IPCC Report Details the Choices We Face
Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the approved Summary for Policy Makers from the first of its three forthcoming reports that will constitute the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report on the state of scientific knowledge on climate change.
The report shows how much it matters whether we limit future emissions or let them keep going up. For late in the century, the average projection with very low emissions is that the interior West would be one to three degrees hotter. With very high emissions, we would be seven to nine degrees hotter. (See Figure SPM.8 on page 34 of the Summary for Policy Makers.) That’s a huge difference, and the difference in extreme weather events likely would be even larger.
We have a clear choice to make, between a better future and a bleaker one. The scientists have done their job, and now it's up to the rest of us.
Climate Change Means More Extreme Storms
Beginning on September 12, Colorado's Front Range urban corridor was hit by deadly and devastating flooding brought about by an extreme storm, capping three days of very heavy rainfall. At Boulder's longest-standing weather station, dating back to October 1893 and run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the one day rainfall total for September 12 was 9.1 inches. (The way records are kept at this station, that is measured from 6:00 p.m. the previous day. In this case, that record-keeping day coincided with the 24 hours with the heaviest rainfall.) That 9.1 inches of rainfall not only obliterated the station's previous daily rainfall record of 4.8 inches, it was not far short of the three highest monthly totals ever, of 9.6, 9.3, and 9.2 inches. And the September 12 rainfall total was nearly half of the weather station's average annual rainfall, which going back to 1893 is 18.9 inches. (See more here.) A few other Colorado spots have been hammered by even more rain, and many others were hit nearly as hard, as reported by a blog posting at the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network here and shown on a map here.
One manifestation of human alteration of the climate is an increased frequency of extreme storms, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (the parent organization of the National Weather Service) and many scientific reports. The simple fact of physics is that warmer air can hold more water. For us in Colorado, this means there could be more events in which copious amounts of atmospheric moisture are brought here from the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf of California.
We are not asserting a demonstrated individual link between the factors causing this particular storm and human-caused climate change. It takes a lot of statistical work to tease that out. But whether there is such an individual link is, as noted scientist Kevin Trenberth from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (in Boulder) has previously written, actually "is the wrong question. The answer is that all weather events are affected by climate change because the environment in which they occur is warmer and moister than it used to be."
Increases in extreme storms are not just a projection -- although they are projected to get much more frequent with further climate change. More extreme storms are a current reality. The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization has analyzed this reality in the Midwest, where extreme storms and major flooding are especially common. In a report we released last year in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council, RMCO documented a half-century trend in the Midwest of extreme storms -- those with three inches or more of precipitation in a day -- doubling. To be precise, the statistical trend was a 103 percent increase over 50 years. As I said when we released our report, "A threshold may already have been crossed, so that major floods in the Midwest perhaps now should no longer be considered purely natural disasters but instead mixed natural/unnatural disasters."
Another way in which our report presents the changes in precipitation patterns is in the figure below, which shows the pattern by decade of the frequency of storms of different sizes in the Midwest from 1961 through 2010. For each size of storm, measured in the amount of precipitation per day, the columns show the changes in the average annual frequency of those storms by decade, from 1961-1970 on the left to 2001-2010 on the right, compared to the average frequency in 1961-1990. Small storms are unchanged, moderate storms increased, large storms increased even more, and extreme storms went up the most. The most recent decade averaged 52 percent more extreme storms than the baseline period. The increase in extreme storms has meant more destructive flooding.
This extreme weather is one of the most serious risks of climate change. This risk, like many others, can be reduced both by controlling emissions and so dialing back climate change, and by preparing for the greater changes we may still face in the future. Read more here.
Report Details Climate Change Impacts on Colorado Water
The Rocky Mountain chapter of Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), a group of 80 Colorado business leaders who promote policies that are environmentally and economically sustainable, released today a report recommending the strongest goal for water conservation in Colorado yet proposed by any group.
The centerpiece of the report’s recommendations is that the Colorado state government establish a goal of reducing per capita water use by municipal and industrial users by 25 percent by 2025 and by 50 percent by 2050, compared with 2010 levels. This would follow similar actions by the state governments of California and Utah, but the report’s recommendation for a state goal calls for more water conservation in Colorado than any other group has yet proposed. The report details, though, how the recommended reductions are both achievable, based on water savings already achieved in Colorado and other western states, and needed to reliably and sustainably meet Colorado’s future water needs.
The report also includes several other recommendations, including that the state government undertake a detailed analysis of how climate change may affect demands for water in the state—which was not done for the state’s 2010 Statewide Water Supply Initiative report but was recommended in that report as an important step for water planning in the state.
The Rocky Mountain Climate Organization provided for the report information and analysis on climate change effects on Colorado’s water resources, which underscore the need for actions of the type recommended by the E2 chapter. “This report pulls together for the first time in one easily readable document all the ways in which climate change is already affecting Colorado’s water supplies and likely will disrupt them more in the future. It lays out the facts, from lower supplies of water to higher demands for water, and how that combination could trigger statewide water restrictions under interstate compacts,” said Stephen Saunders, the president of RMCO. “This is what every Coloradan should know about how climate disruption and interstate compacts would work together to create future water shortages—if we do not act to head off that risk.”
Bob Berwyn: New RMCO Communications Director
RMCO is pleased to announce that we have a new Director of Communications, Bob Berwyn, known to many as a freelance environmental journalist who is the source of some of the Internet’s best independent journalism on climate change at the Summit County Citizens Voice. Bob is now with us part-time – and continues to publish the Voice – but we aspire to get enough funding so that down the road we can lure him into joining us full-time. In the mean time, one of Bob’s missions here will be to bring us into the 21st century by giving us a social media capability. And Bob will increase our ability to communicate about climate change impacts in this region, as part of our new role in a national Climate Impacts Collaborative (which we announced in our August newsletter).
New Climate Impacts Collaborative
RMCO has entered into a strategic partnership with the Union of Concerned Scientists, World Resources Institute, and others undertaking a new national climate impacts collaborative. Its purpose is to reframe the national climate debate by focusing on the local impacts of climate change. One of its key methods will be using local voices to make the case for action. And one of its two initial geographic targets is the Rocky Mountain region. (The Atlantic coast, with a focus on sea level rise, is the other.)
RMCO is a perfect match for this collaborative, and we are delighted to have been approached to play a major role in it. We are the only organization in the region with an exclusive focus on climate change and a mission that includes public education and advocacy. We have a proven track record of documenting local climate impacts. Our Colorado Climate Network and our partner organizations gives us a unique ability to marshal local voices.
We have always seen local climate impacts as the key to changing attitudes. Much of our recent work, though, has been on impacts in other regions, as we prepared reports in partnership with other organizations on such consequences of climate change as impacts on national parks across the country and extreme storms in the Midwest. (See below). With the new national collaborative's focus on the Rocky Mountain region, we now have a new opportunity to refocus our impacts work primarily within our own region. We have a broad new agenda that outlines what we will do as we begin working with this new focus.
One initial effort of the collaborative will be a joint RMCO-Union of Concerned Scientists report on how climate change is disrupting the forests of the Rocky Mountains. More wildfires. More beetle-killed trees. Losses of key species, from whitebark pines on mountain tops to pinyon pines in arid lowlands, and aspens and lodgepole pines between. Increased mortality of trees of all kinds, even without fires or insects. Our forests are changing, and human disruption of the climate is the common thread.
Another initial priority will be working to achieve maximum press and public attention to a new Colorado statewide climate impacts assessment (see the next item), when, as we expect, one is completed in a few months.
More details on our new climate impacts work and its role in the national collaborative will be posted here soon.
Colorado State Climate Action
RMCO has been persistently and quietly working with the administration of Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper to persuade them to undertake a broad range of climate actions.
No public announcement has yet been made, but we know that the Governor and other state officials have finally agreed with our repeated urgings and are going to undertake a comprehensive assessment of Colorado's vulnerability to climate change and its impacts. Other states have prepared vulnerability assessments, but Colorado has not. We have been pushing for one since the blue-ribbon panel we convened in our Colorado Climate Project recommended that one be done here.
RMCO played the lead role in bringing together two key climate science entities in Colorado -- Western Water Assessment at the University of Colorado and the North Central Climate Science Center at Colorado State University -- to develop a proposal for carrying out the vulnerability assessment. These are the scientific organizations that will prepare the report, in a project commissioned by the state government. And we played the lead role in getting their proposal before the state government and persuading the governor and his staff to launch the effort.
We will provide more information about the vulnerability assessment, and other state government climate actions, soon.
Last December, at the annual conference of our Colorado Climate Network (see an explanation to the right) Governor Hickenlooper delivered the keynote, in his first speech focused on climate change since becoming governor in 2011. In his speech, he committed the state to take another important climate action that we had been urging on him: updating the inventory and forecast of statewide emissions of heat-trapping pollution. The update of the original 2007 inventory is essential to track progress toward the state's emission reduction goals, first recommended by the blue-ribbon panel we convened in our Colorado Climate Project and included in Governor Bill Ritter's official Colorado Climate Action Agenda. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is now preparing the emissions inventory.
The Colorado state government is beginning again to take climate actions, and we are proud to be playing a key role.
Climate Change and National Parks
RMCO is the national leader in identifying how a disrupted climate threatens national parks and other special places. Our latest report, released in August 2012 in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council, documents how an altered climate threatens the seven national seashores on the Atlantic Coast: Cape Cod in Massachusetts, Fire Island in New York, Assateague Island in Maryland and Virginia, Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout in North Carolina, Cumberland Island in Georgia, and Canaveral in Florida.
The report includes new analyses showing how sea level rise of three feet could inundate much of the seashores. The figure below shows in red how nearly all of the Virginia unit of Assateague Island National Seashore (which overlaps Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge) would be submerged by a higher sea. On the right are the seashore/refuge lands (in beige) and some of the key features that would be lost. This area is visited by two million people a year, whose spending supports 2,000 local jobs.
Climate Change and Water
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation released in December 2012 a long-awaited report detailing how climate change may affect water supply and demand in the Colorado River -- maybe the West's greatest vulnerability to climate change. The report shows, among many other things, that the higher future emissions of heat-trapping pollution are, the more the river's flow may be reduced. That crucial information, though, almost did not even make it into this multi-million-dollar report. The Bureau used 112 different projections from climate models to identify possible effects on future water supplies and on demand for that water. But the Bureau's draft report did not separate the results according to the all-important variable of future emissions, as is standard for these kinds of climate projections. Only when RMCO, along with some of the water providers, research institutions, and environmental groups with whom we work in our climate change and water initiative submitted a joint letter urging a change did the Bureau add to the final report a single table summarizing the greater effects of higher emissions on river flows. Throughout the rest of the report, the Bureau continued to lump together all its projections into a single climate-change future, although we really face multiple possible futures depending on whether and how much we reduce emissions. Even more tragically, it was already too late for the Bureau to also separate out its projections on water demands based on different levels of emissions (and their higher temperatures). That would have told an even stronger story.
This is a telling example of how even a well-intentioned, well-funded study of climate change impacts -- still a new area of science -- can miss the mark. And why there is value in having an organization like RMCO monitoring and intervening. Read more here.
Southwest Climate Assessment
An excellent new compilation of the science of climate change and its impacts in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah is now available. This summary of how climate change may affect the people, ecosystems, and water resources of the American Southwest is a technical input to a new National Climate Assessment that has been released in draft form.
Most attention to public opinion on climate change focuses on whether people believe the climate is actually changing. We at RMCO think that is the wrong focus. For one thing, the climate does go through natural changes (although certainly not to the extent or at the speed we are now witnessing.) The real question is whether people accept that we humans are now changing the climate. A poll done in June 2013 in Colorado (and released in September) shows that 48 percent of Coloradans believe that. We still are short of a decisive majority accepting what the scientific community has been urgently declaring for more than a decade -- we still have a lot to do.
A Special Region
The American West is special. The West is also changing.
Less snow and water.
Let's keep the West a special place to live, work, and play.
Our October newsletter is now posted. Featured this month: our report on a discussion by climate scientists on the extent to which September's extreme storms and flooding along Colorado's Front Range are a manifestation of climate change. To sign up to get our newsletter in your in box, email us.
One of the key ways in which RMCO spreads the word about climate disruption and its impacts is through our carefully researched, richly detailed, and easily readable reports. We now have prepared and released thirteen, all in partnership with other organizations.
Our reports have now been covered by 18 of the 25 largest-circulation newspapers in the nation, as well as on national and local television news shows and on hundreds of other radio, press, and Internet outlets. For more information on the news coverage of our reports, see here.
RMCO was the first nonprofit organization in the nation—and still the only one—to convene a stakeholder panel which developed a statewide agenda for climate action. The panel's recommended goals for reducing emissions of heat-trapping pollution were adopted by Governor Bill Ritter, Jr., as official state policy, and many other recommendations were included in the state's Colorado Climate Action Agenda or enacted by the Colorado General Assembly.
RMCO was the first to call climate change the greatest threat ever to our national parks. The director of the National Park Service later agreed —and quoted the RMCO conclusion in his first congressional testimony after being confirmed for office, and then developed a NPS climate change response strategy.
RMCO was the first organization to consistently label what humans are doing to the climate as climate disruption—not global warming, which is subconsciously misleading, as "warm" in nearly every other context has a positive connotation. The phrase "climate disruption" has since come into broader use by, among others, President Obama's advisor on science and technology.
Colorado Climate Network
RMCO administers the Colorado Climate Network, which supports local government and related climate programs in Colorado and has its own, separate website.
The Network will hold its fourth annual conference on December 12, 2013, at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The topic of the conference will be local actions to reduce emissions of climate-changing pollution. Details on the conference will be posted soon on the Network website.
All photos on our website, unless indicated otherwise, are copyright by and courtesy of John Fielder. One of today's best photographers of the extraordinary landscapes of the Rocky Mountains, he captures what makes this a special region worthy of protection against climate disruption. His photography business also is one of the formal partners in our coalition of local governments, government agencies, businesses, and nonprofit groups that works together to assess and address climate change in the interior West. Other organizations interested in joining us can contact our director of outreach, Suzanne Farver.