With millions of protesters predicting the end of the world as we know it and conservative leaders asserting that climate change a hoax, it can be difficult to wade through all of the hyperbole surrounding the issue and come away with a clear, actionable picture.
Is this really the “beginning of a mass extinction,” as Greta Thunberg told the United Nations during Global Climate action Week? Do we really only have 11 years to transform the world’s economy and 30 years to become a totally carbon-neutral society as Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., told the crowd at Boulder High School on a late Semptember Saturday?
According to scientists at the National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration, National Center Atmospheric Research, the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, none of those proclamations are necessarily true and they can actually harm the green movement by causing panic and division.
“This idea that we have 11 years to (reduce emissions by 45 percent) is baloney,” said Joel Smith, the former deputy director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Change Division under President Ronald Reagan and President George H.W. Bush who spearheaded three major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments and was recently nominated to be on the National Academy of Sciences Panel on Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change. “It is generally true that the warmer it gets the worse things will get, and it has the potential to become catastrophic, but there is no hard deadline.”
“There are a lot things being thrown around that are frankly just speculation, like there are going to billions of refugees, which isn’t even backed up by the science, but that can cause a panic,” he continued. “I just hope people can look at this issue clear-eyed and come up with a measured, thoughtful response.”
As a coordinating lead author for the synthesis chapter on climate change impacts for the Third Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report, Smith said the scientists involved in that research ran dozens of models to equate for all kinds of different assumptions.
While most of those models agree that to prevent global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius, humanity must slash carbon emissions by about 45 percent in the next 11 years and reach net-zero emissions around 2050, the range of “dangerous” temperature levels ranged from 1.5 degrees Celsius to 3.5 degrees Celsius. The models also couldn’t quantify the potential for human innovation and adaption.
For instance, the Energy Information Administration reports that carbon dioxide emissions have declined 28% since 2005 because of slower electricity demand growth and changes in the mix of fuels used to generate electricity, including renewable energy, which according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, grew 14% worldwide in 2018, accounting for one-third of the increase in total power generation.
While the dozen scientists interviewed for this piece all suggested the climate’s outlook is not quite as dim as some make it out to be, and were hopeful the worldwide mobilization to reduce emissions will continue to gain momentum — especially after millions took to the streets in support of more aggressive climate action during Global Climate Action Week last month — they also said that President Donald Trump’s tactic of reducing environmental regulations to spur economic growth and fund technological innovations that could potentially stave off catastrophe is the worst possible strategy.
According to the Rhodium Group, an independent research group, since 2016 the pace of the U.S. emissions decline has slowed, from 2.7% in 2015 to 1.7% in 2016 to 0.8% in 2017, which risks putting the U.S. emissions reduction goal under the Paris Agreement out of reach.
That same report, which was published in January 2019, also estimated that emissions in 2018 increased by 3.4%, the second largest annual gain since 1996. The largest gain in that period occurred in 2010, when emissions rebounded 3.6% from a recession-driven 7.2% decline the year before.
“It’s very alarming, but it points to a collective action problem that is intersectional with a lot of other problem that we see in society,” said Max Boykoff, the director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder, who recently published a book called, “Creative (Climate) Communications: Productive Pathways for Science, Policy and Society.” “At present, our response as a human society, whether you think about it though policy action, individuals, or collectives, is nowhere near commensurate to the scale of the challenge as we face it right now.”
In order to make the kind of large scale changes required to address the problem, Boykoff suggests that the extreme language on both ends of the spectrum is actually counterproductive, causing both sides to retreat to their respective corners and dig in.
“If your objective is to win an argument, you can villainize and shame them, but if you actually want to make progress you have to think very carefully about what other issues are linked that could act as entry points for us to address this problem responsibly,” he said. “For someone to say the days of fracking are over completely shuts down any productive conversations.”
In what he called an attempt to foster bipartisan conversations, Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Colo., invited the bipartisan U.S. House Select Committee on Climate Change to visit the National Center for Atmospheric Research, National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder.
During those tours Rep. Garret Graves, R-Louisiana, spoke to the need for the federal government to increase funding developing renewable technology to combat climate change.
On Monday, Rep. Kelly Armstrong, a Republican from North Dakota who serves on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis with Neguse, came to Boulder County to visit local farms and discuss regenerative agriculture and how new techniques can improve soil health to absorb more carbon out of the atmosphere and slow the global warming trend. Neguse has introduced two bills on the topic, the Sustainable Agriculture Research Act and the Study on Improving Lands, which both enjoy bipartisan support.
“The cornerstone of my service has been fighting climate change as the existential threat that it is,” Neguse said. “Part and parcel to that, in my view, is having a chance to bring colleagues to Colorado to both showcase what we’re doing in terms of renewable energy development, the breathtaking work that scientists are doing, and then also to highlight some of the challenges we face.”
Those challenges were on full display when he invited Ocasio-Cortez to tour people’s homes in Broomfield and Erie in late September and hear firsthand how nearby fracking operations are affecting their health and well-being.
Broomfield resident Barb Binders told the representatives about experiencing bloody noses, burning eyes and trouble breathing ever since a fracking operation began drilling a half-mile from her house. Pat Waak showed the representatives blood tests that found extremely high levels of benzene, which she linked to the fracking operations surrounding her property in Erie. Using an infrared camera, Pete Dronkers, an optical gas imaging thermographer with Earthworks, showed the representatives a plume of invisible volatile organic compounds and methane being emitted from a fracking site just across the road from John and Elizabeth Tillman’s home in Broomfield.
Rather than talking about banning fracking, the discussions were about how the representatives could work to better regulate the industry, restrict where fracking operations can take place, and improve transparency as well as the residents’ ability to find recourse.
Walking away from those meetings, Neguse and Ocasio-Cortez thanked the residents for well-researched and measured responses, saying it will provide them actionable information they can use on Capitol Hill to build bipartisan support for stricter regulation, since the Green New Deal, a bill that aims to address climate change and economic inequality, is stalled in Congress.
“We can still get discreet pieces of legislation passed with this (presidential) administration,” Neguse said. “We shouldn’t give up on that. Policy progress is iterative, so it’s important to set an agenda and provide a base for a new congress and president to take off the shelf.”
“In many ways, the climate crisis is a product, it’s an externality of our unsustainable way of life, and you don’t fix that with a solar panel,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “You fix it by changing the way we think and operate as a society … we have done it before and we can do it again.”
On a local level, disparate groups have begun cooperating on water issues by forming stream management plans like the St. Vrain and Left Hand Stream Management Plan and the South Platte River Opportunities Working Group, that have brought ranchers, environmentalists, water providers, and recreational users together to enhance water storage capacity, improve riparian habitats, and better conserve water. On transportation issues the auto industry has worked with the state and agreed to sell certain levels of zero-emission vehicles, like plug-in hybrid and fully electric models. Power providers like Xcel Energy and the Platte River Power Authority have also agreed to transition to renewables by investing in renewable energy sources. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has also worked with Boulder County on creating new permitting regulations for oil and gas developments.
“Making a difference in greenhouse gas emissions is going to take efforts across different scales and when you add a lot of those together you can start to make a difference,” Russ Schumacher, director of the Colorado Climate Center, said. “Of course there are challenges that will have to be dealt with on a federal or global level, but we’re still at a point where if emissions are reduced and we can at least slow some of the trends we’re seeing, if not turn it around.”