Sustainable Washington

The Climate Change Challenge

“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground – a time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”[1]
— Wangari Maathai, Green Belt Movement Founder and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner

Purpose of this Document

In 2002, the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association published Livable Washington: APA’s Action Agenda for Growth Management. This landmark document was “offered as a touchstone to allow our members to join together to address the issues that affect our communities.”  Livable Washington rightly celebrated our initial success during the first ten years under the Growth Management Act, while recognizing – through a wide-ranging set of policy recommendations – that further action was needed.   Two years later, Livable Washington Update 2005 reframed these issues and offered an action plan featuring five major topics:

  • Regulatory Integration
  • Annexation Reform
  • State-wide Smart Growth Strategy
  • State Tax Structure and Revenue
  • Citizen Education

In 2015 the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association created resources to address climate change as part of the Ten Big Ideas efforts.

When the Growth Management Act was passed in 1990, global warming was a somewhat abstract concept well outside mainstream planning. Over the intervening twenty years, global warming has become better understood.  Its consequences and impacts are not only real, but imminent. The growing consensus in the worldwide scientific community on the role of manmade (anthropogenic) greenhouse gases (GHG) in increasing global warming reached a critical milestone in February 2007 with the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[2] (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, (often referred to as AR4 or IPCC4).  IPCC4  concluded that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal[3], and that “[m]ost of the global average warming over the past 50 years is very likely[4]  due to anthropogenic increases.[5]

Our understanding of global warming and the consequences for global climate change continues to grow rapidly.  At a March 2009 meeting of the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change,[6] scientists agreed that the climate system is already moving beyond the patterns of natural variability, evidenced by changes in global mean surface temperature, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events.  They report that scenarios considered “worst case” are already becoming reality and that, unless drastic action is taken soon, dangerous climate change is imminent (see Chapter 2 for a discussion of effects in Washington).

Climate change is now emerging as the transformational challenge of the twenty-first century. This latest edition in the Livable Washington series is issued under a new name, Sustainable Washington 2009: Planning for Climate Change, reflecting both our increased understanding of livability in terms of sustainability and the critical issue of climate change.  This edition is intended as a resource for Washington planners to use as we work to better understand the possible and likely environmental consequences of climate change, identify potential measures to help our communities adapt to the change, and reshape our built environment in ways that can mitigate the emissions of greenhouse gases.

Key Terms

The following brief definitions of key terms are adapted from several sources to reflect how these terms are generally used in this report.  Additional terms and more precise definitions of these terms, excerpted from IPCC’s Glossaries[7], are provided in the front matter of this document, following the Table of Contents.

  • Sustainability – The foundational definition of sustainability was established by the 1987 report from the World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future[8] (the “Brundtland Report”):  “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
  • Climate change – The IPCC glossary defines climate change as “a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the mean and/or variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer.”[9]  Climate change effects are not limited to global warming (increases in surface temperatures), but also include such phenomena as changes in precipitation patterns, sea-level rise, ocean and ice sheet dynamics, ocean acidification, and increasing frequency of extreme weather events.
  • Global warming – Global warming refers to the gradual increase, observed or projected, in global surface temperature, as one of the consequences of human-caused (anthropogenic) GHG emissions.
  • Mitigation – With respect to climate change, mitigation usually means implementing policies to reduce GHG emissions and enhance carbon sequestration.  Many measures familiar to planners – energy conservation, improved vehicle efficiency, compact urban development – are forms of mitigation. 
  • Adaptation – Initiatives and measures to reduce the vulnerability of natural and human systems to actual or expected climate change effects.  In short, adaptation means planning for the consequences of global climate change.


Sustainability and the APA

Over the last dozen years, as the evidence has mounted of the impacts of human activity on global carbon and hydrologic cycles, a new paradigm has taken hold – sustainability.   Sustainability is much more than climate change – it represents a new, holistic way of looking at mankind’s relationship to natural systems, recognizing the interdependence of environmental, social and economic factors. The sustainability movement has grown throughout the domains of planning, environmentalism, and commerce, taking on additional flavors as the fundamental concept of living within the constraints of our ecological support systems is adapted to the range of human activity.

What is sustainability?

The notion of an integrated, global treatment of economic, social and environmental systems traces to the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment. In 1983, the United Nations created the World Commission on Environment and Development. In 1987 the commission published its report, Our Common Future (the “Brundtland report”). This report established a foundational definition of sustainability that still serves us well today: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Over the past nine years, the National APA has focused on these issues with a series of Policy Guides.  The Policy Guide on Planning for Sustainability (2000) recognized the importance of “a systematic, integrated approach that brings together environmental, economic, and social goals and actions directed toward the following four objectives:


  1. Reduce dependence on fossil fuels, extracted underground metals and minerals.
  2. Reduce dependence on chemicals and other manufactured substances that can accumulate in nature.
  3. Reduce dependence on activities that harm life-sustaining ecosystems.
  4. Meet the hierarchy of present and future human needs fairly and efficiently.”

A subsequent Policy Guide on Energy  (2004) recognized the inherent problems of raising public awareness of energy issues and the limited, but central, role that planning occupies in dealing with this aspect of sustainability planning.  The Policy Guide on Planning & Climate Change (2008) endorsed aggressive GHG reduction goals aimed at stabilizing global average temperatures at no more than 2°C (3.6° F) above pre-industrial levels. 

Our intent with Sustainable Washington 2009: Planning for Climate Change is not to repeat the work of these policy guides – although we encourage Washington planners to become familiar with these documents, as they provide valuable background for challenges at the local, regional, and state levels.  Rather, our intent is to interpret the information from these and a wide range of other sources for the Washington situation and provide specific action items to serve as a resource for planners in our state.

Preparing the Document

This document and its companion pieces (see Chapter 5) are the products of many people over many months of effort.  (See the list of participants in Acknowledgements). The project was launched in earnest in January, 2009, as a follow-up to a brainstorming session in October 2008 at the APA Washington Chapter Conference in Spokane. Some 30 planners representing a variety of specialties, interest areas, and locations worked in teams of three to five people to prepare the specific action items presented in Chapter 3.  The group met in a workshop format at the end of March to compare results, establish a common approach, and define the next steps.  Throughout the spring, members of the group wrote, re-wrote, reviewed, and revised sections of the document.  After study sessions with the Chapter Board and the Legislative Committee in June, the draft document was released for concurrent reviews by a group of selected experts and peers, as well as by all interested Chapter members. Following revisions based on those comments, the document was approved by the Executive Board in August 2009. 

We faced a number of challenges in preparing this document that shaped the final content and format:

  • Maintaining a focus on climate change within the broader issue of sustainability,
  • Providing enough background information for planners to understand the nature of the problem without overshadowing the focus on actions planners can take,
  • Recognizing that planners are at different levels of experience with this issue (hence we divided actions into Getting Started, Making a Commitment, and Expanding the Commitment), and
  • Deciding what topic areas should be addressed, when so many issues are intertwined.

Our decision to create a web-based document, rather than a printed product, is intended to make this massive amount information accessible and easy to navigate.

As initially published, this document should be considered a starting point. We expect that the discussion and ideas contained here will expand with the science, and be further amplified as the range of responses and actions are explored.

A Unique and Unprecedented Challenge

As planners, our first duty is to the health, safety and well-being of our communities. Section A of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP) Code of Ethics clearly states that “Our primary obligation is to serve the public interest.”  The Code also directs us to have “special concern for the long-range consequences of present actions” and to “pay special attention to the inter-relatedness of decisions.” The long range nature of climate change and the inter-relatedness of the causes and effects of climate change place this issue squarely within the purview and ethical responsibility of planners.

Fulfilling this responsibility requires that we educate both ourselves and our communities to ensure that Washington communities are prepared to deal with the impacts associated with climate change.  As we are writing this document in 2009, it appears that many communities are not prepared. The National Academy of Sciences publication, Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate[11], noted this stark reality:

Why governments cannot wait

• Climate change is already in motion.
• Significant reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is possible, but it is unlikely that greenhouse gas emissions will be stabilized or reversed in the near term.
• Climate change is expected to continue long after greenhouse gases are stabilized.
• Climate change will likely lead to irreversible losses in some areas.
• Climate change will have largely negative economic consequences, but may also create economic opportunities.

Excerpted from Preparing for Climate Change: A Guidebook for Local, Regional, and State Governments, September 2007.

“Government agencies, private organizations and individuals whose futures will be affected by climate change are unprepared, both conceptually and practically, for meeting the challenges and opportunities it presents.  Many of their usual practices and decision rules – for building bridges, implementing zoning rules, using private motor vehicles, and so on – assume a stationary climate, a continuation of past climactic conditions, including similar patterns of variation of the same probabilities of extreme events.”

Our purpose in presenting Sustainable Washington 2009: Planning for Climate Change is to help planners in Washington prepare to address climate change issues and to provide specific action items that planners can take to make a difference.

Washington APA Principles for Climate Change Action

In preparing this document, the planners involved developed a set of guiding principles that serve as the foundation for recommended actions.  With the action to approve publication of this document, the Washington Chapter APA has approved and endorsed these principles.

  1. Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions – In Washington State, the #1 source of greenhouse gas emissions is transportation.  Planners can respond by enabling life styles that are not automobile dependent — through changes in land use patterns, creating compact communities, supporting transit, and developing infrastructures for low carbon fuel systems.  The #2 source of  emissions is building construction, maintenance and operations.  Planners can respond by setting standards that foster green building techniques, improve the energy efficiency of existing buildings, and encourage alternative and distributed energy sources.
  2. Integrate Issues – Real solutions to the climate change challenge require that we address issues of public health, welfare, and safety in related disciplines, not simply limited to land use planning.  Planners need to respond by developing policies and programs that integrate issues, such as: protecting food systems; protecting the public from the increased risk of hazards, disease, and pests; supporting the local economy;  and providing equitable systems that recognize economic displacement and vulnerable populations.
  3. Think Holistically – Planners cannot solve the climate change challenge by acting alone.  It is important to break down silos and connect across government departments, special districts and utilities, agencies and layers of government, and disciplines/professions to identify and integrate holistic solutions.
  4. Engage & Educate – Planners have a fundamental responsibility to protect the public interest and involve citizens in public process and decision-making.  Climate change will affect every citizen, both in the immediate future and through future generations.  It is essential that citizens are educated on the issues, involved in decision making, and engaged in implementing effective solutions.
  5. Plan & Act Strategically – Planners have an array of tools that can be brought to bear – GMA Comprehensive Plans, SEPA, Shoreline Management Act, Climate Action Plans, Sustainability Strategies, and others.  It is critical that planners act strategically when incorporating climate change issues in these plans.  It is important to make small, early achievements while also addressing larger problems that may take years to resolve. 
  6. Create benchmarks – Climate change response will requires consistent monitoring of many simultaneous measures.  Many measures will provide only small year-to-year changes while reducing greenhouse gases to levels necessary to avoid dangerous climate change - achieving an 80% reduction over 40 years is only 2% per year.  In many cases, plans will need to establish a vision and implementation plan that will unfold over multiple generations. It is vital that we set benchmarks over these long time frames to monitor our progress.
  7. Be Adaptive – Adaptation is not surrender.  As much as we would like to believe we can avoid the impacts of climate change through aggressive mitigation actions to reduce greenhouse gases, scientists say that GHG concentrations and emissions rates are such that some climate changes impacts are unavoidable.   Society will adapt – our job as planners is to assure that our adaption is well-planned and equitable. We also need to be flexible and adaptive in our plans and measures so that they also can be modified as our understanding of ecological systems and climate change impacts evolves.
  8. Be Leaders – Planners are trained to be inclusive, holistic and integrative – essential tools for addressing climate change.  We need to think of ourselves as leaders and act as leaders as we face this challenge.

Washington as a Leader

Washington’s cities and counties have been among the leaders in U.S. local governments in planning for climate change. In 2005, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels challenged the U.S. Conference of Mayors to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocols established for international agreement on reducing global warming pollution levels. His original target, to gain agreement among 144 cities, was intended to match the number of countries which had signed the Kyoto Protocol. By 2009, a total of 956 U.S. cities, representing over 83 million citizens in all fifty states (and over 25% of the U.S. population) have signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.

In 2005, King County’s Climate Change Conference brought together more than 600 government, business, and community leaders to open a dialogue about climate change impacts and potential adaptations. This conversation has continued through the joint efforts with ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability and the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group resulting in the publication of  Preparing for Climate Change: A Guidebook for Local, Regional, and State Governments.

Planning for climate change has not been limited to larger cities and counties.  Olympia’s Climate Action Plan, developed in 1991, was one of the first in the U.S., and served as the beginning of a long commitment to mitigation and adaptation. Smaller towns throughout the state – including Port Townsend (population 8,300), Washougal (population 14,000), and Langley (population 1,000) - are also taking aggressive actions to address climate change challenges.

Guide to this Document

This document is organized into five chapters. In Chapter 2, we provide an overview of the scientific studies on climate change, describe the scientific projections for impacts in Washington, and examine greenhouse gas emissions in our state.
In Chapter 3, we first discuss frameworks for planning in response to climate change.  Then, for each of the following eleven topic areas, we identify a range of specific actions planners can take for mitigation and adaptation to climate change:

  • Climate Change Hazards
  • Ecosystems and Water
  • Energy
  • Waste Management
  • Land Use
  • Mobility
  • Food Systems & Agriculture
  • Construction & Green Building Practices
  • Social Equity
  • Public Health
  • Economy

In Chapter 4, we look at Washington’s responses to sustainability and climate change from a legislative standpoint, discussing past and current legislation.  Also, we look at Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA) and how planning under GMA can be a means of addressing climate change.

In Chapter 5, we return to the issue of planners’ roles and discuss how planners can integrate their efforts with those of other professions and other disciplines. This section also explains the information suite that APA Washington has prepared to help planners respond to this challenge.

Appendix materials include:

  • A listing of all of the action items, coded by level of government and level of commitment, and
  • A listing of resources and references to other useful sources.


1 Wangari Muta Maathai, Kenyan environmentalist and founder of the Green Belt Movement.
2 The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1989 by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the World Meterological Organization (WMO) to “provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of climate change and its potential environmental and socio-economic consequences.”
3 Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, , p. 2
4 In scientific terms, “very likely” means at least a 90% probability.  See Guidance Note for Lead Authors of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report on Addressing Uncertainties,
5 Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report Summary for Policymakers, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,p. 5
6 The conference, Climate Change: Global Risks, Challenges & Decisions, was sponsored by the University of Copenhagen and the International Alliance of Resource Universities to bring together the most recent scientific research on climate change, leading up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP15) to be held in Copenhagen in December, 2009.
7 Annex 1: Glossary, Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
8 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future,
9 Even the definition of climate change is not without some controversy.  The Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines climate change as “a change of climate which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods.”  For further discussion on the importance of these differences, see Pielke, Roger A Jr "What Is Climate Change?". Issues in Science and Technology at
10 Smit, et. al.,Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, cited in Adaptation to Climate Change in the Context of Sustainable Development, Smit & Pilifosova (Eds.), Chapter 18, IPCC Third Assessment Report, Working Group II –Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability,
11 Informing Decisions in a Changing Climate, National Academies Committee on the Human Dimensions of Climate Change, National Academies Press, 2009, p. 9.

Table of Contents |Next