Is doing good deeds locally enough when Antarctica threats to melt?
by Allen Best
In 2008, Boulder-based photographer James Balog spoke at Telluride Mountainfilm, the festival held every Memorial Day weekend. Even then, Balog was camping out amid the world’s melting glaciers to produce the 2012 film “Chasing Ice.”
“When do you think we will have our Pearl Harbor moment?” he was asked. In other words, when would the United States—and the world, for that matter—accord the risk of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions the seriousness it deserved.
Balog identified several possible Pearl Harbors but paramount would be melting of the West Antarctic ice shelf. “That will be the major oh-shit moment,” he said.
That oh-shit possibility verging on probability was precisely the point of a recent story in Rolling Stone by Jeff Goodell, himself a Mountainfilm speaker in the past. In the article, “The Doomsday Glacier,” Goodell focused on fresh evidence of the rapid melting of Thwaites Glacier. It’s one of the largest glaciers on the planet and also key to what happens on the West Antarctic ice shelf.
“When a chunk of ice the size of Pennsylvania falls apart, that’s a big problem,” Goodell explained. “It won’t happen overnight, but if we don’t slow the warming of the planet, it could happen within decades. And its loss will destabilize the rest of the West Antarctic ice, and that will go too. Seas will rise about 10 feet in many parts of the world; in New York and Boston, because of the way gravity push water around the planet, the waters will rise even higher.”
If global warming won’t push sea shores to Colorado, there’s plenty to worry about amid the mountains and plains. A conference last Friday in Aspen was devoted to what local towns, cities and counties can—and should—do in the absence of more forceful action at the state, federal and international level.
Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron hatched the conference, motivated by his participation on several panels at the December 2015 Paris climate talks. His comments had elicited invitations to speak in South Korea, Thailand and Dubai. People had heard of Aspen, and he told them about the things a small —if admittedly exceptional—small town can do.
Returning home, he resolved to use the influence of Aspen to help create a new organization to spur broader action within Colorado. An existing organization, Colorado Communities for Climate Action, consists of what might be called the usual suspects: ski and university towns plus Denver and a few others. It lobbies at the state Capitol for policies that make a difference.
The new organization, called the Compact of Colorado Communities, aims for bottom-up action but within a broader coalition. Think of more conservative suburban cities, and even a farm town or two. The key alliance is with the Association of Climate Change Officers. The approach is to integrate consideration of climate and greenhouse gas reductions deep into the operations of local governments. Climate change, the thinking goes, must extend beyond one or two elected officials and the city’s sustainability officer.
Twenty-seven towns, cities and counties sent representatives to the conference. Under terms of the compact, if the boards, councils and commissions of those jurisdictions confirm the continued participation, that will mean 10 from each entity will participate in on-line training in climate-action work provided by the Association of Climate Change Officers.
“That will mean 300 people in the state of Colorado who understand what climate action looks like and how they can incorporate climate solutions into their days-to-day jobs,” said Ashley Perl, Aspen’s climate action manager, after the conference. It will mean that finance managers, city managers, town engineers, land-use planners and other staff members will benefit from the training.
Even in Aspen, she said, climate action will fall short without proper training integrated deeply throughout the city staff. “It will not be for lack of ideas. It won’t be for lack of funding. It will be lack of staff capacity,” she said.
Earlier, at the conference, the case was made for what former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter called “upward movement.” Fort Collins, Colorado’s fourth largest city, was a case study. The city has specified the goal of carbon neutrality by mid-century. Mayor Wade Troxell talked about “scaling up practical solutions” and the need to articulate additional benefits of climate action, such as saving money from improved energy efficiency.
“If it’s too top-down, that’s not good,” Troxell advised. “It has to make sense from a lot of different perspectives in your community.”
But were they not all missing the boat? That challenge came from Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones. She cited the evidence of efforts in Boulder County to tame greenhouse gas emissions. They had not really moved the needle, she said. What made a difference were Colorado’s renewable portfolio standard and the federal fuel efficiency standards.
“There are two things not in our local control,” she said. “If we really want to save the planet, in addition to doing all the great stuff at the local level, we really have to band together and work on policy change.”
Advocates of local action stood their ground.
“I think the answer is we need to do both at the same time,” answered Ashley Perl, Aspen’s sustainability manager. “But we can’t speak if we don’t have a soap box to stand on,” she added. “Who will listen to us if we haven’t done this work in our local communities?”
Brad Udall, senior water and climate research scientist at the Colorado Water Institute, also pointed out that local jurisdictions have primacy over buildings. Because of the long lifetimes of the built environment, this sector poses the greatest challenge for greenhouse gas reduction.
“It will take a long, concerted effort to work on that, but that is within your wheelhouse,” he said. Local governments also have much control over transportation, Udall said.
Ritter earlier in the day had noted that transportation has overtaken the power-generation sector as the leading source for greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. “It’s kind of getting away from us,” he said. And Udall said that was another area where local governments could make a difference.
Aspen’s Perl, who organized the conference for Skadron, said the crowning moment came at the conclusion of the conference, when representative jurisdictions signed the compact. At that point, the day went from being yet another climate conference to one that will produce “something that is meaningful and lasting.”
People lingered for an hour afterward instead of hastening to get on the road.
And she also noted the comments of one of Colorado’s smaller towns—either Minturn or Manitou Springs—who suggested a new welcome. There was, she said, a wider diversity of people that was “as refreshing for those us who are always in the room—but perhaps also refreshing for those who aren’t always invited to be in the room.”
For a video of the conference and some of the PowerPoint presentations as well as other materials, go to: https://accoonline.org/colorado Photos courtesy of the City of Aspen.