Danger in Degrees: What if anything can we do?
Climate change may be, as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ross Gelbspan argues in his new book, “Boiling Point,” the overriding threat facing human civilization in the 21st century. If that sounds like doomsday thinking, Gelbspan is at least playing with a full deck of facts. While scientists still question whether existing weather can be attributed to global warming, their research has left them few doubts that we have trouble ahead as the planet warms 2.5 to 10.4 degrees. If warming is at the low end, there will be both winners and losers. Consider my house, where Xcel Energy in its monthly utility bills reports the average monthly mean temperature. The difference during July during the last two years was 5 degrees. In the cooler July, I rarely used a fan, always slept under a blanket, and wore a jacket several times during my midnight constitutionals. In my garden, the cool-loving broccoli plants delivered fresh crowns daily. Alas, the green peppers stiffed me. The warmer July was a cranky time. My office began baking in late afternoon, continuing far into the night. A blanket was intolerable for sleeping, even under a fan. The broccoli shut down in July. On the other hand, those green peppers really delivered. I hope never to see a July that is 10 degrees warmer, and scientists say neither does the planet. There would be, they say, no winners. Problem without borders So why don’t we do something about global warming?We are, in many small but concrete ways, even locally. Pitkin County and Aspen, for example, have tightened their building codes and also imposed a surcharge on homes that are gluttonous in their energy consumption. Holy Cross Energy is among the first electrical cooperatives in the United States to embrace wind power. The city of Glenwood Springs quietly has invested in wind power.
The town of Vail has been experimenting with a fuel-efficient Toyota Prius, and Breckenridge burns biodiesel in its buses, as do snow groomers at Arapahoe Basin. Ski areas have been busy retrofitting lighting fixtures to use compact fluorescent bulbs among other energy-saving strategies. In fact, per capita energy consumption in the United States has remained constant for the last 30 years, owing to improved efficiency. However, that’s like saying the out-of-control freight train is not picking up speed. The United States, with 4 percent of the world’s population, is responsible for 25 percent of the carbon emissions. Activists who have mulled this issue say it’s unlike conventional environmental problems. For beginners, we can’t even see the pollution. When the Eagle Mine began leaking tainted water, the river turned an eerie Kool-Aid orange. When an oil tanker breached in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, there were the oil-drenched birds. But we cannot see, smell or hear the carbon, methane or nitrous oxide collecting in our atmosphere. Neither can we currently see effects from our harmful behavior. It’s kind of like a 20-year-old smoking two packs of cigarettes a day; the abuse may not become apparent for 30 years.And finally, there’s the full scope of this problem. When scientists in the early 1980s found evidence, as had been predicted, that chlorofluorcarbons were breaching holes in the Earth’s protective ozone layer, the nations of the world – most of them – came to terms in the Montreal Protocol, the 1985 directive that banned the use of CFCs and other harmful chemicals. By around 2050, scientists say, the damage should be mended.Rejecting Kyoto But ceasing use of CFS was relatively painless. Our economy, including unprecedented luxuries, is premised on cheap fossil fuels. When the Kyoto Protocol was worked out in 1998, President Bill Clinton didn’t even bother submitting it to the U.S. Senate for ratification. Through a nearly unanimous procedural vote, the Senate told him not to even bother. President George W. Bush has likewise rejected the agreement as fatally flawed. The economy, he says, would be too badly damaged. Also, even if industrial nations reduced their greenhouse gases, China, India and other developing nations could continue increasing their emissions for a number of years. China deserves special attention. Already, it is second in the world in emitting greenhouse gases, although per capita emissions are only one-eighth those in the United States. Soon, China will overtake the United States in emission of greenhouse gases as its economy continues to expand. Next is the profusion of cars. Last year there were 14 million cars. By the year 2015, there are expected to be 150 million cars. China is now chasing the middle-class dream.
While rejecting Kyoto, Bush’s response has been one of voluntary reductions, an idea that has yielded no discernible results, according to the Natural Defense Resource Council. Furthermore, Bush has cut budgets for research into alternative fuels and opposed efforts to mandate more fuel-efficient cars. This past week, in what The New York Times called a “striking shift,” the Bush administration delivered a report to Congress that focuses on federal research indicating that emissions of greenhouse gases are the only likely explanation for recent temperatures. The letter accompanying the report was signed by two cabinet secretaries and Bush’s science adviser. Response from states States have had a far more vigorous response. Attorneys general in eight states and a legal representative of New York City recently filed suit to force electric utilities that burn coal to reduce greenhouse emissions. Meanwhile, California is pushing car manufacturers to improve fuel efficiency. The state government’s concern about global warming is also suggested by the $60 million budget for global-warming research. Frequent newspaper stories about global warming also suggest a heightened public concern. In Colorado, however, the state response has been minimal. Web sites for U.S. Senate candidates Pete Coors and Ken Salazar carry not one word about greenhouse gases, although Salazar has called for heightened use of renewable energy sources.Still, things are happening. A new group, the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, has been created by Stephen Saunders, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Gary Hart and U.S. Rep. David Skaggs. Saunders, in the first several months, has enlisted such disparate groups as New Belgium Brewing, the manufacturer of Fat Tire beer, the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, and the Denver Water Board. The group’s first fund-raiser, an $85-per-person affair, was held recently at the home of Chips Barry, president of Denver Water. Saunders, who served in the Clinton administration, says that the drought of 2002 was a wake-up call about how Colorado could be affected. “The impacts that we will see in Colorado are likely to include less snow, less water, more drought, more wildfire and less biodiversity,” he says. “Together, those changes would significantly threaten much of what makes Colorado such a special place to live.”
Technology to rescue In order to reverse that process, Carbondale’s Randy Udall, who runs the nonprofit Community Office for Resource Efficiency, argues for smarter technology. Homes must earn their keep by such things as converting solar energy to practical uses. Not least, it’s imperative we invest now, instead of trying to retrofit later. For example, instead of building more coal-fired power plants, as is proposed for the Front Range and the Four Corners areas, we should invest the money in renewable power sources such as wind turbines, he says. Once a coal-fired plant is built, we’re stuck with it for at least 50 years. Amory Lovins, who leads the Old Snowmass-based Rocky Mountain Institute, became internationally famous in the early 1970s for pointing out that saving energy is as good as building more power plants – and also cheaper and healthier. His message today continues to be much the same. “Greenhouse-gas emissions are simply the byproduct of the uneconomically wasteful use of resources,” says the institute’s Web site. “The obvious solution, then, is increased efficiency. Being more efficient not only reduces emissions, it also saves money and increases economic competitiveness.”But can we have our cake and eat it too? In other words, can we continue our lifestyle – weekends in San Francisco, 5,000-square-foot homes, SUVs as large as small homes – simply through improved engineering? Pointing to a plastic bottle of water imported from the South Pacific, Udall says the past 30 years have been a remarkable time of indulgence. Do ski resorts make sense in a new world of limits on luxury? Udall ponders the question. Front Rangers going to Vail for the weekend probably will make sense, he says. But people coming from halfway around the world to ski for a week? “I’m not so sure that will be sustainable,” he says. “We weren’t living like this 50 years ago, and I’m not sure we will live like this 50 years from now.”
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Bluebird skies, spring-like temperatures and a few inches of snow from Monday night’s storm helped Snowmass skiers and snowboarders cruise into the season Wednesday for opening day.