Put up or shut up

Critics say words alone won't stop global warming

Though Colorado has agreed to follow Paris Accord climate goals, activists question the state’s actual commitment.
Brookelynn Bliss Photography

Regardless of human action (or inaction), the planet will warm more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit by the turn of the century, according to new government-funded analysis.

The research looks at “how warm we expect the planet to be if we turn off the lights today,” says Robert Pincus, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Colorado Boulder, who coauthored the study. It “describes the responsibility of past actions for future warming, for future costs” in measurable terms.

According to the study, published on July 31 in the journal Nature Climate Change, the window to achieve the thresholds set out in the 2016 Paris climate agreement — curbing global temperature increase to 3.5 degrees on the high end and 3 degrees on the conservative side, compared to pre-industrial levels — is closing rapidly. Within the next 15 to 30 years, the odds of achieving either of these goals drop to 50/50.

“It’s not lots of time until the odds are even of busting through those thresholds,” Pincus says.

Furthermore, in the annual legislative report on climate change this year, state officials say Colorado can expect to see warming up to 2-5 degrees by 2050, as compared to the 2.5-degree increase that has occurred in the last 50 years.

All of this makes local, national and international climate policy — a concerted effort to quickly and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions — necessary now more than ever.

On July 11, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed an executive order “supporting Colorado’s clean energy transition” and calling for a 26 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 as compared to 2005 levels. The order also specifically calls for further reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity sector by 2035, as compared to 2012 levels. 

At the same time, Hickenlooper pledged Colorado’s support of the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bi-partisan coalition of states committed to the emission reduction goals set forth in the Paris climate accord, despite the Trump administration’s intention to withdraw from the international agreement. The governors of California, New York and Washington formed the Alliance in early June and since then, 10 other states and Puerto Rico have joined the effort, Colorado being the latest.

According to its website, the Alliance represents more than 33 percent of the U.S. population and $7.6 trillion of the nation’s GDP, along with more than 1 million jobs in both renewable energy and energy efficiency, giving it the leverage to be a leader in the global effort to address climate change.

In addition to these states, hundreds of local governments have also pledged commitment to enacting climate policy aimed at achieving the warming thresholds laid out in Paris, including Boulder County and cities throughout the region.

While this may be a step in the right direction, critics of these public declarations are wary of how much can actually be accomplished through them, given emissions around the state are projected to increase in the coming decades as the population grows and the state continues to pursue oil and natural gas development.

“There would need to be a lot of work done to put measures in place to get there from where we are and where we’re headed. That much is clear,” says Kevin Cross, spokesperson for the Fort Collins Sustainability Group. “If we go with the U.S.’s commitment to Paris for the next five years we can make some progress, but after that it’s important to understand that we have to step things up by an order of magnitude.”

“This is way too little, way too late in order for anyone to be celebrating,” adds prominent environmental activist Gary Wockner, referring specifically to Gov. Hickenlooper’s executive order.

The July directive replaces a previous one signed by former Gov. Bill Ritter in 2008, which called for a 20-percent reduction in emissions by 2020 and a 80-percent decrease by 2050 compared to 2005 levels — goals which aren’t likely to be achieved.

According to the latest Colorado Greenhouse Gas Inventory, conducted in 2014, greenhouse gas emissions have actually increased since 2005 and are projected to continue to rise. Transportation, residential and commercial fuel use — spurred by dramatically increasing population growth throughout the state — largely accounts for the rising emissions according to the inventory. Without curbing population growth, it will be hard to curb emissions, Wockner argues.

“As long as you have more and more people — 100,000 a year pouring into the state — we see basically no way that emissions are going to go down,” Wockner says.

Furthermore, according to the Inventory, natural gas and oil systems will increase their contribution of greenhouse gasses, even while emissions from the electric power sector may slightly decrease.

“We should be moving away from natural gas as quickly as we can,” Cross says. “The issues associated with methane emissions in the extraction of natural gas and piping it around are pretty serious and not fully accounted for by either the state or the federal government.”

In Boulder County, many citizens continue to petition the County Commissioners to prevent oil and gas development in the area, regardless of the Colorado State Supreme Court decision that negated the County’s fracking ban last year.

“It’s a greenwashing thing. The public celebrates you for signing onto the Paris Accord, whether you’re Hickenlooper or the Boulder Commissioners, but then behind the scenes, [you’re] allowing more of these greenhouse gases to be produced and to escape here in Colorado,” says Terra Rafael with East Boulder County United, a community rights organization fighting oil and gas development in Boulder County. “Frankly it’s laughable. I’d like to see their plans… how are they going to cut the emissions, without cutting fracking?”

Which brings up an important point. While the goals laid out by the Paris agreement may be commendable, each country (or state or city) is responsible to enact specific policies to achieve drastic reductions in emissions and curb atmospheric warming. And while many praise Gov. Hickenlooper for joining the U.S. Climate Alliance, many activists throughout the state are calling on him to couple the promise with more specific policies to achieve it, including a pledge to achieve 100 percent renewable energy use as soon as possible.

“We’re celebrating this so that we can continue to use the momentum to build the climate movement and push for stronger policy,” says Julia Williams, volunteer coordinator at 350 Colorado. “But we definitely made it clear that the standards set are not enough and we want to continue to push for strong climate policy with scientific-based targets and measurable goals.”    

  • According to a February, 2015 CU study of potential Colorado temperature rise and our future water supply we have already seen 2.5 F of warming since 1965, and could see an additional 2.5 to 6.5 F of temperature rise by midcentury. (page 181 of the study).

    The problem is that most of the nations worldwide use 1880 as their temperature baseline, which means we must add about 0.25 C or 0.45F to the CU study in-order to reach the common baseline.

    So if we add the 2.5 F shown in the CU study for warming since 1965 and 0.45 F to reach the common baseline the result is 2.95 F, which is the average amount of Colorado temperature rise since 1880.

    Now if we add the forecast 2.5 to 6.5 F of additional temperature rise to 2.95 F we get between 5.45 F and 9.45 F of total temperature rise above the common 1880 baseline by midcentury here in Colorado.

    To convert either number to degrees Celsius divide them by 1.8. 5.45 F = 3.025 C and 9.45 F = 5.25 C. The median is 4.1375 C.

    Even more worrying than the State-specific forecast mid-century temperature rise above the common 1880 baseline is our forecast fresh water supply shortage, which rising heat exacerbates.

    The same February, 2015 CU study has forecast a Statewide water supply shortage of between 300,000 and 600,000 acre-feet by mid-century, with the higher figure enough to supply the annual household use needs of 4.8 million people.

    However, a Colorado Water Conservation Board study from December, 2015 has forecast we will be up to 1 million acre-feet short on water supply by mid-century, while a recent spring, 2017 study has doubled the maximum amount of water supply shortage to up to 2 million acre-feet, which would be enough water to supply the annual household water needs of 16 million people.

    Think that’s bad, a study by the research team of Frank Ackerman and Elizabeth Stanton from Tufts University on climate change-driven impacts to Southwestern water supply has forecast an annual mid-century water supply shortage of 9-13 million acre-feet annually just for California.

    Numerous other studies focused on the pending exhaustion of Mexico”s urban aquifers have forecast a reduction of Mexico’s urban water supply of 50-75% as those aquifers are depleted, with the average resident of Mexico City only getting 36 gallons of water supply today.

    Some studies of Mexico’s dwindling groundwater supply have also forecast some number of desperate refugees pouring northward out of such cities once their groundwater supply is exhausted.

    There has been an interesting 5-part in-depth story on the rapid ongoing decline of the aquifer that supplies El Paso, TX and Juarez, MX in the Las Cruces Sun this past week.

    FYI: The population of Mexico City is 24 million and rising by 2%/year, which will double its population in 35 years. The El Paso/Juarez urban area is now up to 2.8 million and it is growing at 5%/year, which will double its population by 2032.

    Also note that groundwater supplies serving both Guadalajara, MX population about 5.5 million, and Puebla, MX, population about 3 million, both also growing in the 2% annual range, will likely be exhausted by 2030.

    Now our own Metro-Denver population (which includes Boulder) is already forecast to grow to between 4.3 and 4.5 million people by 2040, a figure which does not include being forced to host any refugees.

    The DRCOG 2040 Fiscally-Constrained Regional Transportation Plan is interesting reading as it forecasts that both RTD and CDOT are woefully underfunded by an average of 73% short of projected spending needs through 2040, resulting in a doubling of congested roadway miles.

    We are also quite short on the funds necessary to grow our water supply as well as short on the spare water supply necessary to grow with too, which will keep falling as our temperature continues to rise.

    Also note that neither the 2015 CU climate change impacts to mid-century water supply study, forecast Metro-Denver population growth, nor the DRCOG 2040 RTP study include any figure for potential refugees, and also note that no US urban area south or southwest of Metro Denver has any mid-century water supply to spare at all, in-fact all are in even-worse shape than us.

    Which leads me to believe that we had better plan for serving the water supply needs of up to several million refugees by mid-century too.