“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
The scientifically and politically cautious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is shouting from the rooftops in 2021. Human-caused global warming no longer is just “consistent with models” (as IPCC reported in 1992), favored by “stronger evidence” (2001) or “extremely likely” (2013). It is undeniable and impacts are visible everywhere.
Southwest Colorado has smoky skies and a landscape parched by a 20-year drought – one monsoon season notwithstanding – natural aridity exacerbated by climate change. We had the 416 Fire in 2018 and ensuing mudslides since, which still impact water quality in the Animas River.
The IPCC projects warming everywhere, but not equally. Here, we will continue to experience above-average warming. With less certainty, models project slight precipitation increases in our region – but with more rain, we will receive less snow. Warmer temperatures will dry vegetation, making drought even more likely.
We will have more wildfires. The 416 Fire, only 50,000 acres, scorched wilderness but spared people and property. Last year’s huge fires elsewhere in Colorado and the now-annual colossal fires in California and the Northwest are becoming the norm. Sometime, such a disastrous fire will happen here.
Ironically, at the same time, extreme precipitation events are becoming more and more frequent because warmer air holds more moisture, even in winter. Think of a multiday rainstorm like the 2013 event that produced disastrous floods in Front Range communities. Imagine filling the Animas River to 30,000 cubic feet per second, exceeding the “one hundred-year flood” of 1911, but doing it more often. Envision blizzards that close all the highways, cutting off our food supply for a week or more.
Long-term drought imperils our water supply. To address the threat, the city of Durango, La Plata Archuleta Water District and La Plata West Water Authority all bought storage in Lake Nighthorse. Access by the city, likely partnering with LAPLAWD, requires planning and construction that will take several years, possibly not rapidly enough to prevent water shortages.
Will even augmented water supplies meet the needs of the 100,000 people projected by the state demographer to reside in La Plata County by 2040? Probably only in areas served by water systems, particularly the municipalities and the “growth hubs” envisioned in the county Land Use Plan. Will future supplies of runoff and groundwater support long-term continuation of irrigated agriculture here?
The IPCC report is a manifesto for all governments, organizations and businesses to curtail emissions of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming and to adapt to now-inevitable impacts. Governments and many other organizations, including electric co-ops and school districts, have elections. And election results matter, as exemplified by the renewable energy initiatives of LPEA.
What can you do? Know what your governments are doing, voice your concerns and vote for representatives who will act – even if the actions impose short-term costs in taxes or fees or inconvenience. Otherwise, the long-term costs will accelerate, e.g., for health impacts of poor air quality or of injury, disruption of our local economy, or even the destruction of our community – as has happened, tragically, in California.
Identify what you can do within your family’s resources to cut emissions from electricity, heating and transportation. Eat smart, with less meat, because that will reduce energy and water demands for agriculture. Reduce, reuse and recycle because manufacturing and transportation of new goods takes energy and generates emissions. And support local nonprofits that facilitate the needed technological and social transition, especially for disadvantaged communities, which bear the brunt of climate impacts.
The latest climate news is bad, and the IPCC promises that more bad news will come. Having worked in this arena for 25 years, I know how hard it can be to remain positive and to resist the temptation to simply block out the bad news. I don’t know whether the collective actions of humankind will get us to any specific emissions reduction target. What I do know is that every reduction lowers long-term impacts. Importantly, this may include avoiding “tipping points” beyond irreversible thresholds into an utterly different world.
We must try.
Dick White, a retired college professor, served on Durango City Council from 2011 to 2019 and was mayor 2013-14 and 2017-18. He is a certified Climate Change Professional.