Tag Archives: climate change

Colorado Wildfire Climate Change Fail

The past couple of years have been rough on Colorado, in terms of climate change related disasters.  First a couple of record setting wildfire years, and then floods of “biblical” proportions.  At a gut level we know we have to respond, but our public discourse is having trouble addressing the root cause directly.  Instead we’re dancing around the issue, and failing to either adapt adequately to our new reality or to mitigate further climate change.

Adaptation?

Bills related to both the wildfires and last fall’s floods have been wending their way through our state legislature, and last week legislators and the governor held a press conference to highlight some of them, and a lot of the resulting commentary seemed to focus on the safety and well being of the firefighters and other emergency services workers that risk their lives on our behalf.  Largely absent from the discussion were the strong measures that the Governor’s wildfire task force put forward in the fall. They included:

  • Creating a wildfire risk map, and rating all properties on a scale of 1 to 10,  requiring that risk designation to be disclosed before any property sale, and making it available to insurance companies for use in setting their rates.
  • Charging those living in the “wildland urban interface” a fee based on their risk exposure, that would be used to defer some of the additional public costs incurred in protecting their private property.
  • Creating fire-resistant building codes for high risk areas, affecting both the materials used in construction, and requirements for defensible space around buildings.

Make no mistake: these are climate change adaptation measures, and Colorado has rejected them.

Firefighters in Waldo Canyon

As the Denver Post reported in September: developers didn’t like the idea of increased construction costs; the real-estate industry didn’t like the idea of making a lucrative market much less attractive; homeowners in high risk areas certainly didn’t like the idea of paying for the risks they’ve taken on, or making those risks transparent to potential buyers of their property.

Would the discussion be any different if people understood that the wildfire frequency and intensity is likely to just keep increasing as climate change marches on?  This is about as close as the article from September gets to mentioning climate change:

Colorado terrain ravaged by wildfire has quadrupled from 200,000 acres in the 1990s to nearly 900,000 acres in the 2000s.  “Scientists tell us this pattern isn’t going to change,” Hickenlooper said.

Why is the “pattern” there in the first place?  What kind of scientists was the Governor was talking to?  None of the press articles linked to from this post mention climate change even once, despite universally pointing out the trend.  For example: As Colorado wildfires continue to worsen, only moderate laws proposed.  And why are they worsening?  No comment.  Even the wildfire task force’s report mentions climate change only once in 80 pages.

Waldo Canyon Fire Aftermath

The only big risk factor we’ve talked about directly is where we choose to build our homes.  This is an important discussion too.  The overall wildfire risk — at least to human lives and property — is something like:

(human risk) = (area burned) x (pop. density in high risk areas)

Climate change will in large part determine how much of our state burns each year, but we have a choice about how many people and how much property to put in areas subject to burning.  Reducing our exposure to the increasing wildfire risk is an adaptation to climate change — an alteration of our behavior, in light of the expected risks going forward.  For the moment at least, we seem unwilling to listen to the warnings.

But hey, at least the state had a conversation, and decided not to do anything.

Cause and Effect

So what are the causes?  According to the US Forest Service, the enormous bark beetle kill is due in part to warmer winters, resulting from climate change.  These forests filled with dead trees are warm and dry for longer each year, lengthening the western US fire season by about 2 months.  So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the number of large wild fires per year has already increased from 140 in the 1980s, to 250 in the first decade of the 2000s.  This infographic from the Union of Concerned Scientists is a good cartoon summary:

Western Wildfires and Climate Change

(see this paper for the references behind the infographic)

The third panel is probably the scariest for Colorado.  The dark red swath covering most of the western half of the state means that we expect more than six times as much land to burn each year in the near future, with just 1°C (1.8°F) of additional warming — and as Kevin Anderson and many others have pointed out, it is virtually certain that we will see another 1°C of warming… if not 3°C, or even more.

So our elected representatives are right to be concerned about increased risk from wildfires, and about the safety of the firefighters who try to protect us from those fires.  But we’re still missing the point:  We control our exposure to risk locally, and we control the magnitude of that risk globally.

Mitigation?

Policies aimed at avoiding or reducing climate change (like putting a price on carbon) are mitigation efforts.   We’re not talking about them much, even in the context of an obviously climate mediated risk like wildfires.  This is bad.  If we can’t have a conversation about what’s increasing the wildfire risks, how can we hope to respond appropriately?  Is our refusal to respond to change related to our refusal to accept the cause of the change?  Or is it more a kind of landscape amnesia — an inability to even see the change?  Are we going to forget what normal fire seasons looked like, in the same way that we’ve started to forget what a normal winter feels like:

Cold

Double Climate #Fail

Right now we’re managing to fail doubly with respect to climate change.  We are both unwilling to adapt to the foreseeable risks, and unwilling to even mention that these risks are linked to our greenhouse gas emissions, let alone talk about what we might do to mitigate those emissions and the risks that they create.

If we really care about our firefighters, if we really are intent on avoiding ever more costly and tragic conflagrations in our state, we need to both adapt and mitigate.  We need to start building for a warmer world now, and we need to stop warming the world as quickly as possible.

If you agree, look up the contact information for your Colorado state legislators and let them know.

GWSSS Denver: Utility Death Spiral

Zane Selvans, Research Director, Clean Energy Action

January 27th, 2014, 6:30 pm – 9 pm
Harry’s @ Vine Street Pub
1700 Vine Street, Denver, CO 80206

CLICK HERE TO REGISTER

Join CEA at Vine Street Pub in Denver for drinks, discussion and some live music from 6:30 to 9pm, Monday January 27th.

We’ll reintroduce the Utility Death Spiral, and talk about why century-old centralized monopoly utilities are failing to meet the challenge of climate change.  We’ll also explore how utilities need to evolve if they’re going to successfully integrate efficiency, distributed generation, and demand side resources dispatched over a much smarter grid. Utilities are terrified of cheap distributed solar power, because it is poised to disrupt their century old monopoly business model.  Come find out why the old way of generating electricity isn’t going to serve us well in the 21st century, and what might lie ahead.

And then, we’ll just hang out and continue the discussion face to face, with some local live music to set the mood.

A rough program:

6:30 – 7:00pm — Set-up and Mingling.  Get a drink.

7:00 – 7:30pm — Short presentation by CEA’s Research Director, Zane Selvans.

7:30 – 8:00pm — Q&A and structured discussion

8:00 – 9:00pm — Free form socializing and discussion.  (And maybe another drink…)

If you want to get the most out of the evening, we highly recommend Utilities for Dummies, a blog post series by our friend Dave Roberts at Grist.

Please register through Eventbrite here. The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited and we need an accurate count of the number of people attending.Hope to see you there!

 

What Value Should We Place on Our Future?

Courtesy of the Old Marlovian
Courtesy of the Old Marlovian

By: Alexandra Czastkiewicz

October 2013

The social cost of carbon might not be a conversation that comes up at the dinner table, but realize it or not the implications of global climate change are far reaching and daunting. How important is the fate of the future generation? When your children grow up, what kind of world do you want them to experience? Putting a numeric value on the future is difficult, but it must be done if we are to change the direction of our energy future, and introduce cleaner energy technologies that produce less harmful pollution and emissions.

Coal is perceived as a more economic energy source then many renewable technologies. The Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences recently published an article about the implications of modernizing our electricity systems. The US government needs an official cost estimate associated with the production of CO2 from fossil fuels. According to report, without counting pollution and carbon emissions, coal, on average, costs 3.0 cents/kWh versus wind energy (8.0 cents/kWh) or photovoltaics (13.3 cents/kWh) (Johnson et al. 2013). The government is now trying to take into account the environmental costs of using fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas. This includes adding a cost of potential damages caused by the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere. These potential and already realized costs include damages and deaths incurred from drought, floods, heat waves, hurricanes and other natural phenomenon that have been exacerbated given human induced climate change. Additionally, the social cost of carbon has serious public safety and health implications. Increased pollution has led to increases in asthma, water contamination, and rises in climate sensitive diseases. Every day our health and wellbeing are being compromised and if we do not change our current energy practices, and it will only continue to worsen for our futures. Continue reading What Value Should We Place on Our Future?

Cleaning Up America’s Power Plants

By: Stephanie Borsum2013DirtiestPowerPlants

October, 2013

Carbon dioxide emissions are one of the largest contributors to air pollution and climate change and the United States is responsible for the largest per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The main carbon emission sources in the U.S. are electricity production and power plant operations. It is necessary to regulate the direct sources of carbon dioxide emissions in order to prevent further irreversible damage to our environment and society. It is time for our nation’s carbon emissions to drastically decline in order to prevent dramatic climate events and destruction to our living environment.

The United States has about 6,000 electricity generating power plants, most of which are coal fired and emit a significant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. These power plants alone account for 41% of the total U.S. carbon emissions. A report by Environment America which ranked the top 100 dirtiest power plants in America, states that about half of those carbon emissions come from the 100 dirtiest power plants. The top 50 dirtiest plants alone produced 30 percent of all power-sector carbon dioxide emissions, but only generated 16 percent of electricity nationwide in 2011, which illustrates the urgency to increase efficiency. The report also states that if the top 50 dirtiest power plants in the United States created their own country, it would qualify as the seventh-biggest polluter in the world. That is just a small fraction of the power plants currently operating in our country. A main reason these coal power plants in the U.S. are exceptionally dirty is because until recently, there have been no federal policies in place to put limits on emissions.

Continue reading Cleaning Up America’s Power Plants

The Road to 100 Percent Renewables is Closer than you Think

Photo by Ben Bocko of solar panels and an American flag on top of the governor's office in Boston, Massachusetts.
Photo by Ben Bocko – Governor’s Office in Boston, Massachusetts

By: Stephanie Borsum, September 2013

Conventional ways of thinking of renewable energy as too expensive or unreliable are old and outdated, according to Renewables 100, a nonprofit organization founded to study and advance the global transition to a 100 percent renewable energy future. This organization firmly believes that, “it is not a question of ‘if’ the 100% renewable energy future will become a reality; it is solely a question of ‘when’ and ‘how’.” Renewables 100 was the first to host an international conference in the United States that focused on 100 percent renewable energy targets and solutions. The Pathways to 100 Percent Renewable Energy Conference was held on April 16, 2013 in San Francisco and intended on providing the public with knowledge of renewable energies along with hope for a completely sustainable future.

At the conference there were various esteemed and influential speakers who discussed global warming, climate change, technology, policy and economics in relation to renewable energy systems. These speakers all put forth the compelling claim that entire towns, cities and countries could, and eventually will be, powered and run completely on renewable energies. They also helped to prove, by citing a number of recent authoritative energy studies, that the shift away from fossil fuels is technically and economically viable in today’s world.  With current technologies, including photovoltaic solar panels, wind turbines, biomass and hydropower, enough energy security can be provided to supply societies demands and more. These speakers have helped create a vision for the potential of renewable resources and illustrated it becoming a reality. Their research and presentations helped to educate the public and overcome some barriers found when transitioning to a renewable system.

Since the conference, 8 Countries, 41 cities, 48 regions, 8 utilities, and 21 NonProfit, educational and public institutions committed to shifting to 100% renewable energy within the next few decades. Continue reading The Road to 100 Percent Renewables is Closer than you Think