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JACKSON, WYO – Climate change may devastate Jackson Hole economy unless leaders act decisively
Wyoming’s buried wealth, a rich store of carbon fossil fuels, amounts to the state’s goose that laid the golden egg, lining coffers generously with $2.8 billion in projected revenue for 2014-15. Paradoxically, Jackson Hole’s gilded goose arguably is snow.
From “cold smoke powder” winters that melt into raging spring rapids to summer’s cool blue-ribbon trout riffles that flank vast, lush expanses of Autumn’s choicest wild game habitat, year-round, abundant cold snow fuels both Jackson’s recreation economy, and it’s unparalleled wild ecology. However, current climate trends threaten to eliminate snow in Jackson Hole and in mountain towns across the nation. Undaunted, Jackson Hole business, government and citizen leaders are engaging decisive actions to affect significant change.
Greenhouse to hothouse
Human-caused greenhouse gas emissions grew nearly twice as fast over the past decade than in the previous 30 years, bringing the world closer to warming that will cause globally disruptive, catastrophic effects, according to the third International Panel on Climate Change report. Due for official release on July 15, the report, leaked to the press last month, establishes scientific foundation for anticipated United Nations climate change treaty negotiations in 2015.
According to the National Aeronautics Space Administration, 97 percent of climate scientists worldwide attribute the past century’s warming trends primarily to human activities expanding the “greenhouse effect,” whereby Earth’s atmosphere traps heat radiating outward towards space. Since the Industrial Age, burning fossil fuels like coal and oil has increased the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, NASA explains, because the combustion process releases carbon, which mixes with oxygen in the air to form carbon dioxide. Deforestation further increases Earth’s greenhouse gas concentration, NASA notes. Leading scientific organizations worldwide have issued public statements endorsing this position.
In September the IPCC’s first report determined conclusively that human activity causes climate change. On March 29, the second IPCC report warned unabated climate change threatens humanity, jeopardizing food and water security, potentially prompting wars and mass migrations, species extinctions and other major adverse impacts on plants, oceans, and wildlife.
Intended to focus on solutions, the leaked third and final IPCC report clarifies the magnitude of the crisis, and the unprepared nature of governments to implement real solutions to deal with it. The report emphasizes any delay in cutting emissions by 2030 will gravely hamper humanity’s ability to avoid severe consequences.
“If not now, when?” Jackson Mayor Mark Barron asked. “Municipalities utilize 75 percent of the world’s energy. I personally believe climate change is a reality, but it doesn’t matter what I believe – my job is to squeeze more out of my budget, and our responsibility [as mayors] is to make change happen – we are the front line.”
Barron, who directed key staff to initiate change in the cultural beliefs of 380 town employees, demonstrates that conserving energy to protect the environment and saving money go hand in hand. Since 2006, Jackson’s town government has reduced electricity demand by 20 percent, Diesel use by 33 percent, and gasoline consumption by 22 percent, with a total cost savings of $609,790. Barron says “climate change” is a divisive issue, but everyone agrees with saving money.
Beyond Jackson, however, climate change is often considered an anti-business four-letter word in the rural west. But to avid Jackson Hole skiers, it’s a serious wake up call, and many have rallied to lead the charge to change doubtful cultural beliefs about climate change.
Three years ago, local skier Ned Hutchinson, senior product manager for Mountain Khakis, a homegrown Jackson Hole-based clothing manufacturer, came up with the concept of a book on the evolution of modern skiing and how the industry has been driven by the counter culture, like in Jackson Hole, rather than World Cup skiers.
“But,” Hutchinson said, “I’ve always been an environmental advocate and cared about how climate change affects the Rocky Mountains. I figured I should write a book, but it would take about three years for me to learn how to write it, and probably cost me my marriage. So I talked to my partner, Steve Tatigian, and we approached Porter Fox, and he said, ‘Not only do I want to do this, but I think I have too.’ It became a story we felt that we really needed to get out there.”
Fox laid out the facts
“Climate change happens in step changes, a big change every decade, the general warming trend is an upward incline, the gradual line is all over the place,” said Fox, a seasoned Jackson Hole skier and journalist, and author of Deep – The Story of Skiing and The Future of Snow. “We’re talking about a proven record [of rising average global temperatures] over the last two centuries.”
Hutchinson said Deep “dove-tailed perfectly into what Protect Our Winters was doing, and now they’re using the book as kind of a calling card for their purpose.”
Protect Our Winters was founded by world champion pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones in 2007 to mobilize the winter sports community to combat climate change. Shredding the Tetons inspired Jones, and his brothers Todd and Steve, who created the local ski film production empire Teton Gravity Research, to spread the word and do something about climate change.
Spreading the word
Fox notes that nine of the ten warmest years on record have occurred since 2000, and solid scientific evidence suggests climate change risks reducing the Western U.S. snowpack 25 to 100 percent by the year 2100. The National Ski Areas Association estimates U.S. ski areas generate approximately $12.2 billion in annual revenue and employ 160,000, but not if the snowpack vanishes.
Fox’s research led him to reports that indicate half of the 103 Northeast U.S. ski areas will be forced to close in the next 30 years due to rising temperatures, and the Pacific Northwest could receive 40 to 70 percent less snow by 2050. Spring snow cover in the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere has shrunk on average by one million square miles in the last 45 years, according to a Rutgers University Global Snow Lab report. Heat-stressed California could face an agricultural collapse if snow disappears.
The Tetons have fared relatively well in terms of snow recently, Fox said, and sit in a sweet spot that the latest NOAA models say might stay relatively snowy over the next 70 years. Fox was careful to note that it depends where the clouds go. Changes in the jet stream are relatively unpredictable.
“2012 was the warmest year in Wyoming history, and the snowline is clearly moving up,” Fox said, quoting from Deep. “Snowfall in the town of Jackson is down around seven percent over the last 50 years, and those numbers do not include the warm years of 2000–13.”
It’s so difficult to project things regionally because it’s so mathematically complex, Fox said. “Down scaling to account for differences in every region is so complex, they’re still trying to figure it out, hind-casting 50 years back to predict what might happen going forward. There’s not a lot of data in Jackson Hole,” he said.
Fox notes that glaciers in Wyoming’s Wind River and Teton ranges have been receding, while the state funds cloud-seeding and snowmaking projects, including a grant to expand snowmaking at downtown Jackson’s Snow King Resort.
Wyoming NOAA hydrologist Jim Fahey, who has studied snowpack across the state since the 1990s, told Fox the numbers are pretty clear. The snowpack from 7,500 to 11,000 feet has been below average since 1999, by 15 to 20 percent, and it’s warming up earlier in the spring, two to three weeks ahead of schedule.
“The snowpack calendar used to run from mid-October to the middle of May; now it’s mid-November or early December to early May or late April,” Fox quotes Fahey in Deep. “That’s a month and a half to two months less snow accumulation. That’s a big deal. Call it global warming or whatever you want, but there’s some kind of change happening with the climate. It’s a whole new ball game.”
Humans aren’t the only ones stressing out over climate change. Local wildlife species adapted to the colder environment, particularly grizzly bears and members of the deer family, including elk and moose, do not tolerate heat well. Grizzlies require snow to den in winter. Native fish populations also suffer as temperatures rise.
Because warm water holds less oxygen, fish experience stress as temperatures rise. For example, rainbow trout stop growing at 73 degrees. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, climate change affects trout populations throughout the West. In some locations where the trout populations are particularly vulnerable, NRDC predicts suitable trout habitat could decline by 70 percent or more over the next 50 to 100 years.
Compared to a 1.3 percent per year increase over a 40-year period from 1970-2010, the most recent IPCC report notes that global CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels grew 3 percent in 2010-11 alone, well above the 2.2 percent per year increased average during 2000 to 2010. The report attributes the substantial CO2 increase to the large number of new operational coal-fired power plants. More than 1,000 new plants are currently under construction worldwide, most earmarked for China and India.
China accounts for about 15 percent of total global CO2 emissions from coal, which produces two-thirds of its electricity, according to the report, which notes increased coal use in developing countries, Germany, Britain and France, due to low coal cost.
Current practices will lead to three to five degrees Celsius average global temperature rises above pre-industrial levels, causing accelerated sea level rise and catastrophic effects on water resources and agricultural productivity, the report warns. The maximum temperature increase target goal established in order to avoid dangerous climate change is only two degrees Celsius.
To meet the two-degree target, global greenhouse gas emissions would need to fall by 40 to 70 percent, requiring massive, global, technological, institutional and energy infrastructure changes. The report calls for a tripling or quadrupling, by 2050, of cleaner electricity sources, along with carbon capture and storage, and the aggressive pursuit of energy efficiency opportunities.
Jackson State Representative Ruth Ann Petroff says she believes in the science of climate change and would probably take a more extreme position in the Wyoming State Legislature if she though it would make a difference. “But I don’t want to be screaming from the sidelines, I want to help push things forward,” she said.
Petroff appreciates the fossil fuel companies doing business in Wyoming. “I don’t think teaching climate change is antibusiness. We can appreciate the companies that are here providing jobs, contributing to our communities, and we can appreciate what they’re doing in bringing revenue to the state, and still acknowledge there is a problem with carbon emissions, and that climate change is real, and the two aren’t incongruous,” she said.
“How do we give third word countries the energy they need, while not adding carbon to the atmosphere and our climate problem?” Petroff asked. “I see natural gas as being part of the solution – if you can reduce carbon by a third, then we can’t turn our back on it,” she said.
Petroff noted Governor Matt Mead asked for an appropriation specifically to advance carbon capture technology on coal-fired power plants. “We are using some of our wealth to do that,” Petroff said. “And funding energy sciences at UW that benefit business and the environment. Without the income we have from coal, we can’t invest in that. We have low-sulfur coal, so we’re using cleaner coal to advance our educational investment.”
Regarding carrots, Petroff said the State Energy Office had money that communities and individuals could access to do renewable projects. However, “We didn’t have enough demand to give out the money and we had to return some of it. Nobody’s really acted on it, not in the way Jackson has.”
Barron praised Jackson Hole Mountain Resort President Jerry Blann’s leadership, noting that JHMR achieved the Golden Eagle Award from the National Ski Areas Association, the highest award for environmental performance in the ski industry. Barron applauded JHMR for receiving their award without a single demerit.
JHMR was one of the first of 108 U.S. ski areas to sign a Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy climate declaration, demanding U.S. policy action on climate change.