CU Boulder, city leaders highlight local steps to address climate change

University of Colorado Boulder

With a sweeping view of the Flatirons to the west, two dozen exhibition tables and research posters line the windows of the Byron White Club in Folsom Stadium this weekend, highlighting the many CU Boulder research centers and institutes-as well as various government labs and local nonprofits-that make the Boulder region renowned for its climate and science research.

Boulder is known today not only for its prominence in climate research, but for living through its impacts, from fast-moving wildfires to poor air quality and flood risks.

“The signs of the climate crisis are all around us, and the signs are undeniable,” said Jonathan Koehn, chief sustainability and resilience officer for the city of Boulder and instructor in CU Boulder’s Masters of the Environment graduate program. “It is here, and it is now.”

On the first day of the inaugural Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit at CU Boulder, Koehn moderated “Our Communities and Climate Change,” a panel of local leaders who discussed how the impacts of climate change are being felt and addressed locally and regionally.

Affluent communities are not immune

While Boulder is a climate leader in the municipal sector and an affluent community, that does not mean it is immune to the risks posed by increasingly unpredictable threats of flooding, wildfire and hotter summer days, said Koehn.

He highlighted research by Paul Chinowsky, professor emeritus of civil engineering at CU Boulder, showing how increasing temperatures in Boulder County will lead to adverse health impacts and outcomes, including more heat strokes and higher rates of asthma.

And the 2021 Marshall Fire, for example, is only one of several major natural disasters in recent history for the Boulder community. There were also the 2013 Boulder-area floods.

“It is abundantly clear that we live in an inequitable society, which means that the burdens created by climate change are not felt equally,” said Koehn. “Equity has to be at the core of all of our efforts to reduce our climate impact and work to adapt to a changing climate.”

Meeting people where they are

Now founder and director of Resilient Analytics, Chinowsky’s mission is to develop tools that move people from awareness of climate change to taking action.

“How do we bring climate change to the neighborhood, to the individual household? How do we make action work at a local level?” he asked.

Not everyone is going to, or can, adapt equally to the challenges of climate change, he said. Not everyone can purchase an electric vehicle, stop driving and bike everywhere or add solar panels to their home. So, the trick is to meet people where they’re at: “appropriate action for the appropriate level,” said Chinowsky.

Building community and resilience

Crystal Launder, housing senior project manager for the City of Boulder, works with manufactured housing communities, one of the only affordable housing options in the area. Extreme weather events, such as heavy rainfall, flooding and extreme heat, disproportionately affect poorer populations, who often already live in hazard-prone areas (such as floodplains) or in homes that are more vulnerable to damage, she said.

Community-building in these neighborhoods has been an important part of residents being able to voice their concerns to the city-such as what to do after being displaced after damaging storms and how to access grant funding to become more resilient. On the municipal government side, Launder noted how important it is to listen to the needs of these more vulnerable communities.

“You don’t show up with a solution-you build a relationship and stay involved,” said Launder.

Restoring ecosystems

Reducing fossil fuel emissions is at the heart of addressing climate change, but people should also focus on restoring natural ecosystems to keep excess carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, said Brett KenCairn, director of Nature-Based Climate Solutions and the city of Boulder’s senior policy advisor for climate, sustainability and resilience.

“We have demonstrated as a species that we can do it,” said KenCairn, highlighting how the U.S. rallied in the early 20th century to restore ecosystems in the Great Plains after the 1930s Dust Bowl. “We can do this, and we must do this.”

Through the Cool Boulder initiative and the Carbon-Neutral Cities Alliance, the City of Boulder is one of many local governments across the country and the world working on projects to take green action in its own backyard.

Local governments cannot go it alone

In the absence of federal or higher-level leadership, local communities are often left to deal with climate change on their own, said Boulder Mayor Aaron Brocket.

The cost of addressing climate change, however, is not cheap. While corporations are raking in billions in profits, cities and communities can’t afford to protect their infrastructure from extreme heat, flooding and fire.

“No local government can afford to pay for the cost of climate change,” said Chinowsky. “This is a problem that cannot be put on the shoulders of local government.”

Yet cities like Boulder and their local partners, such as CU Boulder, can work together to bring people together on a large scale, said Heidi VanGenderen, CU Boulder’s chief sustainability officer and a steering committee member for the Right Here, Right Now Global Climate Summit. The summit is a great example, she said.

“We can use this university as a convening forum to bring together people in this community who are ready to march forward,” she said.

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