Climate Action Now. Seriously.

By Nicholas Caleb of Portland, Oregon. Nicholas is a Concordia University Professor, attorney, & community activist.

California has one year of water left and is in a drought cycle with no end in sight.

Let that sink in.

We are seeing the early stages of what are quickly becoming the catastrophic effects of climate change. These effects are no longer abstract or in the future and the pace of change will only increase as we fail to act. In Portland, this is relevant for at least three reasons: (1) as climate change ravages the Southwest, we need to be prepared to welcome and care for climate refugees who will come to the Northwest in droves due to the predicted likelihood of faring comparatively well when it comes to climate impacts (it could be argued that at least some of the current development boom / housing crisis is due to wealthy investors hedging their bets), (2) governments around the world look to Portland to lead on climate policy, and (3) Portland is in a unique position to set the new high bar for the type of action humans must take in order to have the best chance to prevent catastrophic climate change.

In the next weeks and months, we will be making some serious policy choices that will determine whether our status as a climate leader is deserved and if we can handle the coming population surge while protecting the most vulnerable among us and ensuring that "equity" doesn't just become the latest buzz word.

The first choice is whether to allow a massive propane export terminal to be operated by Calgary based Pembina Pipeline Corporation at the Port of Portland's Terminal 6. Although the Port of Portland and Pembina already reached an agreement through a process with zero public participation, the project is currently being held up by an overlooked and necessary zoning code amendment that would have to be approved by the Planning and Sustainability Commission and ratified by Portland City Council. Essentially, the outcome of the zoning change decision will determine the fate of the export terminal.

This export terminal has major climate implications, both locally and globally. According to the Audubon Society of Portland,

Though this project has huge, direct safety implications, the terminal should be denied explicitly on climate change grounds. If we are successful in reducing local emissions by our existing commitments, this project will end up as an ever larger proportion of our local emission footprint that will require steeper offsets and concessions from all other sectors of Portland's economy. Also, despite claims of propane being a "clean fuel" or a "bridge fuel" because it emits less CO2 than coal or oil when combusted, propane is exclusively a byproduct of oil and natural gas extraction projects (Pembina says that this propane will come from fracking at Canada's Sedimentary Basin), which have a tendency to cause serious local environmental degradation (harming indigenous communities and contaminating water supplies), myriad public health problems, as well as greenhouse gas emissions at the site of extraction and through transport. When accounting for the entire life cycle of propane -- extraction, processing, transport, and combustion -- it is a huge stretch to use a word like "clean" to describe it. A 2014 study out of Cornell University concluded that "both shale gas and conventional natural gas have a larger [greenhouse gas footprint] than do coal or oil, for any possible use of natural gas[.]" In addition, because this project would not be replacing any existing fossil infrastructure, but creating it anew, it's disingenuous to invoke the idea of transition. When given a proper degree of scrutiny, it becomes immediately obvious that this project is antithetical to everything that Portland has built its green reputation on.

Sensing strong community opposition, Pembina has taken the step of offering a $3.1 million bribe to local institutions, hoping to negotiate the seriousness of Portland's commitment to leadership on climate change policy. Amazingly, part of this money is supposed to go toward the implementation of Portland's climate action plan. So, we would be funding our local climate action with money earned from a project that hugely contributes to global climate change. This is the height of absurdity and the type of thinking that has caused society to ignore climate change in favor of immediate satisfaction since it was identified as a threat more than 40 years ago. As 14-year old climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez puts it: "Past generations had a party on this planet and left it for us to clean up."

Despite gleefully accepting international climate champion awards, Mayor Hales has publicly expressed support for the Pembina project and hails it as the type of investment that Portland welcomes with open arms. The community needs to turn out in large numbers to let the Planning and Sustainability Commission and Portland City Council know that we don't want this project at the April 7th public hearing at 1900 SW 4th Avenue, room 2500A. There will a rally at 2:15 PM and the hearing will run from 3 - 8 PM. Please wear red to show your opposition to this project.

Fortuitously, the Pembina project is being considered at the same time that the new draft Climate Action Plan is open for public comment. For those unfamiliar, the Climate Action Plan is our local plan to cut carbon emissions. Portland was the first city in the US to establish a climate action plan in 1993. This year's draft has several notable provisions, including: an Equity Work Group to better ensure that communities most vulnerable to climate change – the elderly and children, people in poverty, and people of color – benefit from climate solutions; accounting for full life cycle emissions from extraction to disposal on products and processes utilized in Portland; and calling for continued investment in public transit and infrastructure for walking and bicycling while focusing on expanding transit access in under-served areas. However, the plan does not go nearly far enough given the gravity of the climate predicament.

In order to drive the discussion forward, the Climate Action Coalition is asking for six additions to the draft Climate Action Plan, which would be implemented by the City of Portland and Multnomah County:

  1. A provision banning all new export, storage, and transfer infrastructure for all fossil fuels, including coal, oil, natural gas, and propane. If all proposed fossil fuel projects in the Pacific Northwest are realized, they will carry 5 Keystone XL pipelines worth of carbon through the region. In fact, Tar Sands oil that was supposed to run through Keystone XL is now being hauled by train through our region. We can't be a climate leader while we profit off of large scale fossil fuel projects and rejecting new infrastructure (including the Pembina export terminal) would set a strong precedent that could be replicated by municipalities throughout the region.
  2. Commit to act as a climate leader by working with other municipalities to pass binding commitments to reduce local carbon emissions and emissions from pass-through fossil fuels, as well as banning fossil fuel extraction & export in their jurisdictions until atmospheric concentrations of CO2 are back down to 350 ppm, the level deemed "safe" by climate scientists. Pass-through refers to fossil fuels that travel through Portland, but never stop here. Currently, dangerous fossil fuel trains pass through Portland, and the number could increase if proposals for new fossil fuel export infrastructure are approved. Eugene recently bound itself to reducing CO2 emissions to its share of 350 ppm by the year 2100 through the nation's first climate recovery ordinance.
  3. Full greenhouse gas accounting to include emissions from pass-through fossil fuels in local carbon emissions reporting, including source emissions and consideration of environmental degradation at the source of extraction.
  4. Develop a plan to transition to sustainable energy in conjunction with dismantling existing fossil fuel infrastructure. This should include a commitment to work with workers at existing utilities and large fossil fuel facilities in Portland - such as PGE, PPL, NWN, and Arc Logistics - to create an immediate transition plan away from fossil fuels to a sustainable economy that is just, equitable and beneficial to all.
  5. The City shall refrain from entering into contracts, subsidizing or permitting companies and facilities whose primary business is extracting, refining or transporting fossil fuels, including those that manufacture equipment for extracting, refining and transporting fossil fuels.
  6. The City shall be 100% divested from all fossil fuel investments by 2020, starting the process now. Mayor Hales made vague commitments about divesting on World Environment Day in 2013. Instead, the City of Portland did an about face and purchased $20 million in Exxon Mobile bonds in December of 2014. The city's fledgling socially responsible investment policy should be updated to include total divestment from fossil fuel companies and funds that support large extraction and transfer projects.
The implementation of the recommendations above would set a new high bar for climate action. You can submit comments to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability here until April 10, after which a series of public forums and hearings will be scheduled before ratification of the amended plan by the city and county in late June. Hearing strong support from the community for adding in the amendments above could give staff at the Planning and Sustainability Commission the courage to make strong policy recommendations to the city council and county commissioners.

We are at the point where simply asking the state and federal government to set strong climate policy is not an option. If we want others to make brave policy decisions, we have to lead at the local level to be a laboratory for grassroots and democratic climate action. There is no more time to wait. Climate change is here, causing extreme harm, and will get far worse if we don't make radical changes immediately. We have the right culture and the right people in Portland to build a clean and equitable city given the challenges we face. What is needed now is a sense of urgency and the courage to do what is necessary to make good on our moral obligations to youth, future generations, and the integrity of the natural world.

guest column

connect with blueoregon