What Global Warming Means for Colorado
From record heat waves and droughts to the terrible wildfires we've suffered this summer, it's no secret that the weather in Colorado has been crazy lately. Unfortunately, scientists in Colorado and across the U.S. warn that if we keep polluting the way we are now, global warming will bring even more weird and extreme weather, along with more dangerous smog pollution and even the extinction of some plants and animals. The good news is that we know how to make big cuts in the carbon pollution fueling the problem—and Colorado has already taken some steps in the right direction, though much remains to be done. Below is a rundown of the problem, why it matters for Colorado, and what you can do to help.
What Global Warming Means for Colorado
The problem: Carbon pollution is fueling global warming
The science of global warming starts with the burning of fossil fuels, specifically in vehicles fueled by Big Oil and at coal-fired power plants owned by utilities and electric power suppliers like Tri-State. When we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil or natural gas, carbon dioxide is emitted into the air. This carbon pollution collects in the atmosphere, where it traps heat from the sun that would otherwise escape into space. That causes the earth’s temperature to rise, which triggers a variety of mostly negative results for Colorado and the planet.
And temperatures are definitely rising. Already, March 2012 was the hottest March on record for the continental U.S., 2010 tied for the hottest year, and the decade of 2001-2010 was the hottest 10-year period on record. The evidence that humans are warming the globe is only strengthening; in the words of a recent report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences: “Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small…This is the case for the conclusion that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.”
The results: Extreme weather, air pollution and more
As the planet warms, University of Colorado at Boulder researchers and other experts warn that Colorado will likely experience a variety of negative consequences:
• Drought: Even though we’re likely to see more precipitation fall when it does rain or snow, it’s also the case that a warming world will likely result in longer dry spells in between rainfalls and decreases in snowpack for western states like Colorado. Combined with high temperatures, these dry spells can lead to drought. During the second half of the 20th century, drought became more common in parts of the northern Rockies and less common in parts of the northern Plains and Northeast. Colorado State University climatologists confirmed that this Spring 98% of Colorado suffered the worst drought the state has seen in years. Droughts can wreak havoc in many ways, from lower crop yields for farmers to diminished recreational opportunities and tourism income from skiing, hunting, fishing and more.
• Ruinous wildfire: A drier climate in the west has contributed to an increase in the frequency and severity of wildfires. In 2002, the previous big drought year, Colorado suffered the largest wildfire in its history. That incident burned 915,000 acres of Colorado forest, left nine firefighters dead and destroyed nearly 1,000 structures. Overall, the state lost $1.7 billion in tourism revenue because of that devastating event.
• Water scarcity: Hotter and drier seasons in Colorado and across the west have a significant impact on Colorado and the region’s water supply, affecting drinking water, hunting and fishing opportunities and more. Because of the drought in the Spring of 2012, the primary reservoirs and rivers that provide drinking water to the Denver metro area are at half of their typical averages, according to the National Resources Conservation Service. This has scientists concerned about drinking water supplies, as the diminished reservoirs continue to drain. Scientists predict that the Colorado River Basin and the Colorado River, which supply Denver’s water, will continue to be hit hard by drier seasons and hotter temperatures.
• Smog pollution: Ozone pollution, or “smog,” hangs over our cities on many of the hottest summer days. Since heat is a key ingredient in the formation of smog (pollution from cars, trucks and power plants is the other), scientists predict that we’ll see even more smog in a warming world. That’s a serious health concern, because smog is known to trigger asthma attacks and a variety of other respiratory problems. In fact, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that higher levels of ground-level ozone due to rising temperatures in 2020 could lead to 2.8 million more asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, leading to 900,000 additional missed days of school. That’s bad news for all of us, but especially the almost 100,000 kids and over 300,000 adults in Colorado who suffer from asthma. Check out this interactive tool to see how the air in your community stacks up.
• Heat waves: Just as we can expect average temperatures to rise in a warming world, we can also expect to see more intense and longer-lasting heat waves in Colorado and across the country. These heat waves can threaten the health and well-being of even healthy individuals, as happened in 2011 when at least six high school football players and one coach died during or shortly after practices held in southern states during a period of extreme summer heat.
• Loss of plant and animal species: While you’ve probably heard about the very real threat that global warming poses to the survival of polar bears and other arctic species, other species closer to home could also be threatened in a warming world. For instance global warming has been linked recently to the decline of aspen trees in Colorado, which scientists refer to as “sudden aspen decline.”
• Extreme storms and hurricanes: Higher temperatures lead to more major rainstorms and heavy snowstorms across the country for two reasons: First, warmer temperatures lead to greater evaporation, so more water from our lakes and oceans becomes airborne. Second, warmer air can hold more water vapor. This means that when it rains, the atmosphere will have more moisture to work with, making heavy downpours and more intense hurricanes are more likely—as well as the flooding that often results from these storms. Already, the number of extreme precipitation events increased 24 percent over the continental U.S. between 1948 and 2006, and at least 14 weather-related disasters causing at least $1 billion in damage hit the U.S. in 2011 alone, many of which involved devastating floods. Check out this interactive map for details.
The solution: Cut carbon pollution, promote clean energy and energy efficiency
Thankfully, we know what we have to do to fight these alarming trends. To give ourselves the best chance of protecting future generations from the worst consequences of global warming, scientists tell us that the U.S. and other developed countries need to cut our carbon emissions so that by 2020 we’re emitting 25-40 percent less carbon into the air than we were in 1990.
That’s a steep goal, but in Colorado and across the country, we’re already starting to move in the right direction. We know we can reduce carbon pollution by cutting down on energy waste through energy efficiency measures, and developing cleaner, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. We can make our buildings much more energy efficient so that they’re demanding less energy from coal-fired power plants. We can make our cars go farther on a gallon of gas, and expand public transportation systems so that more people can get where they’re going without using their cars at all.
Together, all of these things add up. A recent Environment America report, The Way Forward on Global Warming, found that by adopting a suite of clean energy policies at the local, Colorado and federal levels, the U.S. could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 20 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2030 (compared to 2005 levels)—representing a significant down payment toward the pollution reductions called for by scientists.
What you can do
There are many things Coloradans can do in our everyday lives to help reduce our carbon footprint:
• A home energy audit is a great place to start, as the auditor will walk through your home with you and point out the ways in which you can cut energy waste. Check out Xcel’s home energy audit program and see how it can work for you. If Xcel is not your utility provider, contact your local utility to see what home energy audit programs they have to offer.
• Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs), which not only use less energy but can also reduce your lighting costs by up to 75 percent. When shopping for larger appliances and electronics, look for the EnergyStar label to help you choose the most efficient models.
• Simple maintenance: Keep radiators and refrigerator coils clean and free of dust, keep the lint trap clean in your dryer, and clean or replace the filters in your furnace, water heather, and/or air conditioner to help all of these products use less energy.
• Go solar: Many Colorado homeowners are discovering the benefits of installing solar panels on their roofs. Get in touch with a local solar energy installer to find out if solar could work for you.
• Support wind power: Some utilities offer customers the opportunity to pay a bit more for wind power on their monthly bill, which helps to support the development of wind power for all of us.
• Drive less or carpool: Explore the public transportation options available near you, or consider carpooling with a coworker or friends. Even if you use these options only once or twice a week, every avoided car trip means less carbon pollution.
• Eat local, and eat less meat: Producing a pound of meat creates far more carbon pollution than producing a pound of vegetables, and the transport of food creates carbon pollution as well. So consider ditching the burger at McDonald’s for a hearty salad from the farmer’s market.
• Speak up: Letting your friends and family—and your elected officials—know that you care about this issue and are working to do your part to solve it will help convince more people to get involved and achieve even bigger cuts in pollution.
What state leaders can do
• Renewable energy: Colorado has one of the most ambitious clean-energy standards in the nation, requiring that state utilities generate 30 percent of our electricity from clean, renewable power, like wind and solar by 2020. Wind farms in Colorado already provide enough electricity to power 350,000 homes each year. Many local governments have adopted programs to improve access to solar and other onsite renewable energy options for residents and businesses. Local and state officials must continue their strong support for clean renewable energy.
• Energy efficiency: Colorado officials have made improvements to gas and electric energy efficiency programs over the past decade, providing opportunities for residents and businesses to save money and reduce pollution. Some municipal utilities, like those in Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, and rural electric coops like Delta-Montrose and Holy Cross have adopted strong programs to help customers save energy. Xcel Energy, the state’s largest investor owned utility, has also adopted innovative programs to help citizens and businesses save energy and money.
• Clean air: Thanks to the Colorado’s Clean Air Clean Jobs program we will close or convert five of our oldest, dirtiest coal plants to cleaner energy sources, making our air cleaner for future generations. State officials can continue to promote cleaner alternatives like energy efficiency and wind and solar energy so that we can shut down more of our state’s aging coal plants.
• Clean cars: We helped convince the Obama administration to adopt the first increase in fuel efficiency standards in the last 40 years. We should build upon that success by adopting policies, which provide Colorado drivers with more choices for cleaner cars, like plug-in electrics and hybrids to reduce pollution, and cut what we pay at the pump.
• Transportation choices: The RTD’s Fastracks program has dramatically increased transportation options for many Coloradans, helping to reduce pollution and easing our oil-dependence. Local and state officials can continue to expand transportation choices for Coloradans.
What Washington can do
• Clean car standards: This summer, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation are finalizing new fuel efficiency and carbon pollution standards for new cars and light trucks sold in model years 2017-2025. Once in place, these standards are expected to cut annual carbon emissions by 280 million metric tons in 2030, which is equivalent to the pollution created by 70 coal-fired power plants in a year.
• Carbon pollution standards for power plants: EPA is also developing the first-ever carbon pollution standards for new power plants, and may soon begin developing standards for existing power plants. Given that power plants are the largest single source of carbon pollution, these historic standards will be critical to helping the U.S. tackle global warming.
• Clean energy tax incentives: Tapping into our vast clean energy resources—including the power of the wind, the heat of the sun and the energy leaking from drafty windows in our homes and businesses—will decrease our dependence on polluting fossil fuels. Federal tax incentives have played a critical role in jumpstarting and growing the clean energy economy: The price of wind power has dropped 90 percent since 1980, and from 2010 to 2011, jobs in the solar industry grew 10 times faster than the rest of the economy. Unfortunately, these programs are under attack from polluters who want to keep us reliant on the dirty, old-fashioned energy they sell—and those polluters have some powerful friends in D.C. But now is not the time to pull the rug out from under these growing industries. Washington should renew and extend clean energy incentives to keep driving down costs for clean energy.
• Lead by example: The Obama administration has challenged all federal agencies to develop plans to reduce their emissions. With agencies like the Department of Defense and the Department of Housing and Urban Development leading the way, all agencies are now actively implementing their plans by adopting measures such as improving the energy efficiency of buildings, installing renewable energy, and improving the efficiency of their transportation fleets and the fuels that they use.