Local government officials meet in Aspen to vow action on climate change
May 21, 2017
ASPEN — Mayors, council members and county commissioners from throughout Colorado debated Friday with climate experts in Aspen if local efforts to curb greenhouse-gas emissions will be enough to save a warming planet.
Some officials noted that big, bold moves by the U.S. government are unlikely now that Donald Trump occupies the White House and has filled key Cabinet positions with climate deniers.
Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones, a former executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said the county's research indicated that local action on climate could only achieve small improvements. The critical components are federal fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles and state mandates for renewable energy use by public utility companies, she said.
But Brad Udall, a researcher at the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University, said local actions are equally critical.
"This is the single most important issue facing humanity," Udall said. Researchers are continually learning more about the consequences of the planet warming. "The science is compelling."
Denver could see 34 days of temperatures above 100 degrees per year by the end of the century if greenhouse gases aren't aggressively curbed, Udall said. Aggressive action could limit the super-hot days to a few annually.
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Wildfires in Colorado used to destroy roughly 100,000 acres per decade in the 1960s and 1970s, according to research by CSU. That increased to 200,000 acres per decade in the 1980s and '90s, and then soared to more than 1 million acres for the 2000s.
In addition, Udall noted, 2,000 homes were destroyed in the northern Front Range in the September 2013 floods when a year's worth of precipitation fell in just four days.
Even if some people don't philosophically accept that action is needed to prevent further warming, the threats to their property from catastrophic events and pressure from insurers will likely drive action, said Carl Castillo, policy adviser for the city of Boulder. Home insurance rates are expected to rise for people living in many coastal areas and urban-wildfire interface areas.
"That's probably when we all take it to a new level," Castillo said of climate action.
Udall said farmers and others who work closely with the land understand that the climate is changing.
"As this affects people, they can do nothing but get aboard," he said.
On the local level, taking action to reduce greenhouse emissions from vehicles and in buildings can be a tremendous help, he said.
More than 40 elected officials from Colorado municipalities and counties attended the conference organized by Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron. Ironically, several people who signed up were unable to attend because of travel woes created by a mid-May blizzard.
Skadron said he convened the meeting because he was inspired after attending the Paris Climate Change Conference in 2015. He had been invited along with mayors of major cities because Aspen gained attention for getting its municipal utility converted to 100 percent renewable energy. Skadron initially felt he shouldn't attend.
"I didn't think it was appropriate for a small-town mayor," he said.
He reconsidered after talking to Aspen Skiing Co. Vice President of Sustainability Auden Schendler, whose philosophy is Aspen should use the limelight as an internationally famous resort as a lever on important issues.
Skadron decided to go, but not just sit in the audience and clap. Aspen Climate Action manager Ashley Perl used her connections to get Skadron on three committees convened at the Paris talks. His message: curbing greenhouse-gas emissions is urgent, collaboration is necessary and local officials must drive action and force cooperation at the state and national levels.
Since Paris, Skadron has spoken on climate issues in Taiwan, South Korea and Dubai, all on their dime, not at the expense of Aspen taxpayers.
"It really catapulted Aspen's climate plan to a new level," Perl said.
But they weren't content spreading Aspen's gospel afar. They wanted to lead a meaningful effort back home. Skadron came up with the idea of the Compact of Colorado Communities — a network of towns, cities and counties that will pursue training and funding for incorporating climate into their actions and share strategies on issues such as enlisting public support.
Perl told the audience gathered Friday at Aspen Kitchen that the idea isn't to duplicate efforts with existing organizations.
"I struggle with compact fatigue, as well," she stressed.
To avoid duplication, the new compact will avoid advocating for policy change at the state and national level. Perl recommended governments sign on with Colorado Communities for Climate Action for that role. The new compact will focus on helping members pursue local action to decrease their carbon emissions.
"Who's going to listen to us (in lobbying efforts) if we don't do this at home?" she asked.
The proposal was enthusiastically embraced. Scores of attendees signed the compact as representatives of their governments, including Skadron, Pitkin County Commissioner George Newman, Schendler (in his roll as a Basalt town councilman) and numerous officials from outside the area.
By signing, they pledged to present the idea of participating in the compact to their full boards. If the boards vote to join, the governments pledge to train members of their staffs on climate-related issues and participate in the compact.
The ultimate goal is orienting more government action around reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.