Even though it rained all day on Christmas in Aspen, we've had a pretty cold winter. But that's not true globally. The year 2010 tied 2005 for the hottest year in the historical record. Arctic sea ice in January was at the lowest level ever measured by satellites.
Last year 19 nations set all-time temperature records, including Russia, where cataclysmic fires shrouded Moscow in smoke and a punishing drought prompted Vladimir Putin to halt wheat exports. Pakistan hit 129 degrees, and Washington, D.C., experienced 67 days of 90-degree weather, a new record. Hurricane Earl was the fourth most powerful hurricane to ever visit the north Atlantic, and large portions of Tennessee experienced an unprecedented deluge, a one in 1,000-year rainstorm that would have floated Noah and almost drowned Nashville. Australian floods covered an area the size of France and Germany combined.
All of these extreme weather events are exactly what climate models and paleoclimate data forecast we'll see more of if we clever apes continue burning 1 million tons of fossil fuel each hour. Indeed, half of all the fuel humans have burned in our entire history on the planet has gone up in smoke since 1985. That's a big bonfire.
The twin threats of climate change and peak oil cast an enormous shadow over our future, but Congress is paralyzed by partisan discord. Meanwhile, China is eating our lunch when it comes to exporting renewable energy products, and the Germans installed more solar cells in 2010 than we Americans have in 50 years. And we invented that technology!
The only way forward, now, is for communities like Aspen to lead, as we have been doing. Already, Aspen's Municipal Electric Utility, one of the oldest west of the Mississippi, gets a larger share of its energy from wind power than any of the 3,000 utilities in the country.
The next step in getting to 100 percent clean power is back to the future. For its first 50 years, Aspen was powered by "white coal," hydropower, and no wonder, since four different drainages converge here. The sun delivers its energy democratically, every town gets a dollop. But great hydropower sites - places where water and steep drops converge - are rare birds indeed. We've been blessed with a great natural opportunity, one we ought to seize.
The city already operates two hydro plants, one at Ruedi Reservoir and one on Maroon Creek. In 2007 voters overwhelmingly approved building a 1.2-megawatt plant that would, in effect, recreate the plant we foolishly shut down back in the 1950s. The brick powerhouse still survives under the Castle Creek bridge.
This new plant would generate 5,500 megawatt-hours a year. That's a lot - about 8 percent of the power supplied by Aspen's utility, or one sixth of all the power used by the Aspen Skiing Co. to run its four area mountains, including lodges and restaurants.
The proposal has run into some resistance from homeowners on Castle and Maroon Creeks, and other concerned citizens who see themselves as stewards of the valley's stunning natural beauty. But we are not talking about Glen Canyon Dam here or mountaintop mining. This run-of-the-river project has been studied nigh unto exhaustion, and the robust conclusion is that it's environmentally sound.
There is no science to show the stream will be damaged, and the town has proposed rigorous monitoring to ensure conditions don't change. Adequate stream flows - more than 8.5 million gallons a day - will be preserved. Birds will nest. Trout will survive. Kids will fish. The roundabout of life will go on.
The biological analysis was done by Dr. Bill Miller, who is widely respected in the Division of Wildlife and by the U.S. Forest Service. Project opponents support spending $500,000 more in taxpayer money for a 2-year study that will likely draw the same conclusion. This is wasteful and unnecessary, especially at a time when we can't adequately fund our schools. Utility manager Phil Overeynder has been providing both clean power and clean water here for nearly 20 years, and has no interest in trashing his legacy or the creeks that provide our drinking water.
But no matter how reassuring the biological data, Castle Creek homeowners and others who oppose the project feel they are making a sacrifice. And in a way they are. They are making a sacrifice for the greater good, for lower emissions, for a more livable future. And we as a community will be making a statement that Aspen is willing to accept some of the impact of generating power to run our homes, rather than outsourcing that impact onto poorer communities and into our children's blood and lungs. At this moment in human history, when the troubling evidence on climate change is being presented every day on the front page, if the citizens of Aspen can't take the lead on climate action, it's not clear exactly who will.
Scientists tell us we need to cut emissions 60 to 80 percent by mid-century. We don't need to trim them a little, we need to slash them a lot. If we do, the Colorado our grandchildren know will resemble the one we love.
To achieve that goal, Americans are going to have embrace a new kind of environmentalism the way the Germans and Danes and Spaniards have, where responsible energy production in our backyards and on our rooftops and local streams is not something to oppose but something to celebrate, where Aspen gets kudos not just for our bottomless powder but for our clean power.