Climate change talk to action in the West

Posted: Jul 30, 2014

I have a file on my desktop called “Cool Ideas.” It’s filled with news items on practical steps Westerners are taking to address climate change. I collected them over this election year while the issue drew platitudes and punch-lines from the candidates but little meaningful discussion on the national level. Some highlights from my file include:

  • The plan to build a biomass plant in Eagle County, Colorado is forging ahead. When it starts humming in 2014 it will burn wood chips from beetle killed pines and other “junk” wood, to generate 11.5 megawatts of electricity.
  • Not far from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, at the Fighting Creek Landfill, trash is treasure. Earlier this year Kootenai County and the Kootenai Electric Cooperative debuted their multi-million dollar plant which uses garbage gas to power 1,800 homes.
  • The Aspen Ski Company is plunking down over $5 million to capture methane vented from coal operations at the Elk Creek Mine in western Colorado. The project will both prevent the powerful greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere and will generate three megawatts of electricity, or roughly the amount the company uses for its annual operations.
  • The West is a hotbed of research and testing for the underground storage of carbon dioxide. One project, Rocky Mountain Carbon Capture and Sequestration, is studying a site near Craig, Colorado to potentially store 4.6 billion tons of carbon from power plants, natural gas processing plants, cement plants, oil shale development and other industries.
  • An unusual consortium including Montana Hutterite farmers, an Idaho wind energy developer and the federal government have joined forces to build the first silo-shaped wind turbine, capable of producing 100 kilowatts of electricity.

In his victory speech last week, President Obama said, “We want our children to live in an America that…isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” This coincided with three related news items: First, the release of a study by scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder which concludes that earth warming is likely to be “on the high side of current predictions.” That means an 8-degree Fahrenheit increase in global temps by late this century.

The second item came from the Boulder-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration which said despite relatively normal October temperatures, 2012 is still on track to be the warmest year in the U.S. climate record, “by a huge margin.”

The third, and perhaps most disturbing piece, was the result of a poll conducted the day before Election Day which concluded that, while two-thirds of voters say climate change is a serious problem, only 41 percent attribute it to human activity. This falls short of another high-profile study on the same topic, released last month by Yale and George Mason universities, which concluded that 54 percent of those polled believe in anthropogenic climate change. Either way, it’s hardly a mandate by the American people to turn the short-term gains of this election cycle into effective long-term strategies to reduce atmospheric carbon.

This is where Westerners must continue to lead the way toward a national climate and energy strategy. On Election Day, I voted along with 82 percent of my neighbors to extend Boulder’s carbon tax, the nation’s first such municipal levy passed originally in 2006. It’s a model that can be used to help develop state-level, regional and even national carbon levies. In August Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said he hoped the Senate would take up a bill to put a price on carbon emissions if Democrats maintained control of the chamber. “We certainly can't stay where we are; we have to do something.”

Why are we, along with the innovators mentioned above, turning talk to action in the West? The wildfires, scrawny cattle and drought-flattened farms we’ve seen this year may have something to do with it. Studies also repeatedly show that most Westerners consider themselves conservationists. Maybe it’s because most of the nation’s public lands are our backyards. Concerns about our natural resources, which enhance our lives and livelihoods, consistently cross party lines. A national poll released last September of hunters’ and anglers’ (a traditionally conservative population) opinions on conservation issues showed that 53 percent of GOP sportsmen believe humans have a “moral responsibility” to reverse global warming.

I’m reminded of one of the coolest (pun intended) people I’ve met in a long while—Bill Geer, climate change initiative manager with the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and former fish and wildlife biologist. In April, I sat with Geer in Colorado State University’s experimental garden, where the geraniums were already basking in the intense rays of an 84-degree day. He travels all over the West, often driving through the night from city to city like a salesman hawking bibles from his car trunk, talking to hunters and anglers about climate change. Although his wife of 40 years has begged him to fully retire nevertheless he endures fast food, back spasms and the occasional hostile audience member. “I can’t stomach the thought of giving up and letting my grandkids deal with this and just saying, ‘Sorry, this is what you get’,” he said.

~Heather Hansen

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