It was a complicated year for climate change and clean-air policy.
As America rolls into 2017, climate warriors on both sides prepare for battle. Before the fighting breaks out, it behooves the nation to reflect on where things stand in the final days of 2016. It was a complicated year for climate change and clean-air policy, though probably not a watershed one.
The worst news is that temperatures continue to increase — 2016 will likely be the warmest year on record, breaking the record for the third year in a row. Even if we just miss it, the upward trend of global temperatures overall continues at a perilous rate.
And as the planet sits a couple of degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels, real impacts are emerging. In Colorado it’s born out through diminished snowpack in the mountains, drought and heat-induced wildfires and pine beetles and now spruce beetles devastating our forests. Although 2016 was a great year in the state for precipitation, the EPA says April snowpack has declined by 23 percent over the past 61 years in the West in part due to warming temperatures.
Even more startling are changes at the top and bottom of the world. In the Arctic, water temperatures are as much as 9 degrees warmer than the 30-year average, and sea ice late in the year has been at a record minimum. In the Antarctic, glacial melting is happening at a startling rate, threatening unprecedented seal level rise.
Bad climate news isn’t always so obvious, though. This year, Volkswagen reached a settlement with its customers and the federal government over the company’s diesel cars that had illegally high emissions. VW will buy back most of the vehicles. The settlement includes a hefty payment to the Environmental Protection Agency to offset the negative impacts the emissions had.
The year had some climate bright spots.
The brightest was ratification of the Paris climate agreement. The United States joined with nearly 200 other countries in a commitment to limit temperature increases. No one country can solve the global threat of climate change. International collaboration and shared responsibility must be cornerstones of serious attempts to prevent catastrophic outcomes.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan continues to promise overdue regulation to some of the worst polluters. Unfortunately, the whole thing is in limbo, thanks in no small part to opposition from officials in several states, including Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman.
And Colorado’s Gov. John Hickenlooper will have to decide what to do with that draft executive order that was leaked in August. It would call for a 35 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from power companies by 2030. That would be a big step for the state, but only if Hickenlooper can truly implement it in a way that wouldn’t mean job-killing cost increases for operators and pocketbook-breaking rate hikes for consumers.
The EPA took clean air standards into its own hands this year, lowering the allowable levels of ozone. We thought the new standards, which are beyond the reach of Denver and much of the Front Range due to background levels of ozone settling here from other parts of the country, went too far. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t concerned with the quality of air in Denver and the health consequences of high ozone levels.
The world must come together to address climate change and clean air. No single city, state or country will reverse the manmade contributions to global warming or the advent of smog alone, but we also can’t sit on the sidelines and blame others for our current predicament.
Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman was one of several state AGs who is suing the EPA over the Clean Power Plan. Brent Lewis, Denver Post file