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Humans hammering other species into extinction as climate change accelerates

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May 7, 2019, 9:54 am
Just three short weeks ago on the EagleVail Golf Course, skiers found snow on their way out of Beaver Creek on closing day. Now the course is open for business.

Somehow there’s nothing quite so sad for skiers and mountain dwellers as seeing a substantial winter’s worth of snowpack rapidly melt away into our surrounding streams and rivers, which is what’s happening at a startling pace now in the Vail Valley.

Spring mud season used to last a lot longer at 8,000 feet in elevation, but climate change is speeding up the annual runoff, shortening rafting and kayak season as well as ski season for diehards like me still heading over to Breckenridge and Arapahoe Basin.

The O Zone by David O. Williams
The O. Zone

Many people around here are over winter, glad to see the snow go and the golf courses open, but I’m not one of them. I moved here for cold and snow and loved when it used to snow on the Fourth of July – sending Californians scurrying out of the state. Those days are over.

Over the weekend I wrote a story for the Vail Daily (re-post below) on the efforts by state lawmakers – some of them from right here in Vail and Avon – to mitigate against the worst impacts of climate change.

Their efforts are commendable but a drop in the proverbial global warming bucket if our national policy doesn’t shift dramatically in 2020. Consider Monday’s alarming report from the United Nations finding human activity threatens a million plant and animal species with extinction. Alarming and utterly sobering, but largely lost in Monday’s media noise.

Also consider the record set over the weekend by the United Kingdom for its longest stretch without burning coal (five days) since it launched the coal-fired industrial revolution that has so dramatically changed both our natural and unnatural worlds.

For those of us on Colorado’s Western Slope, who love life at altitude — balanced between fragile alpine and desert ecosystems — change is happening right before our eyes.

As a waiter told me this past winter in Bozeman, Mont., where he’d grown up and now saw Yellowstone and its surroundings being rapidly transformed by climate change, “Montana is the new Colorado; Colorado is the new Arizona; and Arizona ….” He didn’t want to think about what Arizona is becoming.

In other, far less dramatic news over the weekend, I won a journalism award for a story I wrote for Colorado Politics on the proliferation of illegal pot operations on public lands – another human activity with potentially devastating environmental impacts on pristine swaths of national forests.

The award was second place for Marijuana Enterprise Reporting (who knew such a category existed?) in the Society of Professional Journalists four-state Top of the Rockies competition. The story also ran in CoPo’s sister publication, the Colorado Springs Gazette.

To me, and to the Forest Service officials I interviewed, it was much more of an environmental story than a law enforcement one. I appreciate my editors there submitting my work for an award – something that doesn’t usually happen for freelancers.

Now here’s that re-post of the Vail Daily climate legislation story:

Climate bills make it across finish line as legislative session ends

In a frenetic final week of the Colorado Legislature, which just wrapped up on Friday, lawmakers managed to move three seemingly stalled climate bills forward, pleasing both conservation groups and representatives of the state’s booming outdoor recreation industry.

The Colorado House reconciled a Senate version of the Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution, or House Bill 1261, and it now heads to the desk of Gov. Jared Polis for his anticipated signature. Sponsored by Speaker of the House KC Becker, D-Boulder, the bill was co-sponsored by Vail Valley lawmakers Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, and Kerry Donovan, D-Vail.

The bill codifies into law a 2017 executive order by former Gov. John Hickenlooper seeking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent by 2025 and then builds on those targets. According to its summary, “Colorado shall have statewide goals to reduce 2025 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26%, 2030 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50%, and 2050 greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90% of the levels of greenhouse gas emissions that existed in 2005.”

In a separate but related bill, Senate Bill 236 directs the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, which oversees investor-owned utilities such as Xcel Energy, to consider the cost of carbon pollution when considering future power projects.

It also requires the PUC to start evaluating and approving the energy plans of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which supplies most of the state’s rural electric co-ops (although not Holy Cross Energy, which mostly gets its power from Xcel). That utility is on track to deliver 100-percent carbon-free power by 2050.

Taken together, the two bills will mandate the state achieves its ambitious new carbon emissions goals – a top priority for Polis, who ran on a platform of 100 percent renewable energy by 2040.

HB 1261 narrowly passed the Senate Wednesday on an 18-16 party line vote (with one senator excused). Donovan, whose sprawling Senate District 5 includes both ski areas and coal mines on the state’s Western Slope, provided a key vote in favor of the bill.

“Climate change is not an abstract global concept in my district. Hunters know animal patterns are adjusting. Skiers know the snowpack is shrinking. Ranchers know weather is shifting. River rats know rivers are changing,” Donovan told the Vail Daily.

“My district asked the state to lead on climate change and this is an important step in that direction. Paired with my bill on collecting data, we’ll be able to intelligently move towards protecting what makes Colorado great and make informed decisions to address the impacts of climate change.”

Donovan’s climate change data collection bill, Senate Bill 96, was sponsored in the House by Rep. Chris Hansen, D-Denver.

“Colorado’s way of life is being threatened by climate change and carbon pollution emissions, and we need a data-driven approach to protect it,” Hansen said. “But we are falling short on reducing carbon emissions because we are not collecting adequate information. This bill will lay a strong foundation of data that we can build upon to evaluate emissions,” Hansen said.

Avon Democratic state Rep. Roberts also backed the legislature’s climate agenda this session.

“I am excited that HB 1261 is finally on its way to the governor’s desk. I was proud to co-sponsor this bill because it sets in place a science-based climate action plan to reduce carbon pollution and it will make Colorado a leader in preventing the furtherance of climate change,” Roberts told the Daily.

“Climate change is the world’s most urgent crisis,” Roberts added. “HB 1261 will ensure that Colorado is doing its part to combat this threat. Combined with other bills we have passed to help with the just transition of energy workers, water resource protection, wildfire mitigation, and other efforts, our state is making huge strides towards protecting this beautiful state we called home.”

Environmental groups praised the package of bills, although they won’t be in total celebration mode until Polis signs everything. Conservation Colorado Executive Director Kelly Nordini told the Daily she’s confident the governor will finalize the work of the legislature.

“Our confidence comes from the voters, honestly,” Nordini said. “When we saw that the number one issue in peoples’ vote for governor last year was energy and environment [according to polling], and when we see that Colorado says that climate change is a more serious issue than any other intermountain western state, that’s a real mandate for action.”

The Sierra Club lauded the PUC modernization bill for setting a price on each short ton of carbon emitted starting at $46 in 2020 – thereby mitigating against the so-called “social costs” of carbon pollution.

“Coloradans already pay the cost of carbon when wildfires devastate our communities, rising temperatures hurt our winter sports and recreation industry, and hail storms damage our property,” saidAnna McDevitt, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign representative.

HB 1261 had the backing of the ski industry and numerous outdoor gear manufacturing companies in Colorado and nationwide. Snowsports Industries America (SIA) and more than a dozen gear companies, including industry giants like Head and local shops like Minturn’s Weston Backcountry, sent a letter to the Senate urging passage of the bill as the session waned.

Protect Our Winters, an advocacy group made up of snow sports athletes, lobbied for the bill. But with a backlog of legislation and Republicans mandating the painstaking reading on the floor of every word of every bill, it appeared as if the climate bills might be stalled.

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David O. Williams

Managing Editor at RealVail
David O. Williams is an award-winning freelance reporter based in the Vail Valley of Colorado, writing on health care, immigration, politics, the environment, energy, public lands, outdoor recreation and sports. His work has appeared in 5280 Magazine, American Way Magazine (American Airlines), the Anchorage Daily News (Alaska), Aspen Daily News, the Aspen Times, Beaver Creek Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the Colorado Independent, Colorado Politics (formerly the Colorado Statesman), Colorado Public News, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), the Colorado Springs Independent, the Colorado Statesman (now Colorado Politics), the Daily Trail (Vail), the Denver Daily News, the Denver Post, the Durango Herald, the Eagle Valley Enterprise, the Eastside Journal (Bellevue, Washington), ESPN.com, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, the Greeley Tribune, the Huffington Post, the King County Journal (Seattle, Washington), KUNC.org (northern Colorado), LA Weekly, the London Daily Mirror, the Montgomery Journal (Maryland), The New York Times, the Parent’s Handbook, Peaks Magazine (now Epic Life), People Magazine, Powder Magazine, the Pueblo Chieftain, PT Magazine, Rocky Mountain Golf Magazine, the Rocky Mountain News, Atlantic Media's RouteFifty.com (formerly Government Executive State and Local), SKI Magazine, Ski Area Management, SKIING Magazine, the Summit Daily News, United Hemispheres (United Airlines), Vail/Beaver Creek Magazine, Vail en Español, Vail Valley Magazine, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail and Westword (Denver). Williams is also the founder, publisher and editor of RealVail.com and RockyMountainPost.com.

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