Extreme weather demands climate action

Colorado U.S. Senator Bennet of Colorado, Dale Kessler of the Colorado River Water Conservation District and Colorado U.S. Representative Joe Neguse

In northern Colorado, a typical, slow-moving July afternoon thunderstorm during a typical monsoon season leads to water rushing down the Cameron Peak burn scar, resulting in mudslides, debris and flash flood waters spilling into the Poudre River, which then floods, as well. 

Five homes destroyed, at least one person dead and thousands evacuated.

A second flash flood warning is issued for the East Troublesome burn scar. The 2020 Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires, both of which were burning at the same time, were the first and second worst fires in Colorado history. The consequences of the fire are still destroying lives and property in 2021.

Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., Congress continues to play political ping-pong with the Infrastructure bill that would provide much-needed funding for addressing climate change.

Against that backdrop, Colorado U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, Zane Kessler, Director of Governmental Relations with the Colorado River Water Conservation District stationed out of Glenwood Springs, and Colorado U.S. Representative Joe Neguse representing Larimer County -- including the Poudre Canyon -- were joined by elected officials from Nevada, Connecticut, Minnesota, Oregon, Illinois and Virginia, each member of Congress accompanied by a constituent who had experienced firsthand the devastating effects of extreme weather caused by climate change. Six states representing both coasts and the Midwest, each with firsthand stories to tell.

“Here in D.C.,” moderator Kristi Goldfuss with the Center for Environmental Energy and Policy began, “we spend so much time horse-trading, talking in acronyms and about what’s on and what’s off with legislation that we sometimes forget that the extreme weather that comes with climate change is affecting the lives of real people. Climate change is happening now, and it’s not about horse-trading. It’s about what climate change is doing to people’s lives.”

It was the summation of a thread that ran through the next hour with politicians introducing private citizens who, often without notes, told their stories.

After expressing sympathies for those who had perished or were missing in Larimer County, Senator Bennet drove the point home again. “For anybody who thinks this is all speculative or far out into the future, [climate change] is having a profound effect on lost lives in Colorado today…and on our economy today. That’s why Colorado is the first state to regulate fugitive methane. [Xcel energy] is going carbon-free. We’ve got a commitment to manage water in our state and in the west that, under very difficult circumstances, is in a way that is at least responsible.”

Making perhaps the most overriding point of all, he said, “We need Washington to act. And we need Washington to act now in this infrastructure legislation and to go bold”, highlighting its creation of millions of jobs in the Rocky Mountain West and superior fiscal approach. “It takes $50,000 an acre to fight a fire. It takes $1,500 an acre to do the mitigation that’s required.”

Zane Kessler picked up the thread and wove a very concerning picture. “The Colorado River is the most precious resource to Colorado and the seven states and two nations that depend upon it. Seventy-five percent of the river’s natural flow comes from snowpack in the Colorado River Basin, which, along with the Western Slope and Colorado River Basin is experiencing some of the worst drought conditions in recorded history and has been for the last 21 years.” 

Kessler then got more specific with facts farmers, and others, already know too well from experience.

Temperatures are now four degrees hotter than a century ago. “Sound science” shows that every one degree of increase in temperature results in a decrease of three to five percent streamflow. “Many of the agricultural communities on the Western Slope that have thrived on the Colorado for a century are seeing fifteen to eighteen percent less water than they did a hundred years ago.” The problem is compounded by increasing demand on the Colorado from, among other things, population growth.

Kessler went on to address the extreme environmental and fiscal cost of wildfires. In 2020, three of the largest wildfires in state history occurred one after another, resulting in catastrophic damage to watersheds and water infrastructures on both sides of the Continental Divide, costing “hundreds of millions of dollars in restoration and mitigation.” Nationwide, wildfires cost the U.S. $16.5 billion in 2020 and $65.7 billion over the last five years alone.

Bennet, the Colorado River Water Conservation District and others called together people from agriculture, water, local and tribal governments, education, environment and business communities to come up with a framework of workable solutions to address climate change, which threatens the way of life on the Western Slope and in the American Southwest. “And if Coloradoans from all walks of life and all political opinions can come together to address this issue,” Kessler said, “leaders in Washington should be able to do the same. This is a huge opportunity for Washington to make a difference but it needs to happen now. Our communities – our way of life – depend on it.”

From there, the thread continued with the situation in Nevada where there were 800 wildfires in 2020 alone. The Reno Fire Chief addressed the scope of wildfires currently burning, including the Tamarac fire – twelve miles from his home – that is the size of Washington D.C.. He worked in Oregon on the Bootleg fire, which is ten times that size.  “And that’s still just a fraction of the ten million acres that burned last year,” he said. “This year, we’re already at Preparedness Level Five. That’s the highest level there is, which means we’ve already tapped out all our resources, and we’re not even in what we used to call the fire season.”

The fire chief spoke about the importance of suppression, the high cost of recovery but, most important, prevention. “This is all related to climate change. Higher temperatures are sucking moisture out of the fuel, which means fires are burning easier, faster, hotter and bigger than ever before.”

From Nevada, the story went to southern Oregon and Mayor Darby Sludd of Talent, Oregon, a town of about 6500 people where 724 homes and dozens of businesses —– a full one-third of the entire town — were burned to the ground by the Alameda wildfire. “People barely escaped, with the fire in their rearview mirrors, and, in some cases, fire literally on their backs. Entire communities were nothing but ash.”

Ten months after the fire, Sludd said rescue and recovery take too long. The impact includes the loss of thirty percent of their students from the school district, finding housing—when there is no housing available -- for several thousand people displaced by the fire, 700 of whom are still living in a hotel and air quality regularly “exceeding a level of 400 which is dangerous” due to other fires that are burning. And the damage from climate change continues as the latest heat wave took more lives.

“We’re not in climate change, we’re in climate chaos,” she said. “And we’re bracing for more to come.”

Heading to Minnesota in the Midwest, there was a story of farmers who are dealing with their second year of drought, a logging industry that is suffering, Boundary Waters are dealing with fires for the first time in history and the famous Gooseberry Falls have slowed to a trickle.

Citizen Josthna Harris spoke of the winters her father experienced in the mid-1960s when snowdrifts were ten feet tall or taller. “Now, we’re seeing the snow disappear. Minnesota has the fastest-warming winters in the country. Climate change is threatening our very way of life, and we are all seeing it. This season, June was the hottest and driest season in recorded history and, as a small farmer, this has me wondering what the future will bring. We have less than a decade to address this critical work, and I’m reminded of that when I look at the face of my children. To our legislators, I say this is the time for you to lead and to hold the voices of the people you serve as you make these critical decisions.”

In southern Connecticut, on the northeastern coast of the U.S., a citizen spoke of Hurricane Elsa – the earliest hurricane in Connecticut’s history – that dropped three to four inches of rain in three to four hours. “It was a serious rain event,” he said.

As a result of the hurricane, a reported a minimum of 89 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the rivers and the Long Island Sound, turning the water a “chocolate brown”, leading to unprecedented levels of pollution and numerous related cases of illness from bacteria. The infrastructure, including the sewage system, is old and in need of repair and incapable of handling extreme weather events resulting from climate change.

Tom Skilling, a famous weatherman from Chicago, discussed the impact of climate change that has been apparent in “compelling evidence”, including a single heatwave that killed 739 people. He spoke of the wildly unprecedented swings of water levels on the Great Lakes that have “put the city of Chicago on the hook for $2 billion from twenty-foot waves that have destroyed the beachfront and swept homes into the lake”, sudden intense storms that have forced Chicago to release raw sewage from swollen pipes into the lakes which “is a nightmare for the millions of people who rely on the lakes for their source of water” followed by extended and intensive heat waves that will drop water level by as much as six feet. He also spoke of farmers in the Midwest– growing 25% of the world’s soybeans, corn and grains – unable to get into their fields until June because of standing water.

Wild swings in spring weather patterns have also led to the Mississippi River flood in 2002, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 when the river was in a constant state of flooding for 235 days, “the longest stretch since records started being kept. The same weather patterns that are causing drought and fires in the west lead to the Midwest getting too wet. Climate change is real.”

The “Extreme Weather Demands Climate Action” livestream event seemed to be an attempt by six members of Congress to break through the chaos of extreme partisanship and a mainstream media too distracted by the day’s news event and to let the people most impacted by climate change tell their stories in the hope that Washington would, finally, listen.

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