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Mountain towns aim for net zero emissions as snowpack forecast to drop 50 percent by 2080

Arn Menconi
Special to The Aspen Times
Colorado’s mountain towns make up a fraction of the 1.6 billion people globally who live in mountain communities, but Aspen recently served as base camp for a UN partnership working to combat the effects of climate change.
Courtesy graphic

Colorado’s mountain towns make up a fraction of the 1.6 billion people globally who live in mountain communities, but Aspen recently served as base camp for a UN partnership working to combat the effects of climate change.

Representatives from mountain towns in more than 60 countries met in Aspen last month for the United Nations’ sixth Global Meeting of the Mountain Partnership. The four-day meeting ranged from Colorado’s snowpack concerns to historic flooding affecting one-third of Pakistan’s population.

Many of the countries at the summit have a sense of urgency not always appreciated from afar. Pakistan, which produces only 1% of global emissions, is one of those places. 



“The problem is already here. Pakistan is experiencing flooding of a third of the country, impacting 12 million people,” said Malik Amin Aslam Khan, the country’s minister of climate. “We need to put a price on the human cost of climate change and make sure that mountain communities, together, are heard to get more resources to help to adapt and mitigate.”

The projects discussed at the global meeting show how real the problems are to mountain communities, with several communities making commitments to adopt and share information about new resolutions made during the meetings.




“Although there is much variation over time and space, on average, mountains have been warming at a faster rate than their surrounding lowland areas since 1900,” said Carolina Adler, executive director of the Mountain Research Initiative and lead author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Some climate scientists suggest that humans have caused 100% of the warming since 1950. If it were not for fossil-fuel pollution and the destruction of oceans and forests, the planet would be slightly cooling, research suggests. Half of all cumulative greenhouse-gas emissions since the start of the industrial age have come in just the past 30 years, within many of today’s adult lifetimes.

As Coloradans know, the Colorado River is drying, and the water supply to more than 40 million people is in peril. 

Snowpack Forecast Dire

study in the AGU Earth and Space Sciences journal published in the spring predicts that Colorado likely will lose 50% of its snowpack by 2080. The snowpack losses are not just coming to lower-altitude regions but the highest peaks in the Colorado River Basin, the study says. 

At the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory near Crested Butte, researchers have been studying the effects of climate change since 1928. The lab’s executive director, Ian Billick, also Crested Butte’s mayor, has witnessed the changes first hand at its high-altitude station in Gothic, at 9,500 feet.

“For each degree of temperature increase, we see a reduction of water in the Colorado River — a decrease in flows with an increase in temperatures,” he said. “We know wildflowers are moving to higher elevations. Changes in snow can happen very quickly. Snow that falls on the bare ground melts quickly. Late spring, snow with weather doesn’t stick and get stored as it used to. Transformation is happening rapidly.”

Gothic is also home to expansive wildflower fields, and, each July since 1986, Crested Butte has hosted the Wildflower Festival, which last year held 200 seminars over the 10-day event. 

Crested Butte Takes Action

In August, the Crested Butte Town Council voted unanimously to update building codes, including measures that require all new buildings starting in January to be fully-electric. 

Billick said the changes weren’t hard or as bold as it seems because they had support from most of the people in the building community. Tri-State Energy and Generation have committed to using 70% renewable-energy sources to produce electricity by 2030.

“The resiliency of the grid can handle it,” said Jeff Delaney of Gunnison County Electric Association and energy supplier to Tri-State and Generation.  

“Technology has changed significantly in the past couple of years, even for things like heat pumps,” he said. “Some decisions have to be made on federal and state levels, but building codes are managed by local governments.”

As local mountain ecosystems continue to change at an accelerated rate, the risks of more wildfires, droughts, floods, and overall changes in the Colorado landscape continue to heighten. 

In a recent Yale Climate Opinion Poll, 57% of Coloradans believe global warming is mostly caused by human activity, and 72% support regulating CO2 as a pollutant. A recent study from the Oregon Health Authority found that 59% of youth feel very or extremely worried about climate change.

Aiming To Lead

Kim Langmaid, the mayor of Vail and associate professor of sustainability studies at Colorado Mountain College, said the people at the Aspen event feel a sense of responsibility and urgency to lead in addressing the climate crisis.

“Our Colorado snowpack has changed dramatically over the course of my life so far,” she said. “The repercussions to our outdoor-sports industry and mountain biodiversity are profound.”

Mayors and county commissioners from Basalt, Aspen, Vail, Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, and Snowmass take part in a panel discussion about Colorado mountain town efforts to ease the effects of climate change.
Courtesy photo

Mountains cover 25% of the planet, and Langmaid said having a bond with other similar communities has helped her connect with the governor’s office. She is putting together a group of Colorado mountain towns and counties to lobby for some of the $500 billion available for climate projects from the recent Infrastructure Bill and Inflation Reduction Act.  

Nels Johnson, senior adviser of renewable energy at the Nature Conservancy, said that money is great news and will get stakeholders to about a third of what is needed to be on track for net zero by 2050. 

“Now, the question is if we can make these projects happen,” Johnson said. 

The mayor of Vail feels like the new federal money and relationships forged at the UN conference can go a long way to helping the Colorado high country.

“Mountain communities are able to show how we can implement projects in renewable clean energy in our buildings and transportation systems faster than at the state level,” Langmaid said. “We can be leaders of best practices with these federal dollars to prove the benefits of these projects.”

Arn Menconi, a Carbondale resident, can be reached at arn@arnmenconi.com.