Maybe that’s why the idea of “planning” meets so much resistance in our county. “Planning” means that change is going to happen, that the future may be different from the past, and that change might make us do things differently.
No change will be bigger than climate change. The scientific evidence of climate change’s effects makes it clear that our future is going to be quite different from our past. And when I say “our future,” I mean our future. Right here in Whatcom County.
Just yesterday, for example, a peer-reviewed article confirmed what we already know: that climate change is giving salmon a tough time. As NOAA Fisheries states:
Many salmon rivers around Puget Sound have experienced increasing fluctuations in flow over the past 60 years, just as climate change projections predict - and that's unfortunate news for threatened Chinook salmon, according to a new analysis of salmon survival and river flow.
More pronounced fluctuations in flow can scour away salmon eggs and exhaust young fish, especially when lower flows force adult fish to lay eggs in more exposed areas in the center of the channel.
Flow fluctuates so wildly because of bigger storms, more droughts, and more water falling as rain instead of snow. This study makes it clear that these fluctuations are already happening – this is not just something that may happen in the future.
Oh well, you may be thinking, that’s OK, we’ll just get our salmon from British Columbia. Except that a recent Canadian study shows that warming waters in B.C. rivers will give chinook salmon heart attacks. Literally.
So maybe we shouldn’t “plan” to outsource our salmon dinners
These studies, and many more like them, show that the future will not be like the past. In fact, “the future” is now. It’s already on the job. What can we do about it?
Whatcom County is in the middle of its most important planning exercise: the update of its 2016 Comprehensive Plan. The Comprehensive Plan is supposed to identify and protect frequently flooded areas. It’s supposed to protect surface and groundwater resources. It’s supposed to protect fish and wildlife habitat. Climate change will affect all of these “protected” resources. We could -- in fact, we should -- plan to avoid and ameliorate the effects of climate change.
But I’ve been watching County planning for a while now, and I have a prediction based on past performance. I predict that Whatcom County will continue to plan for the past, because that’s where its most vocal residents are the most comfortable.
The County will continue to promote land conversion that way it’s always been done in Whatcom County-- without worrying about water supply, or how much pavement covers watersheds, or whether farm land is protected, or even whether impact fees are in place that could help to pay for some of the impacts of land conversion. The County will continue to give the very highest priority to making sure that tens of thousands of new houses can be built on farm land and in rural areas, even when the new houses’ new wells deprive salmon of the water that they need.
In short, Whatcom County will continue to plan for 1950, not for 2050.
Now, some readers are shaking their heads, saying “I live in the most progressive community in the universe! We love the environment! What are you talking about?” And that may be right, as far as it goes. Psychologically, if not geographically.
As Gail Collins has pointed out, there’s a large and increasing difference between what she calls “crowded places” and “empty places.” "Empty places" are a state of mind, not necessarily a geography; Texas views itself as an empty place, Collins notes, despite the fact that 80% of its population lives in urban areas
In our crowded place, Bellingham, it can be easy to stay cocooned in our proto-Brooklyn hipster vibe. But the fact is, our mini-Brooklyn is located smack in the middle of mini-Texas, when it comes to voting patterns and cultural affiliations.
Speaking of Texas – we have a lot of folks in Whatcom County who would find Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s favorite climate joke to be really funny: “It’s cold! Al Gore told me this wouldn’t happen!”
Best available science recognizes that climate change is already upon us. Whatcom County is required to use best available science when it protects critical areas.
But will it?
Or is that the sound of laughter over Al Gore jokes that I hear, almost muffling the faint strain of a bagpipe, as Brigadoon fades back into the past?