Save Our Snow
Can Aspen and other Western towns put a dent in a global problem?
ASPEN, Colorado — On an evening in early January, the back streets of Aspen are slathered with ice; not slush, not snow, but a beefy layer of solid ice. It’s slick stuff, but Aspenites are thankful for what it represents. Without a reliably cold winter, this storied ski resort would have no champagne powder, no steep-and-deep expert runs, and no reason for tourists to fill its plentiful hotel rooms, restaurants and theatres from Thanksgiving through March. Aspen, in short, is a genteel company town, and that company owes its life to the climate.
So it’s no real surprise that on this frigid night, local citizens are packing into a well-appointed auditorium on the edge of town, doffing their down jackets and settling in for the evening. They’ve come to hear what global climate change means for them, and for their collective economic future.
This is no lightweight lecture. Gerald Meehl, a lanky scientist from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., has spent most of his career testing and refining computer models of future climate. Though global climate models are fiercely complex, they’ve long yielded only very coarse forecasts, treating the Rocky Mountains, for instance, as a vague hump in the middle of the continent. In recent years, climate scientists have produced much clearer snapshots of the future, and Meehl describes some of these views for the citizens of Aspen.
Aspen’s wintertime average temperatures, he says, are projected — according to conservative estimates — to rise a little less than 1 degree Fahrenheit in the next 20 years. That might not sound like much, but it is equivalent to the warming that Aspen experienced over the last half-century, when the typical number of frost-free days in town increased by about a month.
In the dark auditorium, the intake of breath is audible.
By mid-century, Meehl adds, the predicted rise in local average temperatures hovers between 2.7 and 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.
At a community meeting the next morning, a team of researchers supplies more details. Mark Williams, a snow scientist from the University of Colorado, translates the previous evening’s grim predictions into the local argot: skiing conditions. Aspen, whose main street sits about 7,900 feet above sea level, has an advantage over lower-lying ski towns, he says, because typical wintertime temperatures on its mountains are far below freezing. "We have a technical term for this," he says. "It’s butt-cold." If average temperatures do rise as projected over the next century, he says, there will be far fewer frosty days in town, but his preliminary results show that all except the lowest slopes of the Aspen ski areas will remain skiable.
This forecast, other researchers at the meeting report, makes some ski-area managers heave a sigh of relief. They might have to make more snow, shave a few days off the ski season, or even pack skiers into the gondola to carry them over the bare slopes near the bottom of the mountain. But with money and luck, Aspen ski areas will be open for Christmas in 2100.
Yet many listeners aren’t reassured by this apparent good news: Isn’t there an increased likelihood of extreme drought years? Where will the water come from for extra snowmaking? What if floods, storms or disease disrupt the global economy, and tourism in Aspen slows to a trickle? What if, as lower-elevation ski areas near the coast lose their snow, fewer people learn to ski, and the sport itself becomes obsolete?
It’s a messy discussion. There are countless subtleties and caveats, and few straightforward answers. But this conversation, by its very existence, is modestly astounding. There’s no discussion here of whether global warming is "real," and caused in large part by human activities; the scientists, and their small knot of listeners, obviously accept both conclusions. The morning’s most pressing question — and it’s a big one — is how this small town can possibly change its forecast.
On Thanksgiving weekend of 2004, during a long drive to Salt Lake City, Aspen city attorney John Worcester tuned in to the Rush Limbaugh show. Limbaugh, as it happened, was discoursing on the lack of evidence for global warming. "Like a lot of people who tend to disagree with him, I took it on faith that he was full of crap," says Worcester. "But then I realized that I really didn’t know much about global warming myself."
Worcester, who trained as a chemical engineer before becoming a lawyer, decided to give himself another education. "I wanted to be able to take an honest position on the issue," he says. When he returned home, he downloaded a copy of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report — widely considered the most authoritative scientific source on climate change — and read the scientists’ summaries of their findings.
He learned that over the 20th century, the globe’s average surface temperature increased by more than 1 degree Fahrenheit, a rate of warming greater than in any other century for the last 1,000 years. The 1990s were the warmest decade of the entire millennium in the Northern Hemisphere, and the early 2000s have continued to break various temperature records. "There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities," the IPCC reported. The panel also predicted that global average temperatures will rise anywhere from 2.5 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit between 1990 and 2100 — a rate of warming very likely without precedent in the last 10,000 years.
Such numbers convinced Worcester, as they have many others, that global warming deserves serious attention. Yet Worcester didn’t call his senator, or visit his representative’s local office, or put on a suit and tie and storm Capitol Hill. Instead, he stayed home.
Worcester surmised that his town probably had more to worry about than many other places in the country. Temperatures in snow-covered areas are expected to rise more quickly than those in lower-lying places, and Aspen’s climate and snow-dependent economy make the community particularly vulnerable to change. Though federal attempts to deal with global warming were bogged down in partisan politics, Worcester became convinced that progress could, and should, be made on the local level. "The more reading I did," he says, "the more it dawned on me that the city of Aspen really ought to be addressing the problem."
Worcester enlisted the assistance of John Katzenberger, who, as the director of the nonprofit Aspen Global Change Institute, convenes international meetings of climate experts in Aspen each summer. Worcester and Katzenberger devised a city program called the Canary Initiative, named for the proverbial canary in the coal mine. It included a $120,000 scientific assessment of the particular impacts of global warming on the city, a $20,000 inventory of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by Aspen as a whole, and a full-time staffer to help the town and its citizens reduce their contribution to global warming. When Worcester took the idea to the city council, it wasn’t a hard sell. "The council understood immediately that this is a global problem," he says, "but that we have the inclination, and the resources, to do something about it."
With the Canary Initiative, Aspen joined a growing roster of communities grappling with global warming on the local level. Before it began its search for solutions, though, Aspen had to understand its own role in changing the climate — and that required an unsettling look in the mirror.
"Because of the kind of community we are — for the most part, we have very clean air, clean water, and everything looks wonderful — we could have gone on forever saying, ‘We’re fine,’ " says Mayor Helen Klanderud. "Well, maybe we’re not as environmentally fit as we should be."
Thirteen years ago, Portland, Ore., became the first city in the country to adopt a strategy to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions. Last summer, the city and its surrounding county attracted national attention by shrinking their overall annual emissions almost to 1990 levels. City- and countywide emissions have now declined for four consecutive years. By 2010, they expect their emissions to be 10 percent lower than they were in 1990, exceeding the demands of the international Kyoto Protocol agreement, which the United States has refused to join.
The reductions, Portland officials say, have been surprisingly painless. Some, like those that resulted from energy-efficiency measures, immediately saved money for local governments and residents. Others, like those that accompanied light-rail construction or land-use planning programs, were side benefits of already popular efforts. "We believe all actions to date have been low to no cost," says Michael Armstrong, conservation program manager for the city’s Office of Sustainable Development.
During the national debate over the Kyoto Protocol in the late 1990s, the Energy Information Administration estimated that compliance with initial protocol targets would cost the nation as much as $437 billion. Portland’s results suggested a very different, and much more pleasant, future.
Following in Portland’s footsteps, towns and cities throughout the West — and around the country — have adopted similar emissions-reduction programs. Most of these communities are part of a program called Cities for Climate Protection, an effort of an international association of local governments with the unflattering name of ICLEI (which stands for the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, and is pronounced "ick-lee").
Usually, one enthusiastic city leader or employee, such as Aspen city attorney John Worcester, convinces his or her town to tackle the issue. Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) members follow a well-established template: First, they assess the sources of their emissions. Then they set their own reduction goals, make a plan, and, with the assistance of software and guidance from ICLEI, begin the complex business of shrinking their emissions.
As in Portland, local emissions reductions usually come in modest, pragmatic packages. Efficient LED bulbs replace conventional traffic signals; a few gasoline-electric hybrids join the city fleet; the city council votes to purchase wind power for municipal operations; a handful of families receive public funding to get new insulation or doorjambs. Some cities purchase carbon "credits" by donating to organizations such as the nonprofit Climate Trust, which in turn uses the donations to fund emissions-reduction efforts or to plant and preserve trees, which absorb carbon dioxide. These actions are far from dramatic, but their impacts, when multiplied over several years and hundreds of cities, do add up. Plus, their appeal is so broad as to make them almost apolitical: No one has ever lost an election because she fought for better household insulation, or knocked $100,000 off the city’s annual electric bill with a new set of traffic signals.
On the national stage, global warming remains one of the bitterest, most polarizing political issues of our time. But on the local level, the debate loses its hysterical edge, and the whole issue starts to seem refreshingly — well, refreshingly boring. And there, in those long, dull columns of carbon dioxide equivalents and kilowatts and dollars saved, lies this nascent movement’s political strength.
Since the Cities for Climate Protection Program began in 1993, it has grown to 166 member cities in the United States, and more than 700 cities worldwide. In the United States alone, its members’ annual reductions in emissions are now equivalent to about 23 million tons of carbon dioxide, a load roughly equal to the entire annual greenhouse gas production of the Philippines. ICLEI estimates that these efforts also net more than $535 million in yearly savings. "There’s not one city we’ve worked with that has not seen some level of cost savings," says Michelle Wyman, the executive director of ICLEI’s U.S. office. "It’s guaranteed."
The list of member cities in the West includes many progressive strongholds — Portland, Seattle, Berkeley, Boulder and Aspen, among others — where the majority of citizens are already aware of, and worried about, the effects of global warming. But the program also appeals to more conservative sensibilities.
Ray Martinez, the former mayor of the Colorado university town of Fort Collins, is a former sergeant in the city police force and a longtime Republican. When a citizen advisory group first proposed that Fort Collins join the Cities for Climate Protection in the late 1990s, he was skeptical. "I knew that much of the science was still being debated," he says. "But I realized that it doesn’t really matter what climate change might mean 100 years from now — what matters are things like whether your kid has respiratory problems from the particles in the air. What matters is creating clean air today."
The bulk of Fort Collins’s greenhouse gas emissions — about 47 percent — come from electricity generation, with transportation a close second. Emissions are still on the rise, partly because of the city’s population growth, but through its participation in CCP, Fort Collins kept an estimated 241,000 tons of carbon dioxide — equal to 9 percent of its total output — out of the atmosphere in 2004, according to its most recent report. Purchases of renewable energy, promotion of recycling programs, and the installation of an additional methane gas collector at its wastewater treatment plant all contributed to the savings. With the help of grant funding, Fort Collins also runs a program to encourage energy efficiency in businesses and institutions, ranging from the local Ben and Jerry’s franchise to Colorado State University. The local public school district recently invested in natural lighting, solar panels, and other energy-saving features for a new high school building, making it one of the most efficient high schools in the country.
"Some mayors, in some cities, still see (emissions reduction) as a political disaster, as something that takes an environmental, liberal view," says Martinez, who stepped down because of term limits last spring. "But I say, just look at the money it saves. Isn’t that part of the Republican platform, to save taxpayer dollars?"
The Cities for Climate Protection program isn’t without its problems and risks. It’s entirely voluntary, and commitment to it varies. Tracking emissions and reductions, even with the help of groups like ICLEI, requires time, money and attention, and the universe of options for action can, at times, seem overwhelmingly large. And while cost savings and emissions reductions come easily at first, they can soon begin to require more up-front investment and political chutzpah. "You can’t do it all by just changing lightbulbs," says ICLEI outreach officer Susan Ode. "You have to do things that seem more dramatic. Going to the next level does require some kind of courage."
It can also require patience. Some measures, such as the purchase of renewable energy, may need the approval of only a handful of city leaders. Others, such as changing commuter habits or shrinking household energy use, require sustained public education campaigns, and a much more significant commitment by the citizenry.
But supporters say such campaigns also help turn a global issue into a local one. "They begin informing people," says Randy Udall, a regional energy expert and the director of the nonprofit Community Office for Resource Efficiency in Aspen. "People will say, ‘Jesus, you mean that when I drive my car, I’m putting a pound of this stuff out every mile, and some of it will be there a century from now? Wow.’ "
For some Western leaders, evangelism within their own city limits isn’t enough. In 2002, just before the Olympic Winter Games opened in Salt Lake City, Mayor Rocky Anderson promised that the city government’s greenhouse gas emissions would drop to 7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012 — the goals that would have been set for the United States had it signed the Kyoto Protocol. City operations are already more than three-quarters of the way to their goal, thanks to the use of methane emissions from its city landfill and wastewater treatment plant for electricity generation, the purchase of wind power, and other measures. The city is now signing up local businesses for an energy-efficiency program, and will soon expand its efforts to individual residents, aiming to extend the government’s accomplishments to Salt Lake as a whole.
In February of last year, on the day the Kyoto Protocol became law for the 141 countries that signed it, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, D, upped the ante. The Pacific Northwest was in the midst of one of the driest winter months on record, and Seattle’s water and hydropower supplies were threatened. Climate change, Nickels remembers, "suddenly went from being an issue that was somewhere else, a long time from now, to one that’s here and now."
Not only would his entire city meet Kyoto targets, he said, but it would also challenge other cities and towns throughout the country to do the same. He announced the "U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement," and said he wanted 141 mayors to sign up before the meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors the following June (HCN, 6/27/05: This mayor sees a different shade of green).
He got what he wanted, and more: As of Feb. 17 of this year, 205 mayors had signed the agreement, each pledging to "strive to meet or exceed Kyoto Protocol targets" in their city operations and communities. The liberal West Coast and the Northeast boasted the heaviest participation, but the list also includes the mayors of Norman, Okla.; Bellevue, Neb.; Billings, Mont.; Laredo, Tex., and many other more conservative burgs.
Seattle is making good on its promises at home. Its city-owned utility, Seattle City Light, announced late last year that it had reduced its net greenhouse gas emissions to zero, thanks in part to its purchase of wind power and divestment from coal. The utility’s reductions, combined with various energy-efficiency measures, have helped overall city operations cut their greenhouse gas production to more than 60 percent below 1990 levels. To help chart a path toward Kyoto targets for the city as a whole, Nickels appointed an 18-member commission of local business, nonprofit, and government leaders; their recommendations are due to the mayor this month.
For the most part, these local efforts operate independently from the increasing number of statewide emissions-control plans and policies. But both Seattle and Salt Lake City have made some inroads into state politics. Nickels actively supported Washington’s Clean Car Act, passed last spring, which adopts California’s standards for greenhouse-gas emissions from new vehicles. This past December, news of Salt Lake City’s accomplishments and cost savings encouraged Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, D, to call for the creation of a climate-change advisory group in his state.
The influence of local efforts may reach even further: Cities such as Seattle, Salt Lake, and Portland, with their demonstrable results, could help break the national political impasse on climate change, leading to a more coherent approach to reducing emissions. "Ultimately, what we want to do is shape national policy," says Nickels. "We want to see the federal government step up and rejoin the community of nations."
Nickels says he hasn’t spoken with President Bush or anyone in the White House about his campaign, but he recently received an award from the federal Environmental Protection Agency for climate protection, an honor he says is a bit ironic. "I’m kind of tempted to go to the ceremony and say ‘You know, if you guys were doing your job, if the federal government were doing its job, there would be no place for leadership from me,’ " he says. "But I may not do that."
This past December, at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Montreal, ICLEI organized a parallel event for mayors, city staffers and activists. More than 300 people attended, including both Nickels and Pam O’Connor, the mayor of Santa Monica, Calif., an early supporter of Nickels’ effort. The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail gushed over Nickels, calling him a "national folk hero" with "the quintessentially American way of coming up with the right idea at the right time."
The municipal leaders issued a declaration committing their cities to an ambitious set of long-term emissions-reduction targets: 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050. On Dec. 8, just before the end of the U.N. conference, the city of Montreal hosted an address by former U.S. President Clinton, who applauded the mayors and their nuts-and-bolts approach. "My plea is that … we do what we would do if we were all mayors," Clinton said. "If you can’t agree on an (international) target, agree on a set of projects so everybody has something to do when they get up in the morning."
The U.S. delegation to the Montreal conference, meanwhile, stuck to its opposition to mandatory targets for greenhouse gas reductions. The chief U.S. negotiator at the conference even walked out of an informal discussion on emissions reductions. The best the delegation could muster was to agree to nonbinding talks about international action on climate change beyond the year 2012, when Kyoto expires.
KC Golden, a former special assistant to the mayor of Seattle who attended the conference, says the mayors’ efforts helped buoy the spirits of the international community. "People throughout the world have been very down at the mouth about continuing the (Kyoto) process while the United States — the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases — sits on the sidelines," says Golden, now the policy director for the nonprofit group Climate Solutions. "But in Montreal, state and local leaders were able to say, ‘It’s worth the effort — we’ll meet you down the road once we get past this impasse at the national level.’ I think they’ve been instrumental in creating enough confidence on the international level for the process to continue."
Last month, on Valentine’s Day, the Aspen Canary Initiative presented its citywide emissions inventory to the town council. The next evening, the city’s global warming project manager, Dan Richardson, delivered the results to the public.
The good news, Richardson reported to a handful of listeners — on the other side of town, bestselling novelist Ann Patchett was speaking to a sellout crowd — is that Aspen’s greenhouse gas pollution isn’t nearly as bad as it could be. Over the past several years, the city has made major investments in renewable energy, public transportation and recycling, and implemented stringent, energy-efficient building codes; in the process, it has already kept a substantial dose of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
As part of the Canary Initiative, the Aspen city government has made a legally binding commitment to reduce its operations’ emissions by 1 percent each year, and it now offers bonuses to employees of city departments that meet their reduction goals. Mayor Klanderud’s signature on the U.S. Mayors’ Climate Protection Agreement made a nonbinding but citywide commitment to Kyoto targets. Over the next several months, town officials and residents will help develop a so-called Canary Action Plan, also likely to include specific — and perhaps more ambitious — reduction targets.
But the inventory contained bad news, too. It showed that, despite its progressive measures, Aspen’s per-capita emissions in 2004 were almost twice the national average. The town’s commercial and private air traffic, which accounts for a whopping 41 percent of the total emissions, topped the list of contributors. Second was ground transportation, producing about 25 percent of emissions; the majority came from vehicles traveling to and from Aspen on crowded Highway 82 — the main artery for Aspen’s service workers, many of who live in more affordable communities down the valley.
Most cities don’t include air travel in their emissions inventories, so Aspen was unusually thorough. But even when the analysis removed air travel and commuter and tourist driving, Aspen’s per capita emissions remained well ahead of the average U.S. citizen’s. "I’ve seen the enemy, and it is me," Richardson told his listeners.
To compensate for its airport emissions, Aspen could pay for the capture of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from nearby coal mines, or support other climate-friendly projects in surrounding towns. The Aspen Skiing Company may soon encourage its visitors to buy "Green Tags," which — for the price of about $20 per 1,000 miles of flying — fund various emissions-reductions projects. Yet offsets, no matter how numerous, won’t change the fact that Aspen is an isolated ski town without enough affordable housing for its workers; a lot of people burn a lot of fuel flying and driving to it.
So Aspen, and many other towns, are likely to face dilemmas in coming decades. The scale of these dilemmas could be monumental — especially considering that even the goals set out by the Kyoto Protocol are not enough to stop current warming trends, according to most scientists. Restoring climate stability will require much more dramatic reductions, probably similar to those the mayors called for in Montreal: 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050. Getting there will surely require a lot of conservation and innovation, and not a little risk.
"It’s not just resort economies that will have to change," says Auden Schendler, director of environmental affairs for the Aspen Skiing Company. "We, as a society, are going to have to change how everything operates. We’re going to have to address some of the stickiest issues."
The challenges are great. But so are the rewards. In the midst of one of the global-warming meetings in Aspen, University of Colorado snow scientist Mark Williams points out two curves on a graph. One is the projected snow cover at the base of Aspen’s mountains in 2100, assuming the world does little to change its ways. The second, far above, represents skiing conditions in a time of stringent international greenhouse-gas limits. Fewer emissions equal more snow, and better skiing: In Aspen, at least, this is an equation everyone can understand.
Michelle Nijhuis is High Country News contributing editor.
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