Climate change impacts on Colorado economy: where to go from here?

By Leah Thayer 

NORTH FORK VALLEY-  Questions ring in the minds of Coloradans as changes and uncertainty rise in the state. We are living in an age where scientists warn the earth could warm somewhere between 1.5-5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The latest national climate assessment says such a rise in temperatures would result in “substantial net damage to the U.S. economy throughout this century.”

“The race for our lives is very much on,” says Amory Lovins, chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute and strong advocate for efficient, renewable energy.

Agriculture, tourism, and mining represent three out of the four greatest economic drivers for Colorado, and because of this, the state will see many sectors of its economy being especially impacted by the acceleration of climate warming.

The agricultural sector of Colorado’s economy is being greatly impacted by climate, which is manifesting itself in water insecurity. Water is becoming increasingly scarce in agricultural valleys, causing costs for farmers to rise, and profits to be impacted by the necessity to grow crops that are less market-favored.

“I can see the writing on the wall, and the clock is continuously ticking,” says Cleave Simpson, general manager of the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, on the valley’s dwindling water resources.

As one of our most precious resources, water is impacting multiple aspects of the Colorado economy in addition to agriculture, specifically as it pertains to outdoor recreation.

In 2018, the tourism and recreation industry in Colorado generated $22.3 billion, a large percentage of the state’s total revenue, that will likely be reduced by climate impacts on outdoor recreation. Such impacts include unpredictable snowpack for ski areas, increasing expenses on artificial snow making, and busier summer seasons.

“There’s impacts to everything here, a lot of what we do now has to do with climate change,” says Sue Navy, Board President of High Country Conservation Advocates and Crested Butte resident of nearly 50 years.

The burning of coal accounts for 72% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. It also accounts for 4.8% of Colorado’s economic outputs and 5.4% of the state’s jobs.

With coal plants closing their doors nationwide, people in the industry are preparing for great economic changes.

“It’s a finite resource, we only have so much coal,” says Kathy Welt, environmental engineer at the West Elk Mine in Somerset, adding that the mine only has about 10-15 operational years left. With the coal industry on its way out, many are looking to renewables as an alternative source for energy and economic growth.

At Solar Energy International (SEI), a solar instillation trade school in Paonia, they are working to create an “economic revitalization through solar efforts.”

“As we saw the coal mines shutting down in this valley, we saw an opportunity to inject renewable energy,” says SEI staff member Pete Mueller.

There are methods to achieve solutions to the climate crisis before Colorado experiences these huge hits to its economy. But, many are left wondering; when are we going to see tangible action?

For many people, climate change is not and will not be a priority until it’s knocking on their front door. Whether it’s the terrible snow ruining your family tradition of skiing on Christmas, or the new expensive price of produce forcing your kids to eat cheap, unhealthy foods, or a coal plant-shut down forcing your family to move states; everybody is affected by climate change.

So, where do we go from here?

In the face of such dramatic change and uncertainty, it is easy to lose hope for a solution. But, around the world people are beginning to wake up and see the urgency of the climate crisis. The younger generations are demanding action from policy makers and global leaders.

“It’ll be the work of our lives,” says Auden Schendler, climate activist and vice president of Sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company. Schendler, along with many other Coloradans, sees this work as an amazing opportunity, for those of us who care to leave an incredible legacy for future generations, a legacy of saving our planet.

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