A dozen cars idle in standstill traffic on a dark winter morning; the rain and the quivering reflections of headlights on a wet street are the only signs of movement. A red light turns green. The line doesn’t budge.
The back-to-back vehicles are waiting for a slow-moving train to cross this main artery of Portland’s morning commute along the west side of the Willamette River.
I’m pacing and stretching next to traffic; the train has blocked my running route. I can’t see the faces of drivers through the rain, but the low grumble of idling engines is a chorus of frustration. All these people are probably going to be late for work. And they probably don’t know how paltry this inconvenience could prove, compared to the deadly disaster one of these trains could ignite.
Two years ago, Zenith Energy purchased an old asphalt factory in Northwest Portland, converting the abandoned space into a shipping terminal for, among other things, tar sand oil from Alberta, Canada—the dirtiest and most carbon-intensive of fossil fuels. The black tanks are identifiable by the label “1267” and the words “toxic inhalation hazard.” It was oil-carrying tanks that derailed in Mosier, Oregon, in 2016, spilling 42,000 gallons of crude. People said it was a miracle that, thanks to a rare windless day in the Columbia River Gorge, the derailment wasn’t more destructive. It could have played out differently: an oil train derailment that exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in 2013, killed 47 people and leveled their downtown.
Across the river, more lanes of traffic crawl through a tangle of three interstates: I-84, I-405, and I-5. Interstate 5 sees the worst of it, sandwiched between the other two. It was built through the middle of a historically black community back in the ’50s, dividing the Rose Quarter neighborhood with an asphalt moat—a river of congestion and toxic diesel fumes. Three years ago, a proposal to expand I-5 was positioned as a much-needed solution for the worst bottleneck in the state. It would add auxiliary lanes and shoulders to relieve traffic and a highway cover for park space, and pedestrian and bicycle paths. But many experts say expansion wouldn’t solve the traffic problem; it would simply invite more drivers and traffic would fill the additional space. As a result, even more pollution would be pumped into the surrounding neighborhoods. Administrators of the I-5-adjacent Harriet Tubman Middle School were advised to forgo outdoor recess for students due to poor air quality.
This is a typical morning in Portland, Oregon, though traffic has eased all over the city as social-distancing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have led many more commuters to start working from home and some businesses to close entirely. In a city that’s considered a leader in sustainability, thousands of people are sitting in their cars, sitting in traffic, sitting and waiting for a train full of combustible fossil fuel to roll by. Maybe they’re listening to a report on NPR about President Donald Trump gutting the National Environmental Policy Act and expediting the approval and construction of new fossil-fuel projects, even after scientists have made it clear that reduction in extraction is critical to life on Earth.
Maybe these drivers don’t make the connection between Portland’s traffic and the climate crisis. Maybe they do, but their commute would be too long or too dangerous without the use of a car. Perhaps they understand their complicity, and they’re frustrated by it, but driving is immensely more convenient than waiting for a bus in the rain.
Most of us by now have heard the argument that individual changes aren’t enough—our recycling isn’t going to save us. Our composting isn’t going to save us. Even our conviction to bike instead of driving to work won’t save us. We must reach higher, to the policy makers, to the powerful people running our cities and towns, and demand broad, structural changes. But in watching the trains full of tar sand oil cut across my running path, I can’t help but wonder if even a “sustainable city” is relatively powerless in fighting the enormity of our fossil-fuel addiction—especially when national leadership is encouraging more extraction. Or perhaps the city I moved to five years ago is just really good at greenwashing incremental policy changes that aren’t actually effective—or possibly counterproductive—to seem like the type of drastic changes that are now essential in avoiding the worst of the climate crisis.
Decades ago, Portland established its image as the most environmentally friendly city in the world. But on this bleak, rainy morning, I wonder if the progress of a progressive city is still much too slow.
It was the moss that struck me when I moved to Portland. A fuzzy layer of green coats just about everything when the relentless rains of three seasons soak the city’s surface. It grows on towering fir trees and rock walls bordering front yards; in sidewalk cracks and flower pots; on the brick of apartment buildings and the concrete of new condos.
Green seeps into the city and thrives. As do the green accolades: a steady stream of recognition and praise for being a leader in sustainability has been watering the city’s ego for decades. The Portland Visitors Association first started using the slogan “It’s not easy being green” in 2001. Sustainlane.com first named Portland “the most sustainable city” in 2007. The 2011 season premiere of Portlandia brought that reputation to cable, turning the “farm-to-table” food scene into charming satire featuring Colin the Chicken.
Starting in the late ’60s and for several decades following, Portland really was making unprecedented moves. After the infamous urban planner Robert Moses laid out a plan for Portland with multi-lane highways cutting every which way, environmental activists got organized and started protesting the many proposals for new roads—even fighting some existing ones. Harbor Drive Freeway once ran along what is now Tom McCall Waterfront Park, but the asphalt was ripped up in favor of grass and pedestrian paths in 1975.
That same year, a community gardens program was established, encouraging neighbors to work together and produce local, nutritious food. Portland’s Urban Growth Boundary was established in 1981, containing the risk of urban sprawl and protecting surrounding farmland from development. And in 1993, Portland was the first city to establish a carbon-reduction strategy.
I moved here, in 2014, in part for Portland’s environmentally friendly reputation. And the city delivered. But I only knew how to look so far: I was impressed by the assortment of recycling bins at restaurants; the green-painted bike lanes; the residential composting; and all the unruly, native gardens, looking delightfully wild compared to the fertilizer-fed lawns of my East Coast hometown.
Tillikum Crossing, a pedestrian-, bike-, and public transit-only bridge across the Willamette River, opened the year after I arrived. The $136 million project—the longest bridge to not allow individual motor vehicles in North America—was a shiny, Instagram-worthy example of Portland’s sustainable image as it filled with walkers and bikers on sunny spring days.
That summer, Greenpeace activists rappelled from the St. John’s Bridge to block an ice breaker, the Fennica, headed for the Arctic where it would carve a path for oil exploration. Additional “kayaktavists” paddled out with “#ShellNo” banners, adding to the barricade of people blocking The Fennica’s escape route. A friend and I brought our dogs to the nearby park to watch the drama unfold and to cheer them on with other picnicking supporters. (This was the first I’d heard of Arctic drilling, and I was several years away from understanding the impact of risky extraction on delicate ecosystems where the climate is already warming much faster than the rest of the world.)
That’s all to say that Portland’s green reputation is deep-rooted. It’s participatory and a little bit showy. The city is still making moves to uphold a history of sustainability, with both grassroots organizations and city leadership offering varying commitments to climate-change action.
But how does a purportedly sustainable city propose the expansion of a freeway when transportation is already the country’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, with 80 percent of those emissions coming from trucks and cars? How do “bomb trains” start slipping through a city that banned the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure back in 2015?
Jonathan Maus, publisher and editor of BikePortland.org, has been monitoring the evolution of transportation in Portland since he moved here in 2004. When he started his blog about Portland bike culture the following year, biking was still on the rise and would continue that upswing for another decade. It plateaued in 2014, when 7.2 percent of the city’s commuters reportedly biked to work. Last year, that percentage dropped to 5.3, the lowest it’s been since 2007.
A decline in biking is likely due to rapid population growth in Portland; the city gained around 64,000 new residents, a 1.1 percent population increase, between 2010 and 2017.
“We haven’t done a good enough job of influencing the thousands and thousands of new people who have moved here, making it clear to them that biking and walking are the way to go,” says Maus. “Instead, we’re trying to mitigate the impact of the cars they’re bringing in.”
And the cars are a big part of what’s holding back Portland’s progress in reducing carbon. Residential, commercial, and industrial emissions all fell in Portland between 2010 and 2017. But the transportation sector is going in the opposite direction, emitting more and more as more and more people arrive with cars. So maybe it is individuals—more specifically drivers—who could make a big difference.
“It’s got to be a recipe of both,” says Raz Mason of the Seattle-based CO2 Foundation—both individual actions and structural reform. Mason splits her time between Oregon and Washington, educating the public and policymakers on extreme weather and carbon removal technology. Her background in neuroscience and resilience training feeds her focus on the human reaction (and lack of reaction) to the enormity of climate change. “When we’re scared, we tend to oversimplify,” she explains. “[Climate change] is big and scary, and we need to educate ourselves on the complexity of the situation.”
My own attempt to educate myself on the complexity of the situation led me to doubt Portland’s ability to keep up, or catch up, to its past as a leader in sustainability. But some people think we could bounce back.
Maus points out that in 2020, Portland has an opportunity to elect a new mayor, along with several city commissioners. “That’s a tremendous thing to consider,” he says. “We could see radical change relatively quickly.”
Sarah Iannarone, a 2020 Democratic mayoral candidate, echoes an increasingly common concern that Portland has fallen behind on living up to its image for progressive sustainability. I received a statement from her that reads: “For decades, Portland has called itself a leader in climate action, touting our legacy of urban revitalization to the world. As a result, we are considered a global ‘green city leader’ whether or not we’re living up to the hype. Sadly, we are not making good on our claims.”
Iannarone points out that Portland has not met its carbon-reduction targets, as biking and public transit rates “flatten or decline.” She criticizes the current leadership for not declaring a climate emergency, “as demanded by youth climate activists, let alone built the coalition of organizations and frontline communities that will enable us to attack the problem head on.”
On Twitter, Iannarone took a strong stance against the I-5 expansion: “Imagine, Portland, if instead of battling an idiotic, corrupt & expensive freeway expansion thru Central Eastside, we were putting our energy toward a vision of a prosperous, climate-friendly future,” she wrote. “Let’s not cap I-5; let’s go big and decommission it.”
When current Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler was invited to speak to the Special Committee on the Climate Crisis, he acknowledged Portland’s shortcomings in curbing emissions from the transportation sector, while offering broad guarantees for more effective action in the future.
“We’re doubling down on ways to create more effective transit options,” Wheeler told Senate Democrats. “Portland is working hard to make biking, walking, and transit the easiest, fastest, and most effective way to get around in our community.”
At the same time, Wheeler was supporting the I-5 expansion. It was only in December, after significant pressure from local climate activists, that Wheeler joined three of his elected colleagues in a call for a complete environmental impact statement on the project.
In March, all five mayoral candidates weighed in on the I-5 expansion, among other climate-related issues, in a climate debate hosted by the local chapter of the Sunrise Movement. The crowd booed in response to Wheeler when he explained that he will not support the expansion while ODOT has yet to perform an Environmental Impact Statement, but that he doesn’t think the plans should be scrapped entirely.
“There’s significant new investment in bikeways and walkways and rejoining that historic Albina community cannot happen without [the I-5 expansion],” he said. “Then we have to talk about I-5 going over the Columbia River. We can’t just let it fall into the river. At some point we’re going to have to invest in that infrastructure as well. So do it, but do it right.”
Iannarone pointed out that Wheeler’s objections to I-5 only came after many months of pressure from activists. She said she’d rather see high-speed rail built through that corridor, arguing that “We can’t be spending billions expanding fossil-fuel infrastructure in the middle of a climate crisis.”
Wheeler has spoken out about Zenith Energy’s plans to expand its terminal using permits acquired in 2014 by the previous land owners. “I don’t want to see more oil trains coming through Portland,” said the mayor. “It’s a terrible location for it; it creates a significant hazard for the public’s well being.” In July, the energy company was granted a temporary certificate of occupancy, allowing it to use an upgraded racking system to unload oil tankers. But when Zenith sought permission to build three new pipelines below Portland, the city said no, and Wheeler supported that decision.
Portland activists have played a huge role in pushing politicians to take stronger stances on issues like the Zenith terminal expansion and the I-5 freeway expansion. Last April, protesters planted a garden on the tracks at the Zenith Energy facility. In a letter to City Council, the activist group Extinction Rebellion wrote:
We do not have the mandate of having been elected, nor do we have a budget or a clear, formal mechanism for enforcing these changes. We do, however, have the mandate of enforcing a policy that is congruent with a dangerous physical reality, which you have not thus far evinced. At this point, in the context of a rapid deterioration of the physical predicates of life on earth, we no longer believe anyone who fails to take hasty measures to impact this trajectory has a meaningful claim to power.
Five of the protesters were charged with criminal trespassing. On February 27, the case against them ended in a mistrial. Despite video evidence of the protesters blocking an oil train with their garden, five of the six jury members voted to acquit.
In January, the local group 350PDX, “a people’s movement fighting for climate justice,” sent hundreds of letters to Jamie Dimon, CEO of Chase Bank, urging him and his company to divest from fossil fuels—particularly the proposed Jordan Cove LNG Pipeline, which, if approved, would mean a natural gas terminal on the Oregon Coast and a natural gas pipeline cutting through tribal lands, private property, and nature preserves across Oregon.
That same week, I attended a 350PDX meeting in the basement of a church in Northeast Portland. About 80 people sat in folding chairs at round tables, introducing themselves and chatting about how they found the group and their shared anxiety over climate change. I asked an attendee sitting next to me how he felt about Portland’s reputation as a sustainable city. “People in Portland like to seem like they care about the environment,” he told me. “But when it comes down to it…” he trailed off as the meeting began.
As I sat through updates from 350PDX team leaders, I was reminded that a lot of people in Portland have been working on climate activism and raising awareness for years now. 350PDX has organized rallies against the Jordan Cove Pipeline, centering Native communities that would be impacted. They were part of a coalition that developed the seven-point platform of Oregon’s Green New Deal, a first-of-its-kind social-justice tax that aims to support frontline communities through clean energy job creation in a transition away from fossil fuels. Activist collaboration with policymakers and their community outreach in support of the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund was a significant contribution in passing that measure.
Portland isn’t as green as I thought, but at least it has Forest Park, where I can run for tens of miles on muddy trails, where old-growth trees filter the falling rain and my thoughts are softened by the insulation of nature and solitude.
Then again, Portland doesn’t have as many trees as one might assume. Stumptown actually has less tree cover than New York and Los Angeles—go figure, a city nicknamed for a bunch of trees being cut down.
West side residents enjoy relatively dense tree cover in Portland. Forest Park is on the west side, along with many of the city’s most expensive homes. But on Portland’s east side, the tree canopy is at just 21 percent—and these farther east neighborhoods, especially those past the 82nd Avenue corridor, are largely populated with lower-income communities and people of color.
And while highway pollution and bomb trains are cross-hatching the city with evidence of our fossil fuel and car dependence, a map of tree canopy points to significant inequality in who benefits from Portland’s “greenness.”
“Tree canopy tracks very closely with income level,” Jenn Cairo, a forester with the Portland Parks and Recreation Department, told Oregon Public Broadcasting. “Where neighborhoods have had lower income levels—typically communities of color, immigrant and refugee communities—there are historically far fewer trees and lower quality trees.”
Tree cover is a crucial deterrent to the effects of climate change. As heat waves increase, neighborhoods with less tree cover will be hotter. A recent study by Portland State University found that “heat islands” in low-income neighborhoods are a direct result of Portland’s history of racist housing policies. The study looked at 108 urban areas across the United States, and found that elevated land temperatures consistently existed in formerly redlined neighborhoods—and Portland showed the greatest discrepancy in temperatures between the rich and poor parts of town.
The connections between inequality and climate change are endless, and they’re becoming more visible as communities largely populated by people of color and indigenous people begin to suffer the impacts of climate change first. And for longer than Portland has been making a name for itself as a leader in sustainability, it’s been intentionally leaving certain people out of those efforts.
As a fifth-year resident who admittedly didn’t pay attention to local politics for the first couple years, I have a lot to learn about what our city is and isn’t doing. And as a white person with various privileges that allowed me to purchase a condo near that sprawling stretch of old-growth forest I love so much, I have even more to learn about how less-privileged communities will be hit sooner and harder by climate change in Portland, and everywhere.
But in doing all of this research on Portland’s past and present as a sustainable or not-so-sustainable city, I’ve found a lot of people willing to teach me these things, learn with me, and foster community that is inclusive and not afraid to pick up the slack of systemic indifference.
“We don’t always win,” said Chris Palmer, volunteer coordinator at 350PDX, at the conclusion of the meeting I attended. “But when we do lose, together we’re more resilient to deal with that.”
Climate change moves slowly (then very quickly, in the event of extreme weather) and our response is even slower—it’s so easy to be lulled into apathy by global inaction and the dogged normality of most day-to-day lives. But I do have to give Portland credit for continuing to make progress in the right direction. Since I started researching this article, the Portland City Council unanimously approved the Rose Lane Project, a transportation plan that will dedicate $10 million to additional bus-only travel lanes, removing or restricting on-street parking in over-crowded areas, and traffic light changes that will give public transit a head start. In February, Wheeler wrote a letter to “Community Partners,” introducing a draft of Portland’s Climate Emergency Declaration Resolution, proposing broad actions that will guide the city in the coming years.
He writes: “The sobering fact is this: global carbon emissions must peak in 2020. This year could not be more important. We must make the right decisions now to bend the curve to protect our communities and save our planet.”
Flowers are blooming in Portland right now; blossoms breaking through the gray with little pops of pink, yellow, and red. Their timing seems precarious, especially as a late winter chill blows in and their petals rain down in colorful puddles—but I can’t help but appreciate their ability to come out through it all.
Britany Robinson is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her work explores the intersection of climate, travel, and outdoor recreation, with frequent detours into daily curiosities. She’s written for Lonely Planet, Playboy, the Guardian, and many more.