NEW YORK FOREIGN PRESS CENTER (Virtual)
MODERATOR: Welcome to the Foreign Press Center’s briefing with the mayor of Seattle, Washington, Jenny A. Durkan. My name is Katie, and I am today’s moderator.
Jenny A. Durkan is the 56th mayor of Seattle, becoming the city’s first female mayor since the 1920s and its second openly LGBTQ elected mayor. She took office in November 2017. Before becoming mayor, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Washington and served in that position from 2009 until 2014. Today she will brief about Seattle’s climate resilience and membership in the Climate Mayors Network, a bipartisan network of more than 470 U.S. mayors demonstrating climate leadership through meaningful actions in their communities.
And now for the ground rules. As a reminder, this briefing is on the record. We will post the video and transcript of this briefing on our website. We will have time for your questions at the end of Mayor Durkan’s remarks.
And now, Mayor Durkan, over to you. Thank you.
MS DURKAN: Thank you so much, Katie, and thank you, everyone, for joining me today. It is really an honor to be here. I come from the city of Seattle, which has both been a leader in the battle against climate change, but also a city that has suffered the impacts of the climate change. And as we look down the road, we know that the impacts of climate change are here today, and the battle against climate change is already short of time. There was a report released today that showed the devastating impacts of climate change, but we’re seeing those in the West particularly.
In Seattle, Washington, we have a lot of advantages – our natural resources are abundant and beautiful – but it also gives us insight to how quickly the planet is changing in the West. Here in Seattle we had this year some of the greatest heat events we’ve ever had in our city. We usually have a very moderate climate, which, as many of you know, means a lot of ran in the winter, and then moderate temperatures in the summer. Unfortunately, that has changed and we’re now moving into periods where we don’t get enough moisture. In the summer, we had record heat waves, which we’ve never had, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees for multiple days in a row.
With those heat events in the West, we’ve also seen the increase in the number of fires, forest fires, and those forest fires produce a lot of smoke. So we have double devastation there – one, the forest fires are destroying not just the lands, but also destroying natural buffers for climate change, our tree canopy. They’re also moving animals and others to other locations. And with that also comes extreme smoke. In Seattle for the past couple of summers, we have had some extreme smoke events, we call them. And that means there’s so much smoke that settles into the Seattle area from wildfires either in Canada, northern California, eastern Washington, or Oregon, that for a period of time two summers ago the air quality in Seattle, Washington, was not as good as the air quality in Beijing on some bad days.
And so with that, we’ve seen a number of things that the city had to do to build resilience for the hot temperatures. We’re now trying to develop a system of cooling centers that are not just government-run, but we partner with the private industry to see where people can go in such extreme heat. Because in Seattle, because we’ve had such moderate temperatures, most houses do not have any kind of air conditioning.
We also have had to develop centers for smoke events, so people can go places that are more safe, particularly our vulnerable populations like our seniors. And so we’ve had to change the heating and air conditioning systems in some of our community centers and are looking forward to ways to do that.
This is all overlain on what we do with the impacts of climate change itself, everything from our orcas being endangered, to our salmon dying off because the rivers are too warm, to trying to address the impacts like smoke and heat. But our real battle is the battle in front of that. It is to change our profile on the greenhouse gas emissions that we have. It’s one reason that I am so honored to join with mayors across our country building on my work as one of the leaders in the C40 mayors, which is the global mayors in the fight for climate. We have seen that in a time when sometimes the central governments cannot arrive on the diplomatic solutions for what to do, the mayors have stepped in the breach and are able to work mayor-to-mayor across country lines to come up with strategies to fight things like the COVID pandemic and the climate battle that we’re all in.
So I’m happy to answer some questions. In Seattle, we’ve been taking very proactive steps for – in our battle against climate. Our greenhouse gas emissions come primarily from two areas – transportation infrastructure and transportation, and our buildings. So we’ve been pushing very hard to get our buildings to be more friendly for the climate, and I just signed one of the most aggressive energy codes in the country to move forward on that, as well as a pilot to develop buildings that are actually zero net emissions.
On the transportation side, we’re – we are really pushing as much as we can transit in every fashion, as well as the ability to have that seven-minute city where people can walk or roll to where they need to get. So pushing on transportation to lower the greenhouse gas emissions, pushing on buildings, and then doing as much as we can to address the very rapidly increasing impacts of climate.
And with that, I’d be happy to answer any questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, Mayor Durkan. For those journalists who have a question, please do use the “Raise Hand” feature to indicate that you have a question. You may also indicate that you have a question in the chat. It seems like Arnaud Leparmentier from Le Monde may have an initial question, so over to you.
QUESTION: Yes, nice meeting you. Thank you very much. Well, I – about your resilience plan in Seattle, you have a big homelessness problem. How do you include all these people that are sleeping in the streets or in shelters in your way to be resilient to climate change, please?
MS DURKAN: Yes, thank you for that question. It’s actually – I would say there’s two responses to that, or a double answer. First is we’re doing everything we can to reduce the number of people who are experiencing homelessness who are sleeping outside. So the number one thing we’re doing to build resilience is to actually bring people inside so that they are not in the unsafe and unhealthy conditions on the streets. And we’ve spent a record amount of money and developed infrastructure with both services to provide to people as well as both short-term shelter and long-term housing. Since I’ve been mayor, we have announced over a billion dollars in affordable housing that we’re building. We also are developing – we’ve rented a number of hotels to provide emergency assistance, and through the pandemic we were able to build out a greater system of both isolation and quarantine facilities should the people experiencing homelessness need it through the COVID pandemic, as well as to make sure that our shelter system was de-intensified and had fewer population there so we would avoid that risk.
So, there’s the both reducing homelessness, second is during these high-heat events as well as the smoke events, one reason we have developed this system of cooling centers and places where people can get relief from the smoke is so that if people experiencing homelessness need to get inside, they can do so. And so, it is building both of those things. One – the number one thing we have to do is reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness, and we are having unprecedented regional efforts on that front now. And the second is for the reality, until we get there, to provide as much relief for people as we can.
QUESTION: If I maybe ask a second question. Are you happy with the transitory results? Because I was in Seattle last week and I was surprised at the number of homeless. I know it’s a long time, but they are still in very numerous places and seem to be in a fairly difficult situation.
MS DURKAN: Yes, the – during the pandemic the CDC and the federal government in the United States basically issued guidance that anyone experiencing homelessness, we were not to move any encampments, which we had been doing before. And so Seattle is one of the very few cities in our region that provides a lot of services, so we saw our population grow considerably during the pandemic and now we are working to reduce that and to bring people inside. We also just formed a new regional entity – this will be Seattle and all of the adjoining cities – so that we will have a unified effort so that if people become homeless in their community, they can get the services there, but more importantly, that they can maybe be provided affordable housing in their communities so they never become homeless.
Right now in the city of Seattle, roughly our best data shows 6 out of 10 of the people who are unsheltered were living in a different city when they became homeless and then relocated to Seattle.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ll take a question from someone else and if we have time we can go back to you. I don’t know if you have a follow-up. So our next question will be from Yu Jin from Sina News, China. Jin, go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Hi, hello. Can you hear me?
QUESTION: Okay, thank you. I have two questions. One is we know the – there’s a – today is the latest IPCC report that’s being released. I’m just wondering on the city level in the U.S., does each city has a plan to assess what the biggest threat will be in the next 20 years, for example? And question two is: Is this program just a U.S. program or will there be a possibility where cities could cooperate with other cities in other countries, like in China, like Chinese cities? Thank you.
MS DURKAN: Yes, thank you. Great – both of those are excellent questions. So on the network of mayors that – the climate mayors in the United States, those are just United States, and we are encouraging every city to have a plan, but we’re also looking regionally to see how our plans work together. Because, as we know, all of us are interconnected in the climate, and knitting these things together will be really important for the future. And so we’ve learned that that is really the approach we can do because the impacts of climate change are felt most in the cities, but cities can also take some of the actions that make the most immediate change in our fight against climate change.
And on the international, I would encourage you to look at – there’s an entity called C40 mayors. I am on the North American governing body for that. And we are an international, global group of mayors that meets regularly. In fact, the last trip I took before the pandemic hit in Seattle, I was in Europe for the meeting of the C40 mayors, and it’s mayors from all over the globe. I think China would be a wonderful addition to that. And what we’ve seen there was it is both what’s important for our fight against the climate, but we use that organization also to develop fights against COVID and to start doing COVID recovery globally. And so there are mayors from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, from all over, and that has given us the ability – my – for example, I know that there’s some press from South Korea on. One of the relationships I was able to develop with a mayor in South Korea helped Seattle in the fight against COVID because we were able to obtain testing capacity. But we’ve seen climate has impacted – when you hear the stories of the youth from Africa or South America, Indonesia, and places where climate has altered their living enormously, we know this has to be a global fight.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I would invite other journalists who have questions to please indicate you have a question by raising your hand using that feature or indicating in the chat.
I think while we wait, I will ask a follow-on myself of – oh, we have one. I will take that back. Pearl Matibe from NewsDay, Zimbabawe. Pearl, over to you.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. So I’m glad you mentioned where climate has impacted negatively the very lives of people all over the world, so I’m going to pick up my question from that. So just in the last two or three years, we have had significant cyclones – Idai, Kenneth consecutively one after the other – that hit the coast of Mozambique, Malawi, and resulted in major flooding also into Zimbabwe. To this day, those lives have almost irreparably been impacted. Are cities reaching out and either twinning with other cities, or what is your approach, what are other – what are you seeing other mayors doing? I mean, it’s well and good to acknowledge what is going on, but are there any twinning, perhaps, initiatives? Like, what is the approach if there is an approach?
MS DURKAN: Yes. I think, first, your observations are so compelling. I mean, if you look at what is happening in Lagos right now and the amount of flooding in one of the densest cities there is on the globe, we see how lives are impacted. So it’s everything from the large cities in Africa to the smaller cities. And we are trying, through C40 mayors, to have a unified approach to climate change, particularly for the Northern Hemisphere, to be very conscious about the day-to-day impacts that the Southern Hemisphere has absorbed sooner. And it is what you’ve said – the cyclones, the flooding – but you’re also seeing enormous amount of droughts in other parts of Africa, and with that we’ve seen what – the push for climate refugees.
So this is an international issue. And what we’ve been trying to develop through the C40 mayors that is now being echoed by the mayors across America is we have to work together. And if we wait wholly for the central governments to reach an accord, it will be too late, and so we’re reaching across mayors to mayors, cities to cities, to look at what are some best practices, but also how can we put pressure on to get some of the changes we need from national governments on the front of climate change.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We will go back now to Arnaud from Le Monde who has another question.
QUESTION: Hi. I had a question about Washington State, about the forest fires. We see all these forest fires due to global warming. They are just now in North Cascade National Park. Do you feel it’s only a global warming problem, or is there a forest management issue, and how are you going to tackle this in your area?
MS DURKAN: So there’s always – all these issues are very complicated, but I think we have to be really honest about the fact that the primary thing that’s driving these events is the change in the climate. It is both the droughts that we’re experiencing in parts of our state as well as the high-heat events that come starting in the spring.
We had a very – we get our water in Seattle from what’s called the snowpack. It snows in the mountains, it then fills the rivers and streams, comes to our reservoirs and the like. We had records amount of rain for a period of time, but then we hit a period of drought. We went for months in Seattle with no rain, which is very unusual. In eastern Washington, where most of our forest is, they’ve been experiencing really high levels of drought, as they have in Oregon and California. So there is no question that the most fundamental issue has been the change in climate and the fact that our forests have literally become tinder boxes.
Now there are forest management practices that need to change in light of that and how you implement them, but it is not forest manage practices that are causing what you’re seeing, this phenomena in the west. It really is an impact of the fact that there is so much drought, and so much of the underbrush and the trees themselves become compromised. And therefore, when the fires start, they rage for square miles at a time.
MODERATOR: You’re – Arnaud, you’re muted.
QUESTION: Yeah. I’ve seen, for example, in Montana, in the area of Missoula, they have made a forest corridor, so they try to restart burning of some parts of the forest, of the underground of the forest so that you don’t have this huge catastrophe as we have in California or as they had in Wyoming in Yellowstone 30 years ago. Are there some detailed changes in – that are foreseen in Washington State?
MS DURKAN: I will – I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know all of the forest practices that will change in Washington State. Those are guided first by our federal government because they own many of the lands where there are forests, and then by the state government, and there’s a separate elected official at the state level that – who does the interior work for our forests. Here in Seattle, we almost see the reverse, which is – one of our strategies for our climate resilience is to increase our tree canopy. We have about – there are many areas in our city that reflect what we’ve seen, that climate and the climate burden follows what – the other environmental injustices that we’ve seen.
And so part of our environmental justice approach to climate change is to really look at those communities that have been under-resourced and see how do we build resilience there. And what we’re seeing in Seattle is many of the communities that are communities of color who have been under-resourced for generations are also the place that has suffered the greatest environmental damage and have the lowest amount of green space and tree cover and tree canopy. So we’re trying to use the woods and the trees and the forest as an affirmative strategy to increase our climate resilience.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much. We will now take a follow-up from Pearl Matibe from NewsDay, Zimbabwe.
QUESTION: Hello. May I just have a follow-up question? So as you journey, right – and either yourself personally or what you’re observing from other mayors – to finding solutions on climate, I’m sure you have some stories to tell. Could you tell maybe one key story that is a success and one key story that you are finding is a challenge? Thanks.
MS DURKAN: Thank you so much. I would say the success is not just here in Seattle, but globally – not a success yet, but which gives me hope and inspiration – is the role of youth. When I was at the C40 mayors in Europe right before the pandemic, we had a council of youth come together from all over the globe to talk about the very real impacts on climate in their villages, their cities at home, and how that is affecting every parts of their life. But you see that that energy has carried through, and in Seattle we have a neighborhood here that is – has borne some of the most impacts of bad environmental policy. It was an area that, for example, in the waterways, PCBs had been dumped for years. We’ve been rebuilding that. It’s an area where there – it’s been under-resourced.
But it is also an area that has perhaps one of the most vibrant youth organizations that is geared towards climate. We call that our Duwamish Valley, which is named for the original aboriginal Native American that were here, the Duwamish tribe. And there is a youth corps in the Duwamish that is rebuilding that corridor and making the environment their number one priority, everything from what goes into the runoff drains to the how they rebuild and replenish the river there where they live.
And so for me what is I think – it is not completely successful yet because we have so much work to do, but it is a success in the sense that the youth now are engaged, they are demanding action, and they are willing to take action themselves. And so for me, I heard that same voice, whether it was from South America or Africa or Asia, bringing the youth together – not just hearing their stories, but hearing the impacts on their families in their lives, but seeing the actions they are willing to take.
So I would say that it gives us both the failing and the success. The failing is that we have really, I think, as government, not done our duty to really empower people in their everyday lives, and have had policies for generations that have impacted families, sometimes those with the least resources. And so that is the bad part of the story. The good part of the story: There’s hope there, and there’s a path forward if we’re able to have collective will and if we really follow the voice of youth.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, Mayor Durkan. I believe that that is our time for today. I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today and answer these questions. As a reminder to everyone, we will post a transcript and video on our website hopefully later today. So, with that, that concludes our briefing, and thank you so much again.
MS DURKAN: Thank you so much.
MODERATOR: If you’d like to have any final remarks, please, go ahead.
MS DURKAN: No, I just want to thank all the press, and I would encourage you: highlight your stories as much as you can and get those stories from the people in your own countries that really are the most compelling that show these changes, because as we all know, when local and state and central governments act, they usually do it because they have the pressures where they live. And so, your role as the press when covering this is really critical for us to be able to do what we do.
The time is now. The climate emergency is here. But working together, I believe that we can really meet this challenge. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much.