‘More heat, less snow’
The stone buildings and sidewalks along Denver’s 19th Avenue are baking under the fierce rays of a summer sun that’s just a few days past its solstice peak. Heat waves shimmer off parked cars. Even the sparrows pecking at crumbs on the sidewalk seem slow and lazy, and my shoes feel like they might stick to the black asphalt as we cross the street before ducking into a corner coffee shop for some cool relief.Temperatures in the 90s aren’t unusual for Denver in early July. But by all accounts, it could get hotter – much hotter – and stay that way for longer stretches of time, said Stephen Saunders, while twisting open a bottle of cold water before settling in to discuss climate disruption in Colorado and the Rocky Mountains.Saunders, head of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, is talking about global warming. He intentionally uses the term climate disruption because it conveys most accurately the fact that human production of greenhouse gasses has interrupted and altered the Earth’s natural climate balance.The very essence of what makes Colorado such a desirable place to live is at risk, he said.The reality of climate disruption in Colorado hit Saunders hard during the parched summer of 2002, he said, when record wildfires swept through drought-and disease-weakened forests, sending thick smoke billowing across the Front Range. “You know what that summer was like,” Saunders said, recalling images of cracked shorelines and dust storms along receding reservoirs, and hundreds of thousands of acres of blackened forests. “Scientists are saying our future in this part of the country could look a lot like the summer of 2002. More heat, more drought, less snow and more wildfires,” he said.
In the middle of it, Saunders moved back to Colorado after decades as a staffer, policy advisor and speechwriter for a who’s-who of Colorado Democrats, including former Gov. Dick Lamm, senators Gary Hart and Tim Wirth and Rep. David Skaggs. In the last few years of the Clinton administration, Saunders was assistant deputy secretary in the Department of Interior in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. Most recently, he was a policy advisor to Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.So much for the ice capsFrom his crammed and paper-strewn Denver office, Saunders is now trying to marshal a Colorado organization that will help explain the impacts of climate disruption to the general public and deliver scientific information for planners and decision-makers. Sixteen local governments, businesses and water providers have joined so far.”To bring it home to Colorado will do more to spur action than talking about the polar ice caps melting,” Saunders said. “The truth is, we’re especially vulnerable.”Next month, the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization will release a report specifically focusing on snow and water in the West. The follow-up, due in time to welcome a new governor in 2006, is a Colorado climate agenda.”It’s much more effective to have towns, water providers and businesses affected by climate disruptions than an organization of environmental believers,” he added.
Although it’s a global issue, Saunders said local action is critical, and can have a significant effect. “There are 212 nations in the world,” Saunders said. “Carbon dioxide emissions in Colorado are greater than 174 of those. What we do matters.”Saunders traveling around the state, meeting with local governments and other entities to spread awareness and garner support for the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, and the message is fairly straightforward.”It’s essentially a universal belief in the scientific community that human-caused climate change is here and that it’s certain to accelerate,” he said. “It’s the greenhouse effect that makes the Earth a nice place to live.” But adding millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases is way too much of a good thing, he said. Environmental economyEnsuring a stable water supply could be the single biggest challenge. Changes in snowpack and runoff patterns threaten what Saunders describes as the “essential serendipity of the West.” The rhythm of winter snowfall builds up a natural reservoir of water that slowly melts and is delivered to the lower elevations just about when it’s needed most – with the help of some clever engineering and a vast storage and distribution system.
The aim, Saunders said, is to limit human-caused temperature gains to about 2.5 degrees Celsius to keep changes within acceptable levels. “The sooner we take action, the easier it will be,” he said. But some greenhouse gases will persist in the atmosphere for many decades, even when emissions are cut, sustaining the warming effect, he said. “We can do it, and the decisions we make can save us money,” he said. “In this region, we have abundant clean energy sources, and a concentration of technical and scientific resources, as well as an educated and enlightened population. “We can become a net exporter of renewable energy, to the benefit of our economy.”Vail, Colorado