind of global action is only getting more vital.
But our global community’s success in preventing the worst impacts of climate change will be made up of a constellation of efforts in places like Washington, California, British Columbia, and other places leading the way.
And that world would mean a healthier climate for Washington and for everyone.