Working to keep the West special

This is our latest monthly newsletter with information about news and developments on climate disruption and its impacts and on climate action in the West. You can sign up for our newsletter, which is sent out by email, by sending your own email to To see more, previous newsletters, continue clicking on "Next" on the bottom right of this and subsequent pages.


December 2015

Featured Item
Forest Vulnerability Research

We at RMCO regard the vulnerability of the West’s forests as one of the greatest threats of climate disruption, as we documented in Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk, a joint report from the Union of Concerned Scientists and RMCO. Since the release of that report last year evidence continues to mount that the range of most Rocky Mountain tree species will decline in the face of climate change, a centerpiece of the UCS-RMCO report.

This fall the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and the University of Arizona developed a new website,, designed to graphically represent how 100 species of trees now found in western states might fare by 2100. Current climatic niches and geographic distributions were determined, then future worst-case and best-case distributions were projected with both low and high future emissions of climate-changing pollution. “In our initial scientific analysis, under the worst-case climate-change scenario, the American West could lose up to 40 percent of its forests,” said Aspen Center for Environmental Studies Forest Programs Director Jamie Werner. “Even in the best-case scenario, we’re still expected to see some loss, but it’s expected to be down in the 15 to 20 percent zone.” See Aspen could become too warm for its namesake tree by 2030, Aspen Times, November 9, 2015.

A second new study, From sink to source: Regional variation in U.S. forest carbon futures, finds that U.S. forests, which currently store more carbon than they lose each year — lowering the country’s net emissions — could store less of it in the future, particularly in the Rocky Mountain region. U.S. Forest Service researchers analyzed five scenarios to project that overall forest absorption of carbon will decrease from 2013 to 2037. In one scenario, net carbon uptake in the Rocky Mountains essentially ends by 2037 because of factors like worse wildfires, pest outbreaks, and simple aging of trees and changing land use. See The hidden factor that could undermine U.S. plans to cut carbon emissions, Washington Post, November 16, 2015.

A third resource is Vulnerability of tree species and biome types to climate change in the U.S. Northern Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone, a March 2015 webinar from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative. This presentation outlines in the Northern Rockies and particularly in the Greater Yellowstone region a shift from climates suitable for alpine and subalpine conifers to climates suitable for desert scrubs and grassland types. In the Yellowstone region, decreasing spring snowpack and summer soil moisture will shrink habitat for seven mountain forest species while sagebrush and junipers expand. A scientific journal article on this research should be out soon.

As we said in Rocky Mountain Forests at Risk, many of the trees now most common in our region may be pushed out of much of their current ranges, potentially changing the fundamental makeup and extent of our iconic Rocky Mountain forests.

News about RMCO and Partners  

News about RMCO Partners

City and County of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announces the release of a new Climate Action Plan during his opening remarks at the city’s first-ever Sustainable Denver Summit on December 3. See Denver aims to cut carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, Denver Post, December 4, 2015. The plan integrates the most recent climate science, an updated emissions inventory, and emissions reduction strategies to meet the city’s 2020 climate goal adopted in 201 3 – reducing emissions below 1990 levels. It also sets a new long-term goal to reduce emissions 80 percent by 2050, compared to 2005 levels, the same goal recommended by RMCO’s Climate Action Panel in 2007, and adopted that same year by the state government by way of an executive order from Gov. Bill Ritter, Jr. That goal is identified as well in the nationwide Compact of Mayors, to which Mayor Hancock recently became a signatory.

The plan identifies strategies to meet its 2020 goal, focused on improving energy efficiency in buildings, the city’s largest source of emissions; lowering electricity emissions factors in partnership with Xcel Energy; and strategic land-use and transportation development. A list of potential strategies to meet the 2050 goal is also identified, which will be the focus of extensive public outreach the city plans during 2016.

The City of Boulder makes the news on several fronts. Colorado Public Radio interviews chief resilience officer Greg Guibert in How 'Resilience' Became Part Of Cities' Climate Change Plans, November 30, and also city councilman Matt Appelbaum in Paris Climate Talks Include Presidents, Prime Minsters, And a Boulder City Councilman, November 23. And regional sustainability coordinator Jonathan Koehn describes How Boulder taxed its way to a climate-friendlier future, Inside Climate News, November 2, 2015.

News About Climate Action

Regional, State, and Local Climate Policies

Colorado high court denies Hickenlooper in Clean Power Plan split with AG, Denver Post, December 4, 2015. The Colorado Supreme Court declines to consider Gov. John Hickenlooper's petition challenging the legality of Attorney General Cynthia Coffman joining other state attorneys general to stop implementation of the federal Clean Power Plan. The court essentially ruled that the governor must first press his case at a lower court level before it can act.

Possible pathways emerging for Montana to meet carbon cuts, Idaho Statesman, November 29, 2015. The state’s Public Service Commission, energy companies, and others consider what could be done to meet the Clean Power Plan’s call for a 47 percent cut in emissions, the most stringent among all states.

Public Opinion

Do Americans understand that global warming is harmful to human health? Evidence from a national survey, Annals of Public Health, May-June, 2015. The pollsters who conducted the October 2014 survey conclude: “Most Americans report a general sense that global warming can be harmful to health, but relatively few understand the types of harm it causes or who is most likely to be affected. Perhaps as a result, there is only moderate support for an expanded public health response. Primary care physicians and public health officials appear well positioned to educate the public about the health relevance of climate change.”

Top Democratic pollsters agree: climate change is a winning issue for Democrats, Vox, November 23, 2015. Nine pollsters circulate a memo saying they have reached similar conclusions about the emergence of a significant and growing national consensus regarding the imperative of addressing global climate change and accelerating the movement to an economy that is powered by clean energy sources.

Climate Communications

Why are so many Americans skeptical about climate change? A study offers a surprising answer. Washington Post, November 23, 2015. A new scientific study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (see abstract) confirms what many have suspected - a systematic coordinated campaign funded by corporations to raise doubts about the science of climate change and whether humans are responsible. A Yale University sociologist used computer analytics to analyze vast amounts of printed matter from groups disputing climate change science over a 20-year period, and concluded that those groups who were corporate-backed consistently promoted the same contrarian themes, but there was no evidence of such coordination among the non-funded groups.

This is why sowing doubt about climate change is such an effective strategy, Washington Post, December 2, 2015. The denialist strategy seems to be dismayingly effective, according to a recent study (see abstract) by Michigan State University researchers. The researchers examined how Americans' views on human-caused climate disruption are influenced by exposing study participants to four promising frames for urging action (economic opportunity, national security, Christian stewardship, and public health)—when these frames appear with a denial counter-frame. Overall, the four positive frames had little to no effect on beliefs, but exposure to the denial counter-frame does significantly reduce respondents' belief in the reality of human-caused climate disruption, belief about the veracity of climate science, awareness of the consequences of climate change, and support for aggressive actions to reduce heat-trapping emissions.

Clean Energy

Why rooftop solar advocates are upset about California's clean-energy law, Los Angeles Times, November 30, 2015. Legislation signed in October by Gov. Jerry Brown requires that half of the state's electricity will be generated from renewable sources such as solar and wind by 2030, but makes rooftop solar systems ineligible to help meet the goal.

Fossil Fuels

Colorado Springs board votes to close power plant by 2035, Associated Press, November 19, 2015. In a reversal of previous policies, the municipal utility’s board decides to close the entire coal-fired Drake Power Plant.

Coal companies, short on cash, abandon future Wyoming projects, Casper Star-Tribune, November 16, 2015. Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, two of the largest coal companies, have abandoned applications for federal leases totaling nearly 2 billion tons in reserves this year. See also Arch Coal says it may file for bankruptcy soon, Casper Star-Tribune, November 14, 2015. Stakes are high for Wyoming, where the company is the third-largest taxpayer in the state and employs over 1,700 workers.

But also see Surviving U.S. power plants will help keep coal demand steady, Bloomberg News, November 11, 2015. While power plants with 23 gigawatts of coal-burning capacity will close this year, the Energy Information Administration reports that that the remaining plants will likely take up the slack over the long term.


In Paris, Secretary Jewell releases report on actions underway to combat climate change in national parks, press release, U.S Department of the Interior, November 30, 2015. Actions by National Park Service managers to adapt to climate change in coastal zones are described through 24 case studies in the report, including at Yellowstone and Olympic national parks, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and Point Reyes National Seashore in the West.

Water Preparedness

Colorado's Water Plan will need everyone to pitch in, officials say, Denver Post, November 19, 2015. Gov. Hickenlooper and Colorado Water Conservation Board (CWCB) officials release the final Colorado’s Water Plan, concluding a 2-year effort to produce the state’s first-ever plan. Essential elements include a call for roughly equal contributions from water conservation and addition al storage to help meet a 2050 municipal and industrial water supply gap estimated at 560,000 acre-feet, and identification of about $20 billion in financial need in the areas of water supply, water infrastructure, recreation, and the environment. During the extensive public engagement process, RMCO continually pushed for more attention to climate change impacts on supply and demand. While the plan does include climate change considerations throughout, CWCB planners say that detailed technical analyses of climate change will be included in a forthcoming Statewide Water Supply Initiative update during 2016.

National Climate Policies

EPA road tests Obama climate change plan in Denver before summit, Denver Post, November 16, 2015. In Denver, one of four cities in which the Environmental Protection Agency is holding hearings on implementation of the Clean Power Plan, support for quick action is voiced by conservation, public health, and some businesses, while fossil-fuel-based corporate interests register their opposition.

News About Climate Disruption

Extreme Weather and Climate Events

New report finds human-caused climate change increased the severity of many extreme events in 2014, press release, NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, November 5, 2015. NOAA releases Explaining Extreme Events of 2014 from a Climate Perspective, an investigation of 28 worldwide individual extreme events during 2014 which evaluates the degree to which natural variability and human-induced climate change caused them. About the 2014 California fire season, the report concludes: “ man-made global warming is likely one of the causes that will exacerbate the areal extent and frequency of extreme fire risk, though the influence of internal climate variability on the 2014 and the future fire season is difficult to ascertain.” 


Can lessons from Australia's 'Big Dry' save California? Christian Science Monitor, December 1, 2015. California’s efforts to deal with drought draws comparisons to what Australia has recently done. There has been a perceptible shift in Californians’ attitudes regarding water conservation, but the average Melbourne resident uses just 25 percent of the water used by a Los Angeleno.


Disappearing Wheeler Peak Glacier is a barometer for climate change, Las Vegas Sun, November 23, 2015. In Great Basin National Park, researchers are documenting the impacts stemming from deterioration of Nevada’s only glacier.

Impact Assessments

New Puget Sound climate study: Older projections coming true, more changes ahead, News Tribune, December 2, 2015. The University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group releases State of Knowledge: Climate Change in Puget Sound, a comprehensive synthesis report summarizing relevant research on the likely effects of climate change on the lands, water, and people of the Puget Sound region. The report also describes local climate change risk reduction activities and highlights data resources available to support local climate adaptation efforts.

Public Health

Rising temperatures mean insects can carry viruses such as West Nile to wider areas, Washington Post, November 27, 2015. Texas, site of the worst U.S. outbreak of the West Nile virus in 2012, is one of the southern-tier states preparing for the spread of tropical diseases carried by mosquitoes.

Heat-Trapping Emissions

Where cows and coal rule, so does CO2, Climate Central, November 23, 2015. Wyoming, due to its sparse population, extensive coal mines, and large coal-burning generating plants, produces seven times the national average of CO 2 emissions on a per-capital basis, according to a November Energy Information Administration report. In the West, Montana and New Mexico are also in the top 12 states, according to that metric.


2015 almost certain to be Earth’s warmest year on record by an enormous margin, Washington Post, November 18, 2015. NOAA’s October monthly climate report, consistent with earlier analyses from the Japan Meteorological Agency and NASA, says it was the warmest October on record, marking the sixth consecutive month a monthly global temperature record has been broken and was also the greatest departure from average for any month in the 1,630 months of recordkeeping, surpassing the previous record high departure set just last month by 0.13°F.

The world is halfway to 2°C, Climate Central, November 9, 2015. The U.K. Met Office is projecting that the world is on track to finish the year 1°C above pre-industrial levels, a dubious milestone on the way to the 2°C benchmark that’s been targeted as “safe.”

There was no global warming 'hiatus,' 40-study review concludes, Inside Climate News, November 24, 2015. More evidence that the alleged 15-year hiatus espoused by denialists, notably including the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology that is grilling NOAA managers about the agency’s statements to the contrary, serves political purposes rather than sound science.

Resource of the Month

The 2015-16 El Niño and the Interior West
Western Water Assessment and CLIMAS

This year’s unusually strong El Niño – Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event has been much in the news, and the Western Water Assessment (WWA) and CLIMAS (Climate Assessment for the Southwest), two of NOAA’s Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments (RISA) centers, are working to provide information on the science behind ENSO cycles and what El Niño likely has in store for this fall, winter, and spring in much of the interior West.

CLIMAS has created an El Niño hub to be a repository for news and information about the expected impacts of El Niño, and which currently describes a strong El Niño event that shows no sign of weakening, with little doubt that El Niño will remain on the current trajectory in the near term, and will be one of the top three strongest events on record since 1950. See in particular this post on what a strong El Niño means for New Mexico and Arizona.

WWA in October convened a panel of experts to discuss what El Niño is and what it does, past El Niño impacts across Colorado, and what kind of weather might be expected in Colorado this fall, winter, and spring. The archived webcast can be viewed here (forward to the 3:10 mark). The briefing and discussion were based on a concise and informative two-page El Niño briefing document released the same day.

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Stephen Saunders, RMCO president:
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