Why Aspen thinks we need another climate change group

A fast-paced conference of Colroado communities interested in forming a new climate action network will be held May 18-19 at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.

Why Aspen wants to create another climate change group in Colorado

by Allen Best

In 2005, Aspen’s city council adopted a climate change manifesto. It was called the Canary Initiative, the name a nod to the outsized impact of a warming globe predicted for higher elevations.

Steve Skadron wasn’t on the council then. He got elected in 2007 and then became mayor in 2013. But as mayor, he has vigorously continued the Canary Initiative’s basic tenet of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. One upshot of that commitment will be a fast-paced invitation-only conference of local governments in Colorado on May 18-19.

With this conference, Aspen hopes to foster a new network, to be called the Compact of Colorado Communities, that will extend beyond the familiar suspects of mountain towns and university towns like Boulder, where climate change action is baked deep into the institutional DNA. Instead, Aspen seeks to forge a compact among a broader diversity of towns, cities, and counties to advance action on climate change.

Don’t expect calls for 100 percent renewables. The intent here it to nail some singles, not swing for the home run fence. You may have noticed the working title for the group does not even include climate.

Aspen did swing for the fence with its aspiration, embedded in the Canary Initiative, for the city’s municipal electrical utility to attain a 100 percent renewable portfolio. That mark was achieved in August 2015, a decade after the goal was articulated.

That success along with the fact that Aspen is Aspen, a small city with world-wide name recognition, helped get Skadron invited to attend an event held in conjunction with the Paris climate accord in December 2015. Called the Climate Summit for Local Leaders, it was hosted by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the mayor of Paris. Skadron was asked to speak on three panels, talking about what one small mountain town in Colorado had achieved and what it hoped to achieve.

“We were tiny, but we signed on along with the big shots: New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Rio de Janeiro, Jakarta,” he says.

Skadron returned to Aspen impressed with a trio of big ideas he had picked up: urgency, collaboration, and getting done locally what could not be done at a higher level of government.

“He came back so invigorated about his role as a local leader and his ability to impact change on the local level,” says Ashley Perl, climate action manager for Aspen. “He felt he was part of something, and he had all these relationships, that he was part of a network created to achieve something.”

An existing network, the Colorado Communities for Climate Action, consists of Aspen and 15 other jurisdictions that  have passed the hat to fund lobbying at the state level in Denver. It is administered by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization administers it, and it has a lobbying firm, Frontline Public Affairs.

Nearly all of those same towns, cities and counties are also involved in the new organization, which will seek a less robust voice in policy.

Niche of new organization

“What I am finding is that a lot of communities are not ready to do that, money or no money. They’re not ready to lobby for climate change. That’s a fairly mature thing, taking a stand on climate change,” says Perl.

If shy of talking publicly at the State Capitol, though, many communities seem ready to commit to actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The difference, Perl believes, is partly an absence of articulated values. Only a few jurisdictions, such as Aspen and Boulder, have identified climate action as core values. There’s less commitment—and less to fear—with the new network that Aspen hopes to trigger.

The Colorado Municipal League helped spread the word among its members. “I don’t know what to expect, but I think the goal is laudable,” says CML executive director Sam Mamet.

Mamet may have pressed the flesh in every town and city hall in Colorado. He says he and Skadron have been “friends for a long time,” which is probably a phrase he uses often in talking about mayors in Colorado. Mamet remembers names and details.

Steve Skadron

Skadron, he adds, has talked with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg when Bloomberg visited Aspen to speak at the Aspen Institute. “He clearly is engaged in this,” Mamet says of Skadron’s passion about climate change action.

But Mamet also urged a cautious approach. “He told me, ‘Do you think I am going off the deep end?’ I said no, but you have to keep your expectations in check here.” Mamet also advised Skadron to avoid preaching to the same choir. “You have to broaden this out, and he has done this to some extent.”

Perl says Aspen invited all of Colorado’s 196 incorporated towns and 73 cities, and 64 counties. Denver and Broomfield are consolidated city-county governments. Skadron also gave a 15-minute pitch before the Metro Mayors’ Caucus, a collection of 41 mayors in metropolitan Denver-Boulder.

As of last week, 85 people representing 40 jurisdictions were registered. Most will be from

mountain resort towns, plus Denver and the university towns along the northern Front Range.

But there are others: Alamosa, in the San Luis Valley; the giant suburb of Lakewood on Denver’s western flank; and Pueblo, once a giant steel-mill town whose city council in February embraced a goal of 100 percent renewables.

Larry Atencio, a Pueblo councilman, says he believes renewables is the way of the future. “Whether it’s 50 or 100 years, natural gas, coal and oil are going to be so expensive it will makes sense for solar and wind and other renewables, and now is the time to do it,” says Atencio, whose district consists primarily of minorities, mostly of low to moderate income.

Even a farm town interested

Also sending a representative is Wray, a farming town along the Republican River a dozen miles from the Nebraska border. Yuma County, where it is located, had more than 80 percent of its votes in November for Trump, roughly an inverse from the vote tally in Aspen and adjoining precincts in Pitkin County.

“The current federal administration does not seem to be as embracing of these issues as some people would like to see, so I look at this as an opportunity to say where is the action?” says Mamet. “The answer is in local governments, in counties and cities. That’s where the commitment is being made in a number of different ways.”

Each compact member must commit to assign 5 to 25 employees of its choosing for training. Preferred are senior and mid-level managers.

Compact members must, within two years of joining, also commit to a major action. It could include setting a renewable energy goal, tracking greenhouse gas emissions, creating a local energy project, or partnering with other members of the Compact on a project.

See more at Colorado Compact Vision.

Westminster will have two representatives, City Councilwoman Anita Seitz, and a staff member. “I think it’s a good idea to have staff involved, because they provide checks as to what is feasible,” she says. “I don’t want to overcommit the city,” she adds.

Seitz thinks that sort of training is a good thing for her city of 109,000, located between Denver and Boulder. It has some high-income neighborhoods but also some grittier areas. While Westminster provides money for Colorado Communities for Climate Action, she believes there’s also room for a climate  organization without an express mission of state-wide policy advocacy.

“Environmentalists are often seen as a product of privilege. I have a very different socio-economic base in my community than Boulder. This is an issue that affects everybody. Vulnerable communities can be affected even more by climate change, so I feel that this is an opportunity to talk about how this helps everybody,” she says.

Framework for other states?

The key alliance of the new Colorado Climate Compact is with the National Association of Climate Change Officers. The national group will administer the compact and will contribute $100,000 in in-kind support. Additional in-kind and financial support will come from national funders and Colorado businesses, Perl says.

Skadron says his fondest hope is that the conference yields the framework for a coalition that can be replicated and scaled in other places, in other states.

He concedes there have been grassroots efforts before that have been long on aspirations and shy on good deeds. What makes this different? He doesn’t say, but does believe this: “I just know that nothing happens if you don’t try.”

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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