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A Blackhawk helicopter is flies over a canyon during a helicopter search of the area around Boulder, Colo., on Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2013. Boulder area officials fear the heavier impacts of climate change disasters on lower income residents. AP Photo/Denver Post, Joe Amon, POOL)

Some of Colorado’s top climate action theorists want to bring more local efforts to bear on the daunting global problem, yet they also bring stories reflecting tangible reasons for local hope. 

Specific climate-related challenges can be attacked with great success, with the 1930s Dust Bowl on the Great Plains and the Southwest as a prime example, experts said last week at an international climate summit co-hosted at the University of Colorado in Boulder. 

“We were facing an ecological catastrophe of absolutely epic proportions,” said panelist Brett KenCairn, the city of Boulder’s senior climate and sustainability coordinator. 

“In fact, if we had fully lost control of the Great Plains ecosystems, we probably would have kicked climate change in even faster. But instead, recognizing that crisis, we mobilized millions of people to plant billions of trees, built hundreds of thousands of check dams” to slow soil erosion, KenCairn said. “We created thousands of little nurseries to grow native plants, and we restored an entire continental ecosystem. We can do this, and we must do this.” 

China recently completed a similar campaign against desertification in its Loess Plateau region, spending 25 years restoring an area “the size of Delaware,” KenCairn added. 

“That is now a vibrant ecological, social and economic system” for China, he said. “And you might say well, OK, that’s China. We can’t do that here. We did it here.”

On Friday at Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit, the “Our Communities and Climate Change” the panel focused on efforts around Boulder to identify the populations most vulnerable to climate change impacts, and what local solutions can realistically tackle those issues. 

Supporting dwindling manufactured home communities is one crucial effort for areas like Boulder dominated by high-priced housing and periodically smacked by weather and disaster, said Crystal Launder, housing senior project manager for the city of Boulder. 

Boulder has about 1,300 manufactured and mobile homes, about 4% of the housing stock, and the lower-income homeowners and renters can be extra vulnerable to flooding, high winds or wildfires, Launder said. About 450 of those homes were damaged by the high winds that fanned the Marshall fire across Boulder County in late 2021. 

Boulder government and nonprofit groups have worked hard to build coalitions giving voice to those residents and connect them with federal disaster or infrastructure grants to support resiliency, Launder said. “We recognize that manufactured housing is an important option for households in this area,” she said.

Working on local land use issues with climate change in mind is just as vital as bigger picture carbon reduction from fossil fuels, KenCairn said. About 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide is released each year worldwide from burning fossil fuels, he said. By comparison, up to 450 gigatons have been released by tearing up the land, either by clear cutting rainforests or overgrazing or draining wetlands. 

Another way to absorb the lesson about maintaining natural climate buffers is to look at the annual release graphs of carbon into the atmosphere. It’s not a steady curve, KenCairn said. It’s a zigzag line, because “the natural world has a respiratory cycle,” releasing 800 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the air each year and reabsorbing slightly more than that. 

“That living system dwarfs what we do as human beings, which is not to say that what we’re doing isn’t important, but it is to say that we want to know what’s truly influencing the atmosphere,” he said. “What in fact actually maintains the dynamic of atmosphere that works for all of us as living beings? It is biological systems.”

That’s why Boulder coalitions work on mapping heat conditions on the ground around the city, and consider where to add tree canopy or take other measures that will mitigate climate change impacts, panelists said. 

Earth is currently operating at only 50% of the “photosynthetic capacity” it had 1,000 years ago, as human activity has removed plants that absorb carbon through biological growth, KenCairn said. “But the good news is, imagine how many more allies we can bring into this work of stabilizing climate, if we restore that 50% of our planet that has been deeply degraded.” 

As hard as some local governments are working on climate change impact, though, the panelists agreed, they will also need to enlist larger forces in helping to pay for cleanup and make the necessary policy changes. Combining both local and larger scale action is happening through the city of Boulder’s lawsuits against ExxonMobil, said moderator Jonathan Koehn, Boulder’s chief sustainability and resilience officer.

But what are the other sources of money to pay for big climate change bills, Koehn asked? 

Michael Booth

Michael Booth is a Colorado Sun reporter covering health, health policy and the environment. Email: Twitter: @MBoothDenver