After Copenhagen: panel of Boulder experts offer candid views, some optimism

With national governments stumbling, focus shifts to local action

| Jan 20, 2010


CLIMATE CONCERN: A packed house of invited guests heard local climate experts. (Reporter photo)

On Sunday, Jan. 17, approximately 120 people crowded into the home of Dan Friedlander and Diane Rosenthal for a panel discussion, “Copenhagen and Congress – Next Steps,” organized by Shanahan Neighbors for Climate Action. The panel was convened for community members to join in a discussion with local leaders and delegates to the U.N. International Climate Talks in Copenhagen about outcomes and next steps.

The panelists were: Hunter Lovins, President and Founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions; James Balog, Director of the Extreme Ice Survey; and two City of Boulder staff members, David Driskell, Executive Director of Community Planning and Sustainability; and Jonathan Koehn, Regional Sustainability Coordinator. The panelists were asked to discuss their experiences in Copenhagen, as well as expectations and hopes for the coming months at the local, national, and international levels.

“We know that efforts at all of these levels will greatly impact one another, and the science tells us that we have very little time to reduce emissions to safe levels in order to prevent catastrophic impacts,” said moderator Micah Parkin, who serves on the Shanahan group’s events committee and is the Colorado Organizer for 1Sky, a national climate and clean energy campaign. “Therefore, bold and swift progress at all levels of community and Government are essential.”

Synopsis of questions and answers

Q: First, could you all please share with us why you went to Copenhagen, your experiences there, and if you were satisfied or disappointed with the outcome?

Hunter Lovins: local expert on panel

Hunter Lovins

A: The panelists expressed frustration with the overall lack of progress at the International Talks, both in terms of outcomes and procedures. It was chaos, with many registered participants having difficulty or no ability to take part in the discussions or even to get into the Bella Center. Nevertheless, the “Copenhagen Accord” did provide for the first commitments from important developing nations to keep temperature increases to no more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels and there were opportunities for information and best practices sharing among cities.

Q: What is the current state of the science and how concerned is the scientific community with our leader’s progress?

A: The scientific community continues to see the impacts around the world of human-induced climate change and is very concerned about the lack of firm commitments to emission reductions needed to prevent catastrophic impacts.

Q: At the end of the conference, during the round-the-clock negotiations that ended Saturday Dec. 19th, Pres. Obama and his team worked with the leaders of China, India, Brazil, South Africa and about 20 other countries to commit to emission cuts that will be open to international review. Can you tell us more about what exactly was agreed to in the “Copenhagen Accord” and what the next steps will need to be to achieve a binding international agreement?

A: The Copenhagen Accord should result in pledges that countries big and small are making to curtail their emissions. For the major developing economies, it means they have made first-ever commitments for greenhouse gas reductions that are subject to “international consultations and analysis.” This is a first step, but much more will need to be done to arrive at a binding international agreement. Particularly important to arriving at a binding International Agreement is U.S. Congress passing legislation (currently stagnant in Senate) to curb greenhouse gas emissions and retaining EPA authority to regulate carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act should Congress fail to act or should a bill emerge that is too weak to have the necessary impacts on emissions.

Q: In Copenhagen, the Obama administration never strayed from the reality that Congress has not passed final climate legislation. It was a hard-line stance that meant the United States could not go as far as many world leaders wanted in the hope of reaching a legally binding treaty at the conclusion of the two-week, U.N.-led summit. With health care passed in the Senate, and Senators back at home, the 2010 legislative calendar is still fairly fluid. However we know that many senators are looking toward their Fall election campaigns now and that there are competing priorities on the table. There is a growing concern for our leaders to make sure climate is addressed this year well before the mid-term elections take over. Some pundits have become less confident that a comprehensive climate bill will be considered this year. Others point out that a substantial amount of momentum for a climate and energy bill remains:

The New Republic offers an in-depth look at the momentum behind a climate bill.
• The Hill notes that one of the most vulnerable moderate Democrats, Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA), is pushing for a climate vote this year.
• Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is refusing to bend to political pressure against climate action.
• Climate champions like Senator John Kerry (D-MA) have been pointing to Copenhagen as a reason to keep pushing for action:

“Not a chance in hell that after the president put American prestige on the line in Copenhagen that the Senate is going to give this issue anything less than a major push. This is big — big — bigger than any individual agenda. Big. The 111th Congress is not a one-trick pony incapable of tackling more than one big issue, and the cost of tackling climate change would only grow if the Senate got weak-kneed and kicked the can down the road. Not going to happen.”
How important do you all think passing climate legislation in Congress is at this point in history is, and do you think it is essential for arriving at an aggressive, binding international agreement?

James Balog: Boulder-based expert on world's ice fields

Ice expert James Balog

A: Very and yes. A simple and important action that everyone can take is to write a hand-written letter or make a phone call to Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet in the next couple of days and let them know if you want them to prioritize passing climate and clean energy legislation this spring and to oppose Sen. Murkowski’s (R-AK) proposal to prevent EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Air Act.

Q: What factors do you see that would transform today’s climate concerns into a mass movement with enough power to dominate the political debate?

A: Perhaps a large global warming-induced disaster? (Although it was noted that Hurricane Katrina didn’t work – the intensity of hurricanes has increased over the last 30 years has increased likely due to warmer oceans.) A serious movement of the people. People working at the local level to make the necessary changes.

Q: Regardless of a new international climate agreement, how can Boulder achieve the Kyoto goal of a 7% decrease in carbon emissions below the 1990 levels by 2012, will the city need to decarbonize it’s electric supply to reach this goal, and are city officials already beginning to think of future goals – Copenhagen and beyond?

A: In Copenhagen, our Boulder delegates were surprised by how many people from around the world were aware of Boulder’s commitment and actions to achieve the Kyoto goal. They were able to share valuable information and lessons learned with others and believe that this kind of information sharing is critical to reducing emissions at the community level – especially in the absence of national and international regulations. Boulder has revised its Climate Action Programs, which now includes a 2 Techs in a Truck program, and programs and mandates for increasing the energy efficiency of building, including rental buildings and residences, are under way.

The city is looking at ways to increase the renewable energy provided to the city, which would greatly assist the city in meeting its climate goals. The city is looking at solar gardens, negotiating with Xcel Energy regarding its franchise agreement, and will convene its Decarbonization Technical Team next week to discuss opportunities more. One such opportunity that was presented by attorney Susan Perkins at a Clean Energy Action meeting Jan. 14th is Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). Under CCA, communities can choose their rate structure and energy sources, thereby selecting more renewable energy and lowering their carbon emissions. The utility company (in our case Xcel Energy) retains the grid and its maintenance. Many refer to CCA as “muni-lite”, since the city does not buy out the utility grid and infrastructure, which saves money. Ms. Perkins stated that there appear to be no benefits, and potentially many drawbacks, for the City of Boulder to re-enter into a franchise agreement with Xcel Energy at this point. Xcel is required to continue providing power and returning a franchise fee, which is collected from Boulder’s ratepayers on their monthly bills, to the City, until such time as the City of Boulder purchases power from other sources. One caveat is that this structure – CCA – is not currently approved under Colorado Law. Therefore, for the City to go this direction, the state Legislature would need to pass authorizing legislation.

Yes, some are thinking of reducing emissions beyond Kyoto goals.

Audience questions and discussion with panelists

Several audience members pressed the panelists on opportunities for decarbonizing the electric supply to the city and on the importance of making franchise negotiations more transparent and involving input from community members.

The lack of business participation in Copenhagen was discussed, with the exception of Danish companies. The success story of the Danes, who have made renewable energy a hallmark of their country’s successful energy and economic strategies, was discussed.

Participants asked how to become more involved in meaningful action. It was suggested to sign up with the following groups, in addition to Shanahan Neighbors for Climate Action:
1) 1Sky: contact Micah Parkin, [email protected]
2) Clean Energy Action: contact Andy Lenec, alenec {at]
3) Mothers Acting Up: contact Joellen Raderstorf, joellen [at]
These groups provide information, opportunities to take action, and trainings for concerned citizens.

Action Item

Each month, Shanahan Neighbors for Climate Action provides meeting participants with an opportunity to take action. This month the group’s members are calling our U.S. Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet express their opposition to Sen. Murkowski’s proposed amendment to take away EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions through the Clean Air Act and to urge the Senators to prioritize passing climate legislation this spring.

Background On April 2, 2007, in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007), the Supreme Court found that greenhouse gases are air pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act. This important finding would allow the Obama Administration to take the lead on curbing greenhouse gases if Congress fails to act this year. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) has proposed offering an amendment this week to an unrelated bill which would bar the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. Washington Post and other news sources have confirmed that two Washington lobbyists helped craft the original amendment Murkowski planned to offer on the floor last fall.

To Take Action: Making a call to U.S. Senators Udall and Bennet. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (R-AK) proposed amendment would bar the EPA from regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act. To urge our Senators to protect the EPA’s authority and prioritize strong climate legislation this spring, call these numbers:

1) Senator Michael Bennet – (202) 224-5852 and
2) Senator Mark Udall – (202) 224-5941.
Leave a comment with your name and zip code.

Shanahan Neighbors for Climate Action expressed thanks to everyone who attended this month’s panel discussion for making it such a successful event! To learn more about Shanahan Neighbors for Climate Action and to join future events visit the group’s website.