Environmentalists search for silver linings
November 18, 2016
On Tuesday the temperature in Salt Lake City reached 73 degrees, a record for the date and the hottest temperature ever recorded that late in the year. Park City Mountain Resort had already postponed its opening date from Nov. 18 to Nov. 26. Needless to say, the ski slopes were bare. Climate change, anyone?
Exactly one week earlier, the Electoral College had named Donald J. Trump as the next President of the United States. Trump, of course, is the man who announced last May that, if elected, he would immediately "cancel the Paris Climate Agreement and stop all payments of U.S. tax dollars to U.N. global-warming programs."
It wasn't a great day to be an environmentalist. Or a skier, for that matter. So there was plenty to whine about over wine at Recycle Utah's "Green Drinks" gathering Tuesday evening at Aloha Ski and Snowboard's Main Street location. Gallows humor crept into many conversations.
"I've been doing this for 27 years," said National Weather Service hydrologist Brian McInerney, "and in one evening it all went out the window. And I find that crushing. I'm still not sleeping so hot. I try and blow this off and ride my bike and drink two beers at once."
I think a lot of us are wondering what we can do, whether it’s hopeless. And what I will say is the government that affects you the most is local government. And where we can make a difference is here and now.” – Andy Beerman, Park City Council
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Appropriately, the featured speakers were McInerney and Andy Beerman, two Park City residents who are well versed in the history of global warming and the city's concerted attempts to stem the tide.
McInerney said he can remember the days before climate change became a political football.
"The science was straightforward, it was easy to understand and it was well done," he said. "And I would give talks on this (subject) in the early '90s and it wasn't a problem. It was like any other subject. Then it got politicized and things changed and it was hard."
Hammered on talk radio
That realization hit him one day, he said, when he was invited to answer questions on a two-hour radio show.
"They called me up and said, 'Can you talk about climate change?' And it was 6:30 a.m., K-TALK radio. I go into the studio and for two hours I got hammered. It broke the call record. People were yelling at me and just going huge, and I thought, why is there so much anger with this issue?"
"My boss during the George Bush era didn't want me talking about this at all, so I'd sneak it in with water talks all the time," he said.
More than 97 percent of climate scientists now agree that global warming is real, according to McInerney. "You can't even get 100 percent of the people to agree on gravity, let alone if this is a real gig. So it's happening. We're causing it. There's no discussion amongst the scientific community and has not been for at least five to ten years."
The rate of warming, he said, will depend how we respond to the problem.
Twelve degrees warmer by 2100?
"The low-emissions scenario is going to warm Salt Lake City by seven degrees (Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. The high-emissions scenario, which appears where we're headed now with the new administration, is 12 degrees."
Last summer, he said, Salt Lake City had a string of 21 straight days when temperatures reached at least 95 degrees. Apply the "high-emissions scenario" and you get three consecutive weeks of 107 degrees or higher by 2100.
"We're going to see areas that are (now) 100 percent snow-covered in December, January (and) February are only going to be 50 percent snow-covered starting in 2035. We're at 2016. That's 19 years from now. The young people in the audience that are skiers, they're going to have a hard time getting to the base areas of Park City, Powder Mountain, Beaver Mountain, some of these lower-elevation areas," he said.
Snow is already turning to rain
"Park City has this fabulous energy that we all embrace and live here. And yet that's going to go away. Skiing's going to go away. We're going to be a rain-driven hydrology, and it's happening right now. The fraction of precipitation that occurs during the winter months is evolving to that of a rain-driven hydrology. So roughly about 2070, 2080, we'll be about 60, 70 percent rain in the wintertime. We won't see snow as much as we have, and that's happening right now," he said.
"I don't mean to depress everybody," McInerney said. "But think of your children, think of your grandkids, think what you can do on this issue. The political leaders need to understand that the people of the world are going to be affected by this. We can change it. We can turn it around."
With the Trump administration due in Washington in two months, the focus of some activists is shifting more to local government where they feel they can have an impact. Park City Councilman Andy Beerman says climate change became a "critical priority" for the city about a year ago.
"During the Paris (climate) discussions this community came out in force," Beerman said. "They told us that this is an issue that we can no longer ignore. It was something we needed to take action on. And many of you were there and I thank you because council responded, and we decided to make this a critical priority. What does a critical priority mean? It's something that we feel like, if we don't take immediate and aggressive action on, we will lose it forever. … So a year ago we set our energy goal in place."
City invests in wind and solar
The city has set its sights on going "net zero" on its own energy consumption by 2022, which means starting with conservation and then replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.
"We think it is impossible with current technology today to produce no carbon," Beerman said. "So we're looking at ways as a city that we can produce enough renewable energy that we can offset what we use." The city's goal is to see the whole community reach net zero by 2032.
"We think as a city that through conservation we can improve about 30 percent, reduce our energy use by 30 about percent. That's something that we're working on internally aggressively right now, and we're working with the whole community. Secondly, we have to figure out how do we get clean, renewable energy."
With solar panels already in place at many city facilities, including City Hall, the PC MARC and the public-works building, and contracts to buy wind power from Rocky Mountain Power, about 15 percent of city power is now renewable, Beerman said.
"Rocky Mountain Power is (also) building a large solar plant down in central Utah, and they have what's called a subscriber solar plan, he said. "The city is heavily invested in that. … We are going to take (renewables) up to 67 percent of our entire footprint by the end of 2017, I believe, because of our investment in this subscriber solar program."
Some of that solar power will replace diesel in the city's bus fleet.
Electric buses are on the way
"Starting probably in February we're going to have six Proterra electric buses arriving," he said. "That's something we're pretty excited about. So we will have a new express route from Kimball Junction running on these six electric buses, and we hope to replace our entire fleet in the next 10 years with about 50 electric buses — all the more important why we have to negotiate to get clean renewable power for the town."
Beerman said the city is also negotiating with Rocky Mountain Power to build a dedicated utility to supply the town with renewable power.
"And that utility will be a solar utility with, hopefully, some wind backup. … We want one built specifically for our community, and we're asking them to work with us on passing state legislation where we can run a referendum as a community and choose if we want all renewable energy." That scenario would give residents the ability to "opt out" of the program, he said.
However, with the Trump administration threatening to push climate discussions back into the dark ages, what difference can Park City make?
"It is our hope that we can be used as a test case here, and we can be used as an example, Beerman said. "That we can show that it's practical. This is something everybody can implement. That it's profitable. It's something you could actually, in the long term, make money on. And it's replicable. Communities of all size can do this."
Salt Lake City is also taking steps to reduce its footprint, he said.
Creating a movement
"Aspen has taken on similar goals, and Aspen and Park City recently spoke to a group of ski towns in Colorado recruiting others to do this. So by ourselves we're not going to make a difference. We are going to feel better about things. But part of our goal here is to crow about it, to prove it can work and to create a movement. So that's all we can really do right now," he said.
"And that kind of brings me around to the last week. It's been a crazy week for many of us. And by all signs it's going to be a setback on climate change and other environmental movements. I think a lot of us are wondering what we can do, whether it's hopeless. And what I will say is the government that affects you the most is local government. And where we can make a difference is here and now. And we should use the tools we have and the opportunities we have to make a difference, because it isn't going to start on a national level. It's going to have to come grass-roots.
"So I encourage everybody that's frustrated to double down, to focus, and decide how you can make a difference right here, and we can start our own movements, and we can weather this."
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