Aspen’s Canary Initiative |

Aspen’s Canary Initiative

Mark Fox/Aspen Times WeeklyThe ongoing traffic jam on Main Street has served to undermine the city of Aspens rhetoric about fighting climate change.

When Aspen officials announced an ambitious new program to battle global warming earlier this year, they might as well have painted a target on City Hall.One way or another, the town’s “Canary Initiative,” drawing a parallel between Aspen’s fragile climate and the miner’s canary of legend, is destined to draw widespread attention.If the town can create a credible inventory of the ways it contributes to global warming and successfully enact a plan to reduce its emissions, it could provide a model for what small towns with adequate resources can do. No town of its size can attract national or even international attention like Aspen.

On the other hand, if the program turns out to be fluff and no substance, Aspen will be accused of “green washing,” and the Canary Initiative will be labeled just another crackpot idea from the People’s Republic of Aspen.The man most responsible for making the Canary Initiative successful acknowledges that it won’t be easy to make a meaningful dent in carbon emissions.”In some regards we’re past the point of taking the low-hanging fruit,” said Dan Richardson, the city’s global warming project manager.The city already gets 57 percent of its electricity from renewable energy sources like wind and hydro power. It plans to boost that figure by another 10 percent come fall. Purchasing alternative forms of energy is considered one of the easiest and most effective ways to reduce carbon emissions.If other gains are made by the city, it will have to be in the areas of transportation and energy-efficient building, said Richardson.Auden Schendler understands Richardson’s bind. As the director of environmental affairs for the Aspen Skiing Co., he’s been credited with helping the company earn honors as a green leader in the ski industry. But the accolades have also brought intense scrutiny and occasional criticism that the Skico is better at publicizing its green efforts than it is at really saving the environment.

Schendler said Aspen’s visibility makes it the perfect small town to attempt bold, emission-reduction programs.”Should we do it or not? The reality is we have no choice,” said Schendler, contending that global warming’s importance is magnified in a ski resort that depends on snow. “Let’s try it and let’s inspire other people to try.”On the other end of the spectrum is Aspen inventor and engineer Nick DeWolf. He believes the Canary Initiative is a waste of time that was dreamed up by a city government with too much money and too little imagination.He believes global warming is a bona fide and alarming issue, but he questions how a small town like Aspen can make a dent in the problem. DeWolf bristles at the thought of the city government telling people how to reduce carbon emissions. Solutions, he said, must be driven by citizens.DeWolf does support efforts to make everything from cars to buildings more energy-efficient, but he said it cannot be dictated on grounds that it’s the right thing to do.”It will be money that makes us do that, not feeling good,” he said.

Aspenite David Guthrie, who is involved in a variety of civic issues, is concerned about the Canary Initiative on practical rather than philosophical terms.He said it should be evident to all residents that traffic congestion is a major contributor to the town’s carbon emissions. Traffic clogs the west end of Main Street for at least two hours every weekday afternoon during winters and summers.The city is taking an inventory of the community’s sources of carbon emissions as part of the Canary Initiative. That baseline study is due out by the end of the year.Guthrie said city officials need to tackle transportation issues before the emissions study is completed.”My preference is not to wait until it’s established that we’re gas pigs, or whatever you want to call it,” said Guthrie. “Why wait? Let’s start now.”

Guthrie said Aspen’s efforts to reduce its emissions will only be credible if it addresses its traffic problems. City efforts to educate drivers about the environmental effects of their idling cars are fine, as long as the city takes a crack at the bigger transportation issues, he said. But claiming to care about global warming without addressing transportation, Guthrie said, would reduce the Canary Initiative to green washing.”It doesn’t make a lot of sense to have all this topical ointment when the system is failing,” Guthrie said.He stressed that he isn’t criticizing the concept of the Canary Initiative. “What I’m critical of is ideas, festivals and task forces and no action,” Guthrie said.Richardson labeled transportation the “800-pound gorilla in the room” because it is complicated and often divisive. Looking at traffic from a global warming standpoint, rather than just as an inconvenience, might help Aspen reach solutions.”It gives all the elected officials and policy makers another lens to look through,” he said.The city’s environmentally oriented website,, cites data showing that transportation is biggest single source of carbon emissions in the United States.

Aspen Mayor Helen Klanderud said transportation issues must be examined, but even if they aren’t solved immediately the city’s effort to battle global warming is still legitimate.”The Canary Initiative is 100 percent the direction we should be going,” she said.Klanderud wants to see the results of Aspen’s carbon emissions inventory, then plan ways to reduce its contribution to global warming. And she’s already learned that others are watching. Klanderud was invited to participate in a summit in Salt Lake City this month that examined global warming and what cities are doing to offset their emissions. Aspen was the smallest town represented in a summit that featured cities like Chicago and Seattle, the mayor noted.The scrutiny comes as no surprise to Schendler.”If we’re not thinking the eyes of the world are on us, we’re crazy,” he said.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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