Choking on smoke from faraway wildfires and digesting September’s United Nations International Panel on Climate Change report, it’s clear we’ve got a warming problem in the West.
The good news is we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle this crisis in a way that puts people back to work – but only if Sens. John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet use their votes to help pass the budget reconciliation bill with renewable energy, jobs and infrastructure as a priority.
As a leader in the ski and ride industry, and a researcher studying climate change, we can tell you that the Mountain West is the perfect example of how fossil-fuel driven warming is wreaking havoc. But the fix, unlike the politics, simply shouldn’t be partisan.
Damaged infrastructure is everyone’s problem. Interstate 70 has been closed on-and-off for months in Glenwood Canyon due to mud and rock slides in the Grizzly Creek Fire burn scar area. Not only has it been inconvenient for locals, tourists and truckers transporting food and other necessities, but the overall hit to the Colorado economy is expected to be astronomical.
Conventional infrastructure bills traditionally fund roads and bridges – but in a climate changed world, highways are buckling in the heat and getting washed out by floods. We need a new, more resilient approach to climate change baked into the projects themselves.
The changes we’re seeing in the climate also are making conventional Western environmentalism — often led by conservatives — obsolete. For more than a century, it was good enough to create wilderness and monuments to protect lakes and rivers. Those parks and waterways drove a robust regional economy.
But iconic places are now at risk. Last year, wildfires burned the southwest side of Rocky Mountain National Park and threatened it from the north. Glacier National Park recently had to evacuate visitors, and Yosemite burns annually. It’s no longer enough to set aside land and water, because a warmer world is making our landscapes and economies unrecognizable.
Colorado’s outdoor recreation industry depends on optimal climate and weather conditions to generate $37 billion and well over a half a million jobs in the state. Colorado’s 32 winter resorts – with some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the world – depend on halting the warming that decreases snowfall, shortens the season, and threatens mountain communities with wildfire and flood. Likewise, river rafters, fishing/hunting guides and other outfitters are seeing a brutal truth: in a warmer world, you need more rain and snow just to stay even. And we’re not getting it.
A truly robust climate-funding agenda would not only protect our outdoor economies, but address creeping equity challenges and job security. Skyrocketing housing prices over the last decade have relegated many to neighborhoods near heavy industry and next to highways. Breathing dirty air has led to higher asthma cases among children of color and whole families are, in some locations, drinking water from decrepit lead pipes. And while workers in the coal and oil & gas industry are glad for the jobs, they have been at the mercy of as many bust cycles as they have been the beneficiaries of booms.
A bill that addresses all these issues should include:
- Electricity-grid improvements supporting wind and solar farms, and jobs for laid-off miners
- Clean, resilient energy storage – pumped hydro, battery farms, maybe even wind-to-hydrogen
- Green energy development that leverages fossil fuel industry workers’ technical skills
- Electric buses and high-speed rail to cut emissions, thus preventing 4,200 deaths nationwide and saving $100 billion in health damage each year
- A Civilian Climate Corps – similar to the beloved Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s – to provide a new generation impacted by climate change with a living wage and benefits
- Replacement of the nation’s lead pipes to ensure that a water supply threatened by climate is not also toxic
For every dollar we invest, we protect the West’s outdoor heritage, update our infrastructure, create good-paying jobs and clean up our air and water. Land conservationists, outdoor enthusiasts, business owners, road-warriors, tourists, families – and frankly, rock-ribbed conservatives too – should want to join the chorus for a budget deal that meets the crisis of our time. We need every penny of the proposed $3.5 trillion investment.
We’re looking to Sens. Bennet and Hickenlooper to champion climate change initiatives in the budget reconciliation bill, and hope other Western Senators – especially Republicans – follow. An ambitious and hopeful bill will help us all better prepare for the warmer, more chaotic future that has already arrived.
Auden Schendler, of Basalt, is Aspen Skiing Company’s senior vice president of sustainability and author of “Getting Green Done.” Bob Wilson, of Syracuse, N.Y., is associate professor of geography and the environment in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.
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