Working to keep the West special

Local Resilience Project
By Stephen Saunders, RMCO president, updated July 30, 2014

The Colorado Climate Network, which RMCO administers, and the Colorado Municipal League are launching a Local Resilience Project to improve the resilience of local governments and local resources to climate change impacts such as increases in wildfires, floods, and health-threatening heat waves. See news release here. The project will bring together representatives of local governments in Colorado, other governmental entities active at the local level (such as local health departments and school districts), and related organizations to identify ways local governments and others can work together in preparing for and addressing climate change impacts, and what they need from the state and federal governments and other sources to do so. The first phase of the project will culminate in a report by December 2014 or January 2015 on those possible actions and needs, and a second phase will focus on bringing about those actions and meeting those needs. For more information, see a summary here at the separate website of the Colorado Climate Network.

RMCO co-sponsors Fish and Wildlife in a Warming World, a discussion featuring U.S. Senator Mark Udall
By Tom Easley, RMCO director of programs, April 22, 2014

On April 21, Senator Mark Udall was the featured panelist at a a discussion sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation, and co-sponsored by RMCO and Conservation Hawks. Sen. Udall appeared with Dr. Leigh Welling, Chief of the National Park Service Climate Response Program, and Dr. David Anderson, NOAA Climatologist. Calling climate change the major environmental issue facing the world, Sen. Udall discussed the impacts of climate change on wildfires, extreme weather, and insect infestations on forest lands, and called for investments in renewable energy and other clean energy technologies.

Colorado regulation of methane emissions
By Tom Easley, RMCO director of programs, March 3, 2014

On February 23, Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) passed regulations that make Colorado the first state to directly regulate emissions of the potent heat-trapping gas methane from oil and natural gas production facilities. Control of these emissions in Colorado was first recommended by the blue-ribbon panel RMCO convened in our 2005-2007 Colorado Climate Project. RMCO strongly supports the rules, and I testified on behalf of RMCO in support of their adoption by the Commission. Read more here.

New RMCO Report: More Extreme Heat in Fort Collins
By Stephen Saunders, RMCO president, Feb. 3, 2014

RMCO and the City of Fort Collins released today a RMCO report documenting increases in hot days and heat waves in Fort Collins since 1961. Annual rates of 95 degree days and of three straight days of 90 degrees or hotter, for example, have tripled so far this century, compared to 1961-1999 rates. New climate projections prepared for the report also show large increases in these frequencies in the future, especially if future levels of heat-trapping pollution grows at about the current rate. With that medium-high level of future emissions, these 90-degree heat waves could occur five times as often as the historic rate by mid-century, and nine times as often by the end of the century.

For an explanation of the data shown in this figure and more on this report, see here.

Colorado State Government Climate Action
By Tom Easley, RMCO director of programs, Feb. 3, 2014

A bill, HB 13-1293, passed last year required the appointment of a person in the Colorado state government to assess climate change issues in the state, and, among other things, to report annually to the House and Senate agriculture and natural resource committees about the state’s efforts on mitigating climate change in accord with the state climate action plan and on climate preparedness. Taryn Finnessey, who has been and continues to be the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s (CWCB) Climate Change Risk Management Specialist, now has been designated as the climate change staff person required by last year’s law. She delivered that report to a joint session of those committees on January 29.  The report consists entirely of the PowerPoint presentation she made at that meeting. The Administration is choosing not to publish or post that report, but has provided RMCO with a copy, which we have posted here.

Colorado Climate Network Conference
By Tom Easley, RMCO director of programs, Dec. 26, 2013

On December 12, 2013, the Colorado Climate Network of local governments and organizations that support them gathered at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science for the Network's fourth annual conference: “Local Emissions Reductions – Retooling for the Future.” The 60 attendees, representing local governments, non-profits, businesses, and government agencies, focused on new and emerging strategies that enable local governments to rethink and reframe emissions reduction approaches.

All of the communities represented can point to progress they have made in reducing heat-trapping pollutants, yet recent emissions inventories updates tell them that the state and most local governments are not yet on emission reduction trajectories that will meet short and long term goals. This was well illustrated by the newly released draft update of the state inventory and forecast (to 2030) of heat-trapping emissions, presented by Garry Kaufman, deputy director of the state Air Pollution Control Division. The draft demonstrated that since 2005 the rate of growth of state emissions has slowed, but by 2020 the state could be about 24 percent short of the state target of a 20 percent reduction of emissions compared to 2005 levels. However, there were questions about the methodology and data used, and the Network will follow up with a detailed discussion with the state staff to address those questions. Kaufman also outlined the opportunities for local governments to be involved in the first-in-the-nation proposal by his agency to regulate escape of methane emissions from oil and natural gas operations.

Those attending also considered new ways of doing business, as presented by a wide-ranging group of conference speakers who described new and refined strategies that local governments are pursuing: evaluating and implementing midcourse program corrections, the potential to collaborate on a new state funding source for local clean energy programs, the road to zero waste, net-zero cities, the next generation of improvements in delivery of energy efficiency programs, looking beyond 2020 to get to 2050 targets, and more. Wrapping up the conference was a discussion that identified several concrete ways Network members could collaborate with each other on affecting new state policies that would facilitate emissions reductions. For details, see conference proceedings here.

Climate Change Means More Extreme Storms
By Stephen Saunders, RMCO president, Sept. 13, updated Sept. 16, 2013

Beginning on September 12, Colorado's Front Range urban corridor was hit by deadly and devastating flooding brought about by an extreme storm, capping three days of very heavy rainfall. At Boulder's longest-standing weather station, dating back to October 1893 and run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the one day rainfall total for September 12 was 9.1 inches. (The way records are kept at this station, that is measured from 6:00 p.m. the previous day. In this case, that record-keeping day coincided with the 24 hours with the heaviest rainfall.) That 9.1 inches of rainfall not only obliterated the station's previous daily rainfall record of 4.8 inches, it was not far short of the three highest monthly totals ever, of 9.6, 9.3, and 9.2 inches. And the September 12 rainfall total was nearly half of the weather station's average annual rainfall, which going back to 1893 is 18.9 inches. (See more here.) A few other Colorado spots have been hammered by even more rain, and many others were hit nearly as hard, as reported by a blog posting at the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network here and shown on a map here.

One manifestation of human alteration of the climate is an increased frequency of extreme storms, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (the parent organization of the National Weather Service) and many scientific reports. The simple fact of physics is that warmer air can hold more water. For us in Colorado, this means there could be more events in which copious amounts of atmospheric moisture are brought here from the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of California.

We are not asserting a demonstrated individual link between the factors causing this particular storm and human-caused climate change. It takes a lot of statistical work to tease that out. But whether there is such an individual link is, as noted scientist Kevin Trenberth from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (in Boulder) has previously written, actually "is the wrong question. The answer is that all weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be."

Increases in extreme storms are not just a projection -- although they are projected to get much more frequent with further climate change. More extreme storms are a current reality. The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization has analyzed this reality in the Midwest, where extreme storms and major flooding are especially common. In a report we released last year in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council, RMCO documented a half-century trend in the Midwest of extreme storms -- those with three inches or more of precipitation in a day -- doubling. To be precise, the statistical trend was a 103 percent increase over 50 years. As I said when we released our report, "A threshold may already have been crossed, so that major floods in the Midwest perhaps now should no longer be considered purely natural disasters but instead mixed natural/unnatural disasters."

The figure below from our report presents the pattern by decade of the frequency of storms of different sizes in the Midwest from 1961 through 2010. For each size of storm, measured in the amount of precipitation per day, the columns show the changes in the average annual frequency of those storms by decade, from 1961-1970 on the left to 2001-2010 on the right, compared to the average frequency in 1961-1990. Small storms are unchanged, moderate storms increased, large storms increased even more, and extreme storms went up the most. The most recent decade averaged 52 percent more extreme storms than the baseline period. The increase in extreme storms has meant more destructive flooding.

This extreme weather is one of the most serious risks of climate change. This risk, like many others, can be reduced both by controlling emissions and so dialing back climate change, and by preparing for the greater changes we may still face in the future. Read more here.

Report Details Climate Change Impacts on Colorado Water
By Stephen Saunders, RMCO president, Aug. 8, 2013

The Rocky Mountain chapter of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a group of 80 Colorado business leaders who promote policies that are environmentally and economically sustainable, released today a report recommending the strongest goal for water conservation in Colorado yet proposed by any group.

The centerpiece of the report’s recommendations is that the Colorado state government establish a goal of reducing per capita water use by municipal and industrial users by 25 percent by 2025 and by 50 percent by 2050, compared with 2010 levels. This would follow similar actions by the state governments of California and Utah, but the report’s recommendation for a state goal calls for more water conservation in Colorado than any other group has yet proposed. The report details, though, how the recommended reductions are both achievable, based on water savings already achieved in Colorado and other western states, and needed to reliably and sustainably meet Colorado’s future water needs.

The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization provided for the report information and analysis on climate change effects on Colorado’s water resources, which underscore the need for actions of the type recommended by the E2 chapter. “This report pulls together for the first time in one easily readable document all the ways in which climate change is already affecting Colorado’s water supplies and likely will disrupt them more in the future. It lays out the facts, from lower supplies of water to higher demands for water, and how that combination could trigger statewide water restrictions under interstate compacts,” said Stephen Saunders, the president of RMCO. “This is what every Coloradan should know about how climate disruption and interstate compacts would work together to create future water shortages—if we do not act to head off that risk.”

New Climate Impacts Collaborative
By Stephen Saunders, RMCO president, June 27, 2013

RMCO has entered into a strategic partnership with the Union of Concerned Scientists, World Resources Institute, and others undertaking a new national climate impacts collaborative. Its purpose is to reframe the national climate debate by focusing on the local impacts of climate change. One of its key methods will be using local voices to make the case for action. And one of its two initial geographic targets is the Rocky Mountain region. (The Atlantic coast, with a focus on sea level rise, is the other.)

RMCO is a perfect match for this collaborative, and we are delighted to have been approached to play a major role in it. We are the only organization in the region with an exclusive focus on climate change and a mission that includes public education and advocacy. We have a proven track record of documenting local climate impacts. Our Colorado Climate Network and our partner organizations gives us a unique ability to marshal local voices.

We have always seen local climate impacts as the key to changing attitudes. Much of our recent work, though, has been on impacts in other regions, as we prepared reports in partnership with other organizations on such consequences of climate change as impacts on national parks across the country and extreme storms in the Midwest. (See below). With the new national collaborative's focus on the Rocky Mountain region, we now have a new opportunity to refocus our impacts work primarily within our own region. We have a broad new agenda that outlines what we will do as we begin working with this new focus.

One initial effort of the collaborative will be a joint RMCO-Union of Concerned Scientists report on how climate change is disrupting the forests of the Rocky Mountains. More wildfires. More beetle-killed trees. Losses of key species, from whitebark pines on mountain tops to pinyon pines in arid lowlands, and aspens and lodgepole pines between. Increased mortality of trees of all kinds, even without fires or insects. Our forests are changing, and human disruption of the climate is the common thread.

Colorado State Government Climate Action
By Stephen Saunders, RMCO president, June 13, 2013

RMCO has been persistently and quietly working with the administration of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to persuade them to undertake a broad range of climate actions.

One key action is the development of an assessment of Colorado's vulnerability to climate change and its impacts. Other states have prepared vulnerability assessments, but Colorado had not. We have been pushing for one since the blue-ribbon panel we convened in our Colorado Climate Project recommended that one be done here.

RMCO played the lead role in bringing together two key climate science entities in Colorado -- Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado and the North Central Climate Science Center at Colorado State University -- to develop a proposal for carrying out the vulnerability assessment. These organizations are now working to prepare that report, commissioned by the state government's Colorado Energy Office.

In December 2012, at the annual conference of our Colorado Climate Network (see an explanation to the right) Governor Hickenlooper delivered the keynote, in his first speech focused on climate change since becoming governor in 2011. In his speech, he committed the state to take another important climate action that we had been urging on him: updating the inventory and forecast of statewide emissions of heat-trapping pollution. The update of the original 2007 inventory is essential to track progress toward the state's emission reduction goals, first recommended by the blue-ribbon panel we convened in our Colorado Climate Project and included in Governor Bill Ritter's official Colorado Climate Action Agenda. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is now preparing the emissions inventory.

Climate Change and National Parks

RMCO is the national leader in identifying how a disrupted climate threatens national parks and other special places. Our latest report, released in August 2012 in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council, documents how an altered climate threatens the seven national seashores on the Atlantic Coast: Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Fire Island in New York, Assateague Island in Maryland and Virginia, Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout in North Carolina, Cumberland Island in Georgia, and Canaveral in Florida.

The report includes new analyses showing how sea level rise of three feet could inundate much of the seashores. The figure below shows in red how nearly all of the Virginia unit of Assateague Island National Seashore (which overlaps Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge) would be submerged by a higher sea. On the right are the seashore/refuge lands (in beige) and some of the key features that would be lost. This area is visited by two million people a year, whose spending supports 2,000 local jobs.

Read more here. To see a summary of the news coverage of this report, which included a front-page article in the Orlando Sentinel and accounts in the New York Times and USA Today, see here.

 

A Special Region

The American West is special. The West is also changing.

More heat.

Less snow and water.

More wildfires.

Fewer forests.

Let's keep the West a special place to live, work, and play.

That will take new attitudes and new actions to tackle climate change and its disruptive impacts here.

See more on the mission that guides us and on what we do.

Newsletter

Our July 2014 newsletter features the Local Resilience Project convened by the Colorado Climate Network and the Colorado Municipal League. As of July 30, 28 local governments and organizations that work with them had signed on to participate in the project.

To sign up to get our newsletter in your in box, email us.

RMCO Reports

One of the key ways in which RMCO spreads the word about climate disruption and its impacts is through our carefully researched, richly detailed, and easily readable reports. We now have prepared and released 14, all in partnership with other organizations.

Our reports have been covered by 18 of the 25 largest-circulation newspapers in the nation, as well as on national and local television news shows and on hundreds of other radio, press, and Internet outlets. For more information on the news coverage of our reports, see here.

Colorado Climate Network

RMCO administers the Colorado Climate Network, which supports local government and related climate programs in Colorado and has its own, separate website.

The Network held its fourth annual conference on December 12, 2013, at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The topic of the conference was local actions to reduce emissions of climate-changing pollution. Details on the conference are on the Network website.

RMCO's Firsts

RMCO was the first nonprofit organization in the nation—and still the only one—to convene a stakeholder panel which developed a statewide agenda for climate action. The panel's recommended goals for reducing emissions of heat-trapping pollution were adopted by Governor Bill Ritter, Jr., as official state policy, and many other recommendations were included in the state's Colorado Climate Action Agenda or enacted by the Colorado General Assembly.

RMCO was the first to call climate change the greatest threat ever to our national parks. The director of the National Park Service later agreed —and quoted the RMCO conclusion in his first congressional testimony after being confirmed for office, and then developed a NPS climate change response strategy.

RMCO was the first organization to consistently label what humans are doing to the climate as climate disruption—not global warming, which is subconsciously misleading, as "warm" in nearly every other context has a positive connotation. The phrase "climate disruption" has since come into broader use by, among others, President Obama's advisor on science and technology.

John Fielder

All photos on our website, unless indicated otherwise, are copyright by and courtesy of John Fielder. One of today's best photographers of the extraordinary landscapes of the Rocky Mountains, he captures what makes this a special region worthy of protection against climate disruption. His photography business also is one of the formal partners in our coalition of local governments, government agencies, businesses, and nonprofit groups that works together to assess and address climate change in the interior West. Other organizations interested in joining us can contact our director of outreach, Suzanne Farver.