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Environment

Do climate politics really matter at the local level? A Seattle professor thinks so

A girl works on a drawing next to an unused viewing scope as a smoky haze obscures the Space Needle and downtown Seattle.
Elaine Thompson
/
The Associated Press file
A girl works on a drawing as a smoky haze from wildfires obscures the Space Needle and downtown Seattle in the background.

The changing climate is a topic you’d think would be front and center in local elections – especially after the heat wave that killed hundreds of people in the Northwest this summer.

A professor of politics at the University of Washington noted a lack of attention to the issue – until he and a colleague pushed for a debate about it in Seattle.

Aseem Prakash
Aseem Prakash

Aseem Prakash directs the school’s Center for Environmental Politics. In July, he wrote about his amazement that none of the candidates seemed to care about the climate. Instead, their focus – as with candidates in New York City – is on crime, policing and, lately, homelessness.

And when you ask them how we’re truly adapting to climate change, the candidates either pass the buck and say some other jurisdiction is ultimately responsible, Prakash says. Or they talk about pilot programs for this and that.

And there are lots of pilot programs, he says. But he doesn't see any Seattle mayoral candidates — or past mayors — following up with data that would help keep them accountable. Instead, he says, most seem to use a local office, like mayor or city councilmember, as a stepping stone at the beginning of a career in politics — or toward something else more lucrative.

“At some point, all of us, we have to call out the B.S. You have to call out the B.S. and force politicians to confront the issues that affect us,” he says.

“Because there's a program for everything, right? … Is it really helping?” Prakash wonders.

“Do we have data that the heat island effect in Seattle has improved over the years because there are programs? Have we evaluated how effective these programs are? No. … So then what's the point? This is what you call ‘virtue signaling.’” 

Prakash says there are too many pledges and not enough action. Accountability is missing. Most people aren’t getting help with things like cooling their homes during heat waves or getting electric cars that are affordable and reliable.

"Everybody wants to be a global leader, (to) talk about the future generation. It's a moral responsibility,“ Prakash says, with a note of frustrated sarcasm in his voice.

“But you ask them, 'OK, can you please translate it in the context of my humble census tract, my ZIP code? What does climate change mean for my ZIP code? Why should I care?' ”

These are issues that students and professors from departments all over the University of Washington want to come together to discuss and attempt to solve, as they relate to climate change.

This interdisciplinary approach is why Prakash founded the Center for Environmental Politics seven years ago. The debate is co-hosted by the UW's EarthLab.

"A Climate Conversation with Seattle Mayoral Candidates" is free and open to the public via Zoom. It takes place Friday evening from 5 to 6 p.m. You can register here.

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