Get Big Pivots

Dr. Robert Davies said the risk is enormous and failure to respond should be considered radical.


Story/photos by Allen Best

AVON, Colo. – For at least the last decade, the big question about climate change has been when will our Pearl Harbor arrive? When will we decide to offer a response relative to the risk?

In the late 1930s, as smart people realized the inevitably of the United States being drawn into the wars caused by German, Russian and Italian aggression in the Western Hemisphere and Japanese aggression in the Eastern Hemisphere, the United States officially remained aloof. By May 1940, Germany had marched eastward to the English Channel, and it appeared that an invasion of the British Isles might be next. Soon after, Winston Churchill delivered his famous “We shall fight on the beaches; we shall never surrender” speech.

Still the United States remained officially neutral. Not until 18 months after Churchill’s speech, after the Japanese attacked the U.S. ships at Pearl Harbor, did America get off the sidelines.

I asked that question about our Pearl Harbor moment in climate change some years ago at a Telluride Mountainfilm event that featured the photographer James Balog. I think he was then in the midst of photographing the disintegrating glaciers of Greenland. He said our Pearl Harbor moment for climate change would be the disintegration of the west shelf of the Antarctic ice shelf or maybe Greenland.

If the framing was different, the same fundamental question was being asked in the hallway at Battle Mountain High School last Wednesday evening. Battle Mountain is the public school for the Vail area, and this was after a meeting organized by Eagle County but also others, including Walking Mountains Science Center. The lead speaker was Dr. Robert Davies, a physicist from Utah State University who in the last decade has honed his skills in science communication. He gives a whale of a good Power Point-aided presentation. It’s about 70 minutes long, but as best I could tell, none among the 400 to 500 people in the auditorium left.

Was he alarming? Yes. Did he shade his argument and the evidence to the high end to justify alarm? Maybe so.

Several days before, the Wall Street Journal had reported a “broad consensus” among scientists had emerged that we are likely to see 3-degree C temperature increase by 2100. That’s 5.4 degrees F. There had been—and still are—projected increases both higher and lower.

Davies spoke about the risk of 13 degrees F by 2100 and increases of 25 degrees F at the poles “and a completely different planet than we inhabit today.”

But even that 13 F degree rise, if still at the edges, is probably a lot greater risk facing civilization than the risk posed by terrorists. Yet we all take off our belts and shoes, remove our computers and whatever else is required of us at airports and before entering many government buildings. And even this more modest 3-degree C rise will have vast consequences to sea levels, to montane ecosystems, and all areas between. We’re warming now at a much more rapid rate than when the last glaciers receded from Wisconsin and elsewhere 18,000 to 12,000 years ago.

Yes, there are natural cycles. The last time the Earth had carbon dioxide concentrations of 350 parts per million for any significant period, at least several centuries, sea levels were nearly 20 feet higher, Davies said. We’re now approaching 420 ppm—and then there’s also the worry about crossing threshold, the tipping points.

See video of Battle Mountain presentation here:

Davies spoke last October at a conference of mountain towns hosted by Park City. I did not attend, but heard soon after Davies and others galvanized the invited delegates from the mountain resort communities.

“We were excited, we were energized,” said Matt Scherr, the former mayor of Minturn, Colo., who last year was appointed as an Eagle County commissioner. The conference, he added, delivered clear message that the “answer that comes next has to come from all of us.”

And that’s how Davies came to speak on a snowy January evening at Battle Mountain High School. The event was called “Getting to Zero: From Radical to Rational.” The week before some 300 people had turned out in Jackson Hole, and the evening before 200 in Steamboat. After Vail it was Breckenridge. In February he’ll be in Montana, both Bozeman and Missoula. (See his website here).

Kim Langmaid, right, urged those concerned about climate change response to turn out to public meetings.

Carbon in the ground is at the heart of his presentation. He cites evidence that we can extract carbon for only 8 to 10 more years at the rate we have been—and then we’ll have exhausted the budget that the atmosphere can accommodate.

“We have no time. We have to respond now.”

He said we need to halve our carbon emissions by roughly half each decade going forward. Instead, last year, we increased the rate of our emissions by about 2%. In other words, we’re accelerating.

And then he talked about radical vs. rational. Radical, he said, is knowing about a crisis and not responding. To act in response to the known information defines a rational response.

He also distinguished between viable and necessary. The task, he said, is to create “not what is viable but what is necessary, and making it viable is just the next step.”

One other take-away message, a tricky one, is about personal change vs. systems change. Systems-wide change is what we need, the scale of response to match the scale of the problem. It’s good to recycle, but not enough. It’s not about feeling guilty about flying. We need broad, not just personal, policies. In this, he has much the same philosophy elucidated by Auden Schendler of the Aspen Skiing Co.

He did not say as much, but I would interpret this and added comments he made to be a stinging indictment of capitalism as currently constituted. The external costs of capitalism have mostly been ignored or unaccounted for. Polluting is free.

This story was published in the Jan. 28, 2020, issue of Big Pivots, an e-magazine about changes in energy and water. If you would like to be put on the e-mail list, please send a note to [email protected]

In the hallway afterward, somebody asked me: “What is the story that creates change?” That’s a darned good question. It is the key question in Eagle County and elsewhere. And, how do you do so in the time frames that climate scientists are now talking about?

Traction has clearly been gained, as evident in the many net-zero resolutions and goals focused on 2030.

Just last week, Big Sky, the biggish ski area in Montana, announced its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. “Zero” likely will be the big, big word of 2020. Or perhaps “Net Zero.”

At the end of the program at Battle Mountain, Scherr, the Eagle County commissioner, asked several panelists for observations. Kim Langmaid, who founded the Walking Mountain Science Center, has a Ph.D., and is on the Vail Town Council, shared her angst about something at the town council meeting the night before. She had not, she said, received support for what she considered to be an important climate change measure. People concerned about climate change need to show up to meetings, to testify, she said.

Bryan Hannegan said Holy Cross hopes to become a model for larger utilities.

Bryan Hannegan, the chief executive officer at Holy Cross Energy, the local electrical provider for the Vail and Aspen areas, has a Ph.D. in earth science systems. He can probably be called a climate scientist, but long ago got engaged in energy, first in the Bush Administration and then at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

At Holy Cross, he has a real-world laboratory. What they’ve achieved in the last 23 months is quite impressive indeed. I will brazenly say that the Holy Cross story already is one of national interest. What emerges from their request for proposals (see story in the next issue of Big Pivot) could well confirm Holy Cross as a national leader.

Hannegan said the goal at Holy Cross is to provide a model for a utility that is 10 times bigger, with the hope that that bigger utility will influence even bigger utilities.

The next day after Battle Mountain, I attended a meeting nearby in Avon of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns. The group gets together quarterly to talk about best practices and common concerns. The afternoon program was partly about the Climate Change Collaborative, the program put together by Eagle County in collaboration with most of the town governments and some others. It is directed by the Walking Mountains Science Center.

The key takeaway was the buy-in from the towns in Eagle County. For example, they’re all paying a bit more for electricity to ensure it comes from clean sources. If they’re not running together, they’re walking together and in the same direction.

Echoing Hannegan’s remarks from the prior evening, Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula said his town has a similar upward- and outward-looking motivation in its audience of 40,000 daily visitors. Seeing what they see in Breckenridge, if they can take that back to their communities, that is how Breckenridge will have outsized influence, he said.

Eagle County officials have been thinking hard about what constitutes rational public policy. What, for example, would be the response to a declaration of a climate emergency? What is the story, what is the narrative, needed to make such a declaration?

More than a trite resolution, such as many mountain towns adopted in 2008, with nary a thought of how to make it meaningful, the question is to create sturdy and long legs.  It was nice that 400 to 500 people turned out for the event, but that’s still a small portion of the county’s nearly 60,000 full-time residents and a population that is likely more than double that.

The same day as the Vail-area meeting, world political and economic leaders were gathered in the Swiss mountain town of Davos for the World Economic Forum. They heard from the Swedish lass who has emerged as the leader of the global climate movement. There, the 17-year-old Greta Thunberg sparred with the 73-year-old president of the United States. President Trump exaggerated, as usual, but got some things right in pointing out that scientists in the 1960s (most specifically Paul Ehrlich) were worried about the population explosion and in the 1990s there was a fear of peak oil, which now look shrill and perhaps silly.

What he did not point out was how close Great Britain came to falling to the Nazis in 1941. Had Hitler kept looking westward instead of attacking Russia, who knows where we’d be now. Again, that question I heard in the hallway at Battle Mountain High School comes to mind: What is the storyline that moves people, that makes the appropriate action acceptable, that ensures a response sufficient to the risk?

The activism of former Eagle County Commissioner Arn Menconi comes to mind. He was among the 38 protestors arrested at the State Capitol after intruding into the speech of Gov. Jared Polis. People in the oil patch want to impeach Polis because he’s too radical, but to others Polis is too light-weight in his response to the gravity of the problem. Despite the advice of the nation’s premier climate activist Bill McKibben that people with gray beards should be getting themselves jailed, I remain leery of that tactic except perhaps when the message is carefully calculated. I’m not sure it was in this case.

Still, even as it snowed in Vail, it felt oddly warm. Somebody on Facebook made the same observation about Aspen that day. “A few degrees warmer and it’d be rain.” In other words, it felt right for March, but not for January. More bizarre was the wasp on my front porch. Sluggish, but moving. In January?

Allen Best
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