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Seth Vidaña, the city of Bellingham's first climate and energy manager, starts his new position Feb. 18. Vidaña is a Western alumnus. // Photo by Kenneth Duncan

By Kenneth Duncan

The city of Bellingham has hired its first climate and energy manager in an effort to expand and achieve the climate action goals laid out in Bellingham’s updated Climate Protection Action Plan.

Seth Vidaña, a Western alumnus who previously worked in the Office of Sustainability, will become the city's new climate and energy manager Tuesday, Feb. 18. He will be working toward the completion of Bellingham’s Climate Protection Action Plan, a comprehensive roadmap of the city’s sustainability and emission reduction goals. Introduced in 2007, the plan was updated in 2018 to accurately reflect the changing landscape of climate action and to meet its milestones in a more timely manner.  

Vidaña said Bellingham is in a unique position as a city cognizant of its impact on climate.

“In terms of people being focused on climate, with city government and city council really interested in doing the best we can locally,” Vidaña said. “I think we’re kind of in the upper echelon. That said, I think we have a long way to go.”

Steve Hollenhorst, dean of Huxley College of the Environment at Western, said Vidaña is uniquely qualified for the position because of his master’s project, which studied the university’s climate impact.

“He studied Western’s behavior when it comes to climate, emissions and sustainability, and then proposed what the university ought to be doing better in the area,” Hollenhorst said. “And who better to know it than the person who really looked under the hood and saw what we were, how we were organized, what we were doing and how to fix it.”

Renee LaCroix, assistant public works director for the city of Bellingham, said the need for a climate and energy manager was spurred by a small amount of staff working on climate issues.

“Up until now, we’ve had 0.5 FTE (full-time employees) working on climate issues throughout the city and a few interns on top of that,” LaCroix said. “So, I think it’s amazing that we’ve gotten done what we have with such a small staff, and it’ll be equally amazing to see what a full-time permanent staff can do for the program.”

Vidaña hopes Bellingham’s position as a climate-conscious city will allow it to function as an example for other cities and influence their approach toward the climate crisis.

“The big game we’re playing is about leading so that other cities can look at what we’re doing, charting a path for them,” Vidaña said. “Not create their exact path, but we’re acting as a beacon for them.”

According to Vidaña, many of the changes made to the original Climate Protection Action Plan in 2018 were intended to accelerate goals and meet them 15 years earlier, largely because of Bellingham citizens’ active interest in the topic of climate action.

“We know that folks in Bellingham and at Western have a focus on limiting the impact of our actions,” Vidaña said. “This area attracts people who want to have a connection with nature. And in some ways, I think people around here feel like we have a lot to lose.”

One of the largest goals put forward by the Climate Protection Action Plan is the reduction of carbon emissions by both the municipality and community. According to Hollenhorst, Vidaña’s experience as a mediator will inform his approach working for Bellingham.

“He knows that you can’t go into that kind of thing with a cudgel. You have to go into it with more of a spirit of co-learning, right?” Hollenhorst said. “But at the same time, this is an emergency, and we need to get on it.”

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