Global warming in Colorado: Changes are already happening for the worse, says National Wildlife Federation head Larry Schweiger

During a recent visit to Colorado, Larry Schweiger, president and chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation, said Colorado was in the bull's eye for negative consequences from climate change.

What exactly does that mean? Unfortunately, Schweiger has examples aplenty of environmental damage to our square state, and it's not theoretical. According to him, a lot of bad things that are already happening can be traced at least in part to global warming, including our current problems with pine-bark beetles.

"The sharp increase in the number of trees that are being destroyed by the pine bark beetle is clearly related to the fact that the region has experienced a warming year by year and a loss of deep, sustained cold weather," says Schweiger, whose latest book is entitled Last Chance: Preserving Life on Earth. "Ice and cold are our friends -- one of the best insecticides we have. And when you lose that deep, prolonged freeze, nature allows insects to survive the winter in larger numbers and do tremendous damage."

And not just to pine trees.

"There's also some strong signs that the aspens Colorado's famous for are also under stress because of climate change," Schweiger notes. "And when you start losing pine forests at the rate Colorado's losing them, and having significant impacts to the aspen, that should be a warning."

Regarding the aspen, "Colorado has been seeing some changes related to early die-back that we've seen in other parts of the country -- like, for example, in Alaska," Schweiger maintains. "It's the same type of phenomenon that we see with the pine: leaf borers and other insects impacting aspen. And the result is quite dramatic when you start looking at the numbers of acres damaged and the percentage of mortality. In some places where we might expect to see 15 percent mortality, we're seeing 80 to 90 percent mortality and increasing areas being exposed. And over time, that takes an enormous toll on Colorado forests."

In addition, he goes on, "you're also seeing changes in the amount of snow-pack. As a result, the ski season is being compressed. Ski resorts have been making the clarion call about this, and I give them great credit for speaking out. Ice and snow is really important for water storage, and by having early snows and late melts, you end up storing more water at higher elevations and having better stream flow during periods when you need that water. But when you have rapid melting in springtime, that increases the speed of runoff -- and when you increase the rate of runoff, you're increasing the capacity of water to move sediments and pollution from the landscape into the rivers and streams. So you have more turbid waters."

Wildlife in these areas "are shifting and moving their habitats," he argues. "And if you allow this to play out over time, it changes the nature of the places we all love and care for. And that's why I think the long-term trends are not advantageous for the people who love the magical place that Colorado truly is."

Predictably, given these comments, Schweiger is a big backer of a bill that calls for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions; the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a version of it, but the Senate has yet to act.

One of the arguments against the measure is the costs for industry in order to comply with tougher standards -- but Schweiger sees potentially higher expenses if nothing is done, particularly in Colorado

"Tourism from skiing, from people who come to Colorado to see the magnificent coloration in the fall, people who come to enjoy the rivers and streams for fishing -- these are sustainable revenue streams," he says. "They produce opportunities for revenue year after year without degrading the resource, if properly managed and cared for. Colorado should treasure these things as high-value economic developments, but I suspect they don't get the attention and concern they deserve.

"I also believe that if we're continuing as a nation to send a billion dollars a day to the Middle East to buy oil, we're draining all of our pockets. Every time you pull up to a pump, you're sending money out of this country. So I think by building wind and solar and geothermal, we're creating more job opportunities and improving our overall economy by keeping these jobs in the U.S."

Schweiger points out that "the American public spoke for change a little over a year ago," when it elected President Barack Obama and a majority of Democrats to the House and Senate. Now, plenty of folks seem ready to change back -- but he urges them to hold fast to environmental concerns, which he sees as nonpartisan issues.

"We need to play a role in helping to achieve these goals," he says. "All the polls I look at point out that America wants a new energy pathway forward that will protect nature, and it's time to support lawmakers of any party willing to take these important steps. In the senate, Colorado has two senators -- senators Udall and Bennet -- who seem willing and able to do just that. And they need to hear from folks who support that effort."

And if things move in the opposite direction? Schweiger sees a doomsday scenario.

"We have to find a way to capture emissions," he says, "in order to avoid the sort of catastrophic climate change scientists have been warning us about in Colorado and beyond."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts