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Bigger, Hotter, More Extreme: What The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change Report Means For Northern Colorado

Cameron Peak Fire on Aug. 19, 2020.
Poudre Fire Authority
The Cameron Peak Fire became Colorado's largest wildfire on record in 2020.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, is a global body created by the United Nations to provide the world with information about human-caused climate change. The IPCC’s first report on the subject came out more than 30 years ago.

On Monday, the group released its sixth assessment documenting the physical science behind climate change. The highly anticipated report is the product of years of work on the issue by hundreds of scientists from around the world. The report documents an increase in extreme climate events due to rising global temperatures. It also definitively identifies human activity — particularly the burning of fossil fuels that emit carbon — as the cause of those increasing temperatures.

Linda Mearns is a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and a lead author of the report. She spoke with Colorado Edition’s Henry Zimmerman about what this international news means for Northern Colorado.

Max Boykoff is a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado and an author on the yet-to-be-released third installment of the IPCC report. His work focuses on opportunities for climate change mitigation and policy — and that’s what he spoke about with Colorado Edition’s Erin O’Toole.

Interview Highlights
These interviews have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Colorado Edition's Henry Zimmerman speaks with climate scientist Linda Mearns

Henry Zimmerman: Let's start with the topline findings from this report. What are the key takeaways to be thinking about here?

Linda Mearns: We're warming even more quickly than we thought. For example, we're now at a state where there's greater than a 50% chance that the 1.5 degrees Celsius level of warming will be crossed in the early 2030s. And that's very important because it tells us that we have less time to try to adapt and mitigate this problem than we thought we had even just a couple of years ago.

Another key element of the report that I think is somewhat new is the importance of compound extreme events. Now, we all know that extreme events are very important in terms of their impacts — for example, heat waves. We also have, in a lot of the western U.S., droughts going on and these have been going on for a number of years. And finally, we've had a great number of fires and there's indication that fire weather extremes will increase in the future.

So what this means is that for the western U.S., which would certainly include Northern Colorado, we're going to be faced with three different extremes, likely happening at the same time — and that is extreme heat, drought, and higher fire weather.

What other impacts might we see here in Colorado?

There will be continued changes in snow cover. Snow cover will be reduced, the amount of snow will be reduced. And this will affect many mountain ecosystems. It will affect our water resources. It will affect our recreation systems — for example, ski facilities. And so the diminution of snow will be a very important factor here.

Colorado is actually kind of in an interesting position in terms of changes in precipitation. Precipitation will largely be increasing further north of us and then below us — for example, in the Southwest, precipitation will be decreasing, particularly in the summer. But Colorado is in this kind of medium area where there's a lot of uncertainty about how precipitation will change.

Be that as it may, we know temperatures will increase, which means that evapotranspiration will increase. And so, Colorado will be getting drier. And that is bad news for many systems, agriculture, water resources in general. And so the climate changes we're going to see in Colorado are also going to require adaptation and will be hard to manage.

Do you expect to see communities that cannot adapt adequately to these conditions and might that reshape the world we live in?

I think there will be failures to adapt. So I think unless we really get our act together, both in terms of adaptation and mitigation, we're going to have some real problems. We are probably going to have more deaths. Certainly more wildfires that will destroy property, if not cause more deaths. And it's partially because there isn't a unified perception in the U.S. that these are all caused by climate change and that they're going to get worse. But I think, sadly, what will happen is conditions will continue to get worse and more people will simply have to realize that serious adaptation is really important.

There are some simple adaptations that can be done before it gets a lot more serious. Now, agriculture may be more of a problem, because some of the crops, at least in Colorado, are irrigated. Eventually, over time, we may have to change the types of crops that are being grown. So I think there's a lot of room for there to still be adaptation, but we just see a lot of science in other parts of the U.S. Let's take the fact that for the first time in California, farmers have been somewhat restricted in terms of the water available to them for irrigation. And I think those kinds of situations will become more common.

Let's also go back to fire. If next year is as bad as this year and the year before in terms of fire weather, I think people will certainly get a much clearer message — that this is a new regime.

Linda, do you think there is anything to be hopeful about with all of this?

Well, a good colleague of mine — we were discussing a project on Zoom call, of course, and she's situated in the Northwest — she was complaining about the heat. And I said to her, “You've been studying the heat for a long time.” And she said, “Yes, but studying it is very different from experiencing it.” And I think that's a very important perspective. It's a sad situation.

And in my more desperate moments about this — and I'm not exactly speaking as an IPCC scientist when I say this — but sometimes I fear that that the world will not get its act together about this until virtually every person has been personally affected and damaged by an extreme event. Of course, by the time that happens, if that ever happens, it'll be too late.

Where do things go from here? What happens next now that relevant stakeholders and the powers that be have seen this report?

Well, I must say, there's been a great deal more media attention on this report than there have been in earlier reports. And I've been involved in all the reports since the second one in 1995. So I kind of have a long, longitudinal perspective on this. And there's something very different about this, the response to it. It's much more intense, I think, from the media, and hopefully it will be from the public as well.

Luckily, we now have an administration where the problem is being taken seriously again. And you may say, well, he's still not doing enough, but he's doing more than any other president has ever done before, and I find that heartening. And as I said, I found the press interest very heartening. And if you look at the polls of people in the United States, do they believe that climate change is a problem and that we've caused it, the majority do. So there's really been significant changes in the way we look at this and that I find hopeful.

I'm also hopeful because the IPCC itself has changed and it's become much more aware of it as not just interesting science, but a global problem that is threatening all of life on Earth. And I think that more integrated, problem-oriented perspective is a an important change in the conceptual frame of the IPCC.

Colorado Edition's Erin O'Toole speaks with climate scientist Max Boykoff

Erin O’Toole: The panel report that came out on Monday was pretty dire. We've learned about some of the climate impacts that we can expect to experience here in northern Colorado. More extreme and more frequent wildfires, heat and drought, to name a few. So my first question for you is, how inevitable are these changes? Is there still room to save ourselves from the worst of these impacts?

Max Boykoff: We have made commitments to the kinds of concentrations of carbon dioxide we have in the atmosphere. Now, carbon dioxide is one of a basket of greenhouse gases that includes methane as well. That impacts this way in which we see climate change all around us. Emissions from the Model T Ford from back in 1911 are those that we're experiencing and dealing with now, because carbon dioxide has a lifetime in the atmosphere of up to 200 years.

But to the second part of your question, we have many opportunities right now to be addressing the challenges we have before us. The human ingenuity, the technology, the cultural awareness and engagement is greater now in 2021 than it ever has been in years before.

And I want to touch on all of those things. But let's start with some of that technology you mentioned. What do we mean when we talk about the technology of climate mitigation and climate adaptation?

Just to back out a touch more — when I talk about mitigation, it's often just thinking about protecting the climate and environment from us, from our activities. And conversely, when you think about adaptation, it's protecting us from climate and environment. That's just a simple way for everyone to think about it.

So, when we think about mitigation, there are many tools available to us. We can reduce our own emissions in our everyday lives. We can, through policy actions, put in place certain incentives, certain rules for, say, industrial power plants to be reducing their emissions and then also through technology. There's ways in which we can help to reduce those emissions, say, at the smokestack. We can also make switches from coal, oil, natural gas over to renewables.

A big part of mitigation also comes down to policy. Right? So talk us through Colorado's current climate policy.

Colorado has been at the forefront of many policies at the state level that are addressing climate change. And so that is good news. Having said that, I think anyone who's involved in climate policy action from the executive and the governor's office over to the statehouse and Congress will tell you that these are a series of compromises, that these are collective action problems. The policies that we see put in place and implemented, in climate terms, need to be increased, need to be made more stringent, need to be more ambitious.

Colorado has several policies put in place to address the major emitters — we can talk about industrial power plants, power generation, coal and natural gas. We can also then talk about transportation systems. There's a lot of work being done there and there's also work being done that helps pursue further renewable technologies.

And there have been some pretty ambitious emission reduction goals set in recent years. Are we on track to meet those goals?

Well, when you say "we" — if you're thinking about it as a global society, no, we are not on track to meet those goals. It is important to have these goals in mind, but the very important piece is thinking about what are the steps to get from here to there. And that's where important policy decisions made at the local level, made at the state, regional, national and international level, are the very important parts to get us to those goals.

The window of opportunity is closing. And so we need to be taking these kinds of actions right now.

Max, the climate problem can seem really big and it's easy to start feeling a little bit hopeless as we think about it as individuals. But a lot of people do want to help. Are there actions that people can take in their personal lives that can make a substantial dent in this problem?

I can understand how people may feel overwhelmed. I mean, the facts are that we have not seen this level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere for 4 million years. Eight of the 10 warmest years on record have come in the last decade. These are the realities. These are the challenges.

Even though we aren't most likely influential decision makers, we still have opportunities every hour, every day, every week, every month of every year to start to make the kind of changes that are necessary in our lives. By that, I mean the food that we choose to eat. That's not just whether we eat meat or not. It's also where we are getting our food from. What kind of water demands are being made in the places where food is being grown.

It's also the clothes that we choose to wear or that we choose to buy. Textiles and clothing make up 10% of global emissions. These are choices that we can make on a daily basis.

These conversations are part of KUNC’s Colorado Edition for Aug. 10 and Aug. 11. You can find the full episodes here and here.

KUNC's Colorado Edition is a daily look at the stories, news, people and issues important to you. It's a window to the communities along the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
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