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Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Global warming: They're not laughing at Ron Sims now

Seattle Times staff reporter

The first time Ron Sims tried to set up a county office to study the effects of global warming, he was mocked.

A Seattle Times editorial said King County Council members Sims and co-sponsor Bruce Laing were belching "hyperbolic clouds of rhetorical gas," and suggested they instead buy some tomato plants and steer manure.

"The point is," wrote the amused editorialist, "that the sky-is-falling, icecaps-are-melting, oceans-are-rising rhetoric must be tempered by common sense." With little support for the idea from the environmental community and none from council colleagues, the proposal quickly disappeared.

That was 1988, before rising temperatures, increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and melting ice sheets persuaded most of the scientific community that the planet is undergoing potentially disastrous climate change caused by human activity.

Now county executive, Sims has set up a climate-response planning team — and no one is laughing. Long admired by environmentalists, but previously unable to make the case that a local official should poke his nose into a planet-sized problem, Sims is drawing national attention for his efforts to reduce the county's greenhouse-gas emissions and prepare for the effects of climate change.

The same week theaters began showing "An Inconvenient Truth," the documentary about former Vice President Al Gore's crusade against global warming, Sims was the focus of a U.S. News & World Report cover story on the subject.

Sims' position on global warming hasn't changed much since the day he told Laing what he had learned from a show on public television and from his own library research.

"I said, 'Bruce, I think we need to worry about it, I think it's real.' ... The issue was how to live in that world. The glaciers were going to melt, the seas were going to get higher, the place was going to get warmer. What does it all mean to us in King County?"

A friendly rivalry?

In recent months, Sims has begun addressing those questions by convening a conference on the local effects of climate change and creating a high-level team to plan the county's response.

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He also has proposed that King County become the first county in the nation to join the Chicago Climate Exchange, a voluntary marketplace that allows members to increase greenhouse-gas emissions if they buy credits from members who have reduced pollution.

Sims isn't the only local leader to step into the national spotlight on global warming.

His former County Council colleague, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, gained prominence last year when he urged other cities to reduce climate-altering carbon emissions under the terms of the Kyoto Protocol. So far, 250 cities representing nearly 46 million Americans have signed on.

"They're inspiring people way beyond the Puget Sound region," said Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound, which worries about the impact of climate change on the marine environment. "This country is in desperate need of leadership on these issues, and I think both these guys have stepped up."

Not everyone, though, is impressed.

King County Republican Party Chairman Michael Young calls Sims' and Nickels' high profile on global warming "grandstanding. ... The last time I checked, Ron was riding in a Lincoln Town Car."

(Sims, 58, who frequently rides a bicycle to work, dropped plans to switch to a gas-electric hybrid on the job when the Sheriff's Office said the vehicle wouldn't have enough power for security purposes.)

"It's largely symbolic, but it allows him to get on the national stage," Republican political consultant Randy Pepple said. "It gets used for partisan reasons to beat up on Republicans because [Republicans] tend to focus on the here-and-now and issues people are facing today."

Sims and Nickels have shown little sign of coordinating their global-warming strategies. Just one day before Gore joined Nickels for the release of the mayor's "Green Ribbon Commission" report on global warming this spring, Sims held his own news conference to announce his latest initiatives.

Sims praises Nickels and denies competition or a lack of coordination between the two.

Nickels admits to a touch of rivalry. "If there's a little bit of friendly competition," he says, "that's great, too. It gets people's juices flowing."

Sims in March signed executive orders that will, if fully implemented, accelerate the use of biodiesel fuel in buses, sell reclaimed water from the Brightwater sewage plant, produce electricity from methane at the Cedar Hills Landfill, and preserve 100,000 acres of green space.

Before that, Sims bought development rights on the privately owned 90,000-acre Snoqualmie Forest, replaced the county car fleet with Toyota Prius hybrids and installed a hydrogen fuel cell to generate electricity from methane at the Renton sewage plant.

Preparing for change

Sims also has begun doing what he and Laing wanted to do all those years ago: focusing agencies' attention on how climate change is likely to affect life here — and responding to that challenge.

At the King County Climate Change Conference at Qwest Field, University of Washington researchers told 700 participants to prepare for less water in reservoirs in the summer, salmon stressed by warmer stream temperatures and lower summer flows, more frequent winter flooding, and fires and pest invasions in the forests.

After the conference, Sims put his deputy chief of staff, Jim Lopez, in charge of a climate-change team that meets every two weeks to coordinate research and planning.

"We're going to be really ready for it. Nobody else is out there with us," Sims says.

Among the issues being considered: the ability of the county's deteriorating levees to handle higher-flowing rivers, and flooding of the Duwamish and Green River valleys if the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melt.

"We say you will have a wonderful experience at Safeco or Qwest Field," Sims jokes, "because you'll be able to fish from the stands."

The team is also keeping an eye on the shrinking snowpack, which will reduce the amount of water flowing into municipal reservoirs. Sims believes, contrary to Seattle's view, the region will have to find another large reservoir.

Sims staffers say the outlook got worse last month with UW meteorologist Cliff Mass's latest analysis predicting major losses of snowpack by 2050 and "catastrophic" decreases by 2090.

Preparing the county to cope with climate change, as Sims is doing, "is exactly what leaders are for," says William Ruckelshaus, the first U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator and a Medina resident.

When it comes to taming climate change on the global level, one or two local officials can only do so much. China is building enough coal plants this year to power several dozen Seattles — a fact that leads Ruckelshaus to note, "It takes a lot of King Counties to make up for that. This has got to be dealt with internationally."

Ever the optimist

Sims remains upbeat in the face of gloomy forecasts, recalling that concerted action by the United States and other countries reversed the depletion of the earth's protective ozone layer.

"Americans, if given the tools, are incredibly able to adjust their behaviors. I think they will do that if given the chance."

He recently discovered one promising tool on the Internet: a chemical process that occurs in the guts of termites. County cabinet members laughed when Sims brought up the subject.

"We all said, 'Did you say something about termite guts?' " recalls his chief of staff, Kurt Triplett. "He said, 'Yeah, you know how the enzymes in the termites' intestines can turn paper products into hydrogen?' We said, 'No, we haven't heard that.' "

Hydrogen could power cars in a post-oil world if a way were found to produce it economically. Sims e-mailed a citation to research on termite guts to his bemused staffers.

The laughter died down, and this time it didn't take 18 years.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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