The heat is on
July 11, 2005
The stone buildings and sidewalks along Denver’s 19th Avenue are baking under the fierce rays of a summer sun that’s just a few days past its solstice peak. Heat waves shimmer off parked cars. Even the sparrows pecking at crumbs on the sidewalk seem slow and lazy, and my shoes feel like they might stick to the black asphalt as we cross the street before ducking into a corner coffee shop for some cool relief.Temperatures in the 90s aren’t unusual for Denver in early July. But by all accounts, it could get hotter – much hotter – and stay that way for longer stretches of time, said Stephen Saunders, while twisting open a bottle of cold water before settling in to discuss climate disruption in Colorado and the Rocky Mountains.Saunders, head of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (RMCO), is talking about global warming. He intentionally uses the term climate disruption because it conveys most accurately the fact that human production of greenhouse gases has interrupted and altered the Earth’s natural climate balance.The very essence of what makes Colorado such a desirable place to live is at risk, he said.The reality of climate disruption in Colorado hit Saunders hard during the parched summer of 2002, when record wildfires swept through drought- and disease-weakened forests, sending thick smoke billowing across the Front Range. “You know what that summer was like,” Saunders said, recalling images of cracked shorelines and dust storms along receding reservoirs, and hundreds of thousands of acres of blackened forests. “Scientists are saying our future in this part of the country could look a lot like the summer of 2002. More heat, more drought, less snow and more wildfires,” he said. In the middle of it, Saunders moved back to Colorado after decades as a staffer, policy advisor and speechwriter for a who’s-who of Colorado Democrats, including former Gov. Dick Lamm, senators Gary Hart and Tim Wirth and Rep. David Skaggs. In the last few years of the Clinton administration, Saunders was assistant deputy secretary in the Department of Interior in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. Most recently, he was a policy advisor to Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.”In my 30 years being engaged in Colorado government and politics, I hadn’t encountered any event as significant,” Saunders said. “It really opened people’s eyes how we’re vulnerable to such changes. I didn’t see any organization or agency that was connecting the dots,” he said, explaining that there has been very little leadership from the national level on climate issues. In some cases, states are stepping up, with Arizona and New Mexico at the forefront in the Southwest, he added. In all, 29 states and more than a 100 cities have started to grapple with the issue at some level.
The missionFrom his crammed and paper-strewn office in Denver, Saunders is now trying to marshal a Colorado organization that will help explain the impacts of climate disruption to the general public and deliver scientific information for planners and decision-makers. Sixteen local governments, businesses and water providers have joined so far, including Summit County.”To bring it home to Colorado will do more to spur action than talking about the polar icecaps melting. The truth is, we’re especially vulnerable (to some of the most widely expected impacts), including more drought and less snow,” Saunders said. Next month, the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization will release a report specifically focusing on snow and water in the West. Saunders said it’s critical for citizens, elected officials and water managers to understand that the potential impacts of less snowpack and earlier runoff could require significant changes in the way water is stored and delivered.The follow-up, due in time to welcome a new governor in 2006, is a Colorado climate agenda. The agenda will carry recommendations to help meet the challenges of the expected changes and to curb emission of greenhouse gases as soon as possible.”Our approach to this issue has been driven by two principles. We talk about climate disruption as a local issue,” Saunders said. “And we are building a mainstream coalition that includes some unexpected messengers. It’s much more effective to have towns, water providers and businesses affected by climate disruptions than an organization of environmental believers.”Although it’s a global issue, Saunders said local action is critical, and can have a significant effect. “There are 212 nations in the world. Carbon dioxide emissions in Colorado are greater than 174 of those. What we do matters,” Saunders said. The messageSaunders has been busy, traveling around the state and meeting with local governments (including Summit County towns) and other entities to spread awareness and garner support for the RMCO, and the message is fairly straightforward.”It’s essentially a universal belief in the scientific community that human-caused climate change is here and that it’s certain to accelerate,” he said. “It’s the greenhouse effect that makes the Earth a nice place to live.” But adding millions of tons of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases is way too much of a good thing.
“This is something on a scale unlike we’ve ever dealt with, at least with the environment,” he said. “What is unknown is exactly what we’re going to do about it. How are we going to adapt to the changes that are already inevitable?” he said.Ensuring a stable water supply could be the single biggest challenge. Changes in snowpack and runoff patterns threaten what Saunders describes as the “essential serendipity of the West.” The rhythm of winter snowfall builds up a natural reservoir of water that slowly melts and is delivered to the lower elevations just about when it’s needed most – with the help of some clever engineering and a vast storage and distribution system.The aim, Saunders said, is to limit human-caused temperature gains to about 2.5 degrees Celsius to keep changes within acceptable levels. “The big, big question is, when? The sooner we take action, the easier it will be,” he said. He explained that some greenhouse gases will persist in the atmosphere for many decades, even when emissions are cut, sustaining the warming effect.”We can do it. And the decisions we make can save us money. What we need is education of the leadership and public. And the political will to make decisions in our best interest,” Saunders said. “We should be leading the way. We have much at stake. I have a sense of optimism that Colorado can and will become a leader. In this region, we have abundant clean energy sources, and a concentration of technical and scientific resources, as well as an educated and enlightened population. We can become a net exporter of renewable energy, to the benefit of our economy.”Global warming: The spinWhile the scientific consensus on global warming has become overwhelming, advocates for action – such as Steve Saunders, head of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization – are still concerned that the message isn’t getting out as forcefully as it should.That’s partially due to the way the story has played out in the media, with many mainstream reports taking a he-said, she-said approach, which unjustifiably gives global warming skeptics equal space.”There’s been a lot of confusion,” says Brad Udall, Boulder-based head of the Western Water Assessment program. “It’s very real. It’s a serious issue, but it’s been a slowly evolving story,” he says, adding that the media has focused on the political elements, sometimes at the expense of covering the scientific aspects.The mainstream media’s coverage of global warming suffered for some particularly scathing criticism from environmental writer Ross Gelbspan, who charged in a recent Mother Jones article that the story is “threatening to become the shame of the American press.”Gelbspan pointed to a recent media analysis that showed the issue receives three times as much media coverage in Great Britain than in the U.S.
He also faults the corporate conglomeration of media, with staff cuts at newspapers and a focus on celebrity coverage making it hard for editors to give reporters the time and resources to cover complex stories.In part, Gelbspan attributes the poor coverage to a “decade-long campaign of deception, disinformation, and at times, intimidation by the fossil-fuel industry to keep this issue off the public radar screen.”Part of that campaign involves millions of dollars in funding from ExxonMobil to sympathetic think tanks and propping up a handful of skeptic scientists, according to environmental writer Bill McKibben, reporting the same issue of Mother Jones. According to McKibben, the company has pumped more than $8 million into 40 think tanks, media outlets and other groups that “preach skepticism” about global warming. Global warming: The manGlobal warming, or climate disruption as Stephen Saunders calls it, is an issue looking for leadership, and the high-energy policy expert who recently retired after three decades of government service, may just be the man to provide it.Saunders, head of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization, first moved to Colorado in 1974, transferring to the University of Denver Law School after one year at Emory University.”I ended up in Colorado because I didn’t get a job as a policeman in Virginia Beach,” Saunders says with a laugh, explaining how he found an opportunity in Colorado after being turned down for the summer beach job.He quickly got involved in politics, first as an intern and then with paying jobs with former Gov. Dick Lamm and Tim Wirth, who represented Colorado in the House and Senate. From 1978 to 1985, he was environmental policy advisor to Gary Hart, and first heard of potential climate change impacts in 1980 while working for Hart on air quality programs. He says it’s one of the earliest official mentions of the issue he can recall. Saunders served as chief of staff to Rep. David Skaggs for 11 years, from 1987 to 1998, and then moved to the Department of Interior to take charge of the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under Clinton. His most visible role in that position was phasing out the use of snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park, a process that is still under way. Most recently, Saunders was a key advisor for Howard Dean’s presidential campaign.His return to Colorado in the middle of the drought-stricken summer of 2002 prompted a critical interest in climate issues, leading to his present role as head of the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization. Saunders lives north of Denver with his wife and two children, ages 6 and 9.
Global warming: The impactsAs the evidence for human-caused climate disruption keeps mounting, scientists in Colorado are taking the lead in pinpointing some of the effects. In a recent study, Boulder’s National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) determined that the percentage of Earth’s land area stricken by serious drought has more than doubled from the 1970s to the early 2000s.NCAR researchers reported widespread drying over much of Europe and Asia, Canada, western and southern Africa, and eastern Australia. Rising global temperatures appear to be a major factor, says NCAR’s Aiguo Dai, lead author of the study. Dai present the new findings on last January at the national meteorological convention, explaining that the fraction of global land experiencing very dry conditions (as defined by the Palmer Drought Severity Index) rose from about 10 percent to 15 percent in the early 1970s to about 30 percent by 2002. Almost half of that change is due to rising temperatures rather than decreases in rainfall or snowfall, according to Dai. At the same time, the amount of water vapor in the air has increased and average global precipitation has risen slightly, suggesting that the moisture is evaporating from land areas.The NCAR researchers indicated that the United States has not been affected by the trend as much, with moisture increasing, especially in the region between the Rockies and the Mississippi River. In another NCAR study, researchers point out that global warming will continue for decades, even if humans stopped releasing all carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases today.Published in the journal Science, the report explains that sea levels will continue to rise, potentially worsening the damage from extreme high tides and storm surges, and that heat waves, droughts and storms could all become more intense.The evidence highlights the need for immediate action to stem greenhouse gas emissions, scientists say. The longer the delay, the more climate change impacts are inevitable, lead researcher Gerald Meehl says.Meehl’s team developed two complex computer models, including variables like human carbon emissions, other pollution, current temperatures and their rate of change, emissions from volcanoes, changes in solar radiation and shifts in the ozone layer. Then the scientists crunched the numbers in different ways, including a simulation showing the outcome if greenhouse gas emissions had been stabilized in 2000.Even in that scenario, the model projected another 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, equaling the warming that has occurred in the 20th century.In a second study, NCAR used a different model to show that it may not even be possible to lower emissions enough to prevent rising sea levels. Even if all greenhouse gas production were stopped now, the model suggests sea levels could rise another four inches per century.