Hanna’s week in Colorado

19 Nov

This is cross-posted from The Otesha Project UK blog

Or ‘How they do it on the other side of the pond’

What is Hanna doing in Colorado you ask? Good question. Well, a few months ago the US Embassy called us (yes, we’re famous! They’ve even heard of us in America! Sort of.) and offered to fund one of us to go to Colorado to meet with ‘environmental experts’, participate in some ‘cross-cultural exchange’, generally learn lots to bring back home and maybe even teach those yanks a thing or too as well.So here I am. Joining me is James Screen who is Senior Policy Advisor on the Energy and Environment Issues Team for the Government Office of Science. He is thankfully not as scary as his title makes him sound and has kindly offered to pitch in on this blog as the week goes on.

Monday: Our first day in Denver – woop! And right off the bat, we had a meeting with John Powers, the Board President and Founder of the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado. The Alliance’s mission is to get nonprofits, businesses, governments and academics to work together towards a sustainable world. Good stuff.

How do they do this? Well they have the Alliance Center, which hosts 27 different organizations who all work together and support each other to achieve a sustainable Colorado. The whole building is also a tribute to sustainable design – with walls made of wheat chaff, insulation made from old tshirts and jeans and some lovely, LOVELY wooden bike racks.

The best thing about our meeting though was, by far, John Powers and the brilliant soundbites that he kept coming out with…

1.     How we source and use energy is going to determine whether humans are a viable species.

2.     If you aren’t working on energy issues, you’re just rearranging chairs on the Titanic. (He even said this holding a picture of the Titanic. First lesson learned – always have props!)

3.     We’re all on the same ecological bus going 50 miles an hour towards the same cliff edge. Given the momentum of the bus, we need every passenger to work together to keep from going over.

I have to give it to him, I like the bus analogy! But at the end of the meeting John (who had thus far been very inspirational and motivating) said that he thought we were all doomed anyway, that we were ‘toast’. I can see how he thinks that, as he is older than James and I and has been working towards this for much longer than we have, and seen little change.

This is where us young’uns come in. Let’s concentrate on getting every passenger on that bus learning more and taking action. Maybe we won’t go over that edge over all.

Tuesday: What a jam-packed day! First up was a mid-morning coffee with Kevin Lynch, who is the British Consul in Denver. He is big on climate change and tries to foster collaborative work between the US and UK, especially between scientists working on climate change solutions. He told us that Colorado recently made a big leap towards sustainability when the Governor Bill Ritter was elected two years ago. His predecessor had been a climate sceptic, but since Bill came in he has come up with a Climate Action Plan and wants Colorado to be the leading state on renewable energy. Hooray for Colorado.

This afternoon I visited Denver Urban Gardens (or DUG – it’s all about good acronyms) and met with Judy Elliot, the Education and Community Empowerment Coordinator. What an amazing venture. Their mission is not to build gardens, but to build communities through urban gardens. They have 80 of these communities in Denver and the surrounding areas, with 12 more in the pipeline for next year.

The great thing is that they give people in the communities the skills they need to shape and maintain the gardens, creating the sort of space that each community needs. As a result there are allotment-type gardens, communal gardens, sculpture gardens, a peace garden and gardens that grow foods for the local Hmong Vietnamese and Somali Buntu communities.

They also help school children grow their own gardens. Fairview School is located in the poorest neighbourhood in all of Colorado – the average income is $8000 a year. Since there is no grocery store in Fairview and many of the families don’t have cars to get to the grocery store, the kids who had been involved in the Fairview School Garden decided to run a Youth Farmer’s Market during the summer vacation, and 4 years later, it’s still running. One student at Fairview, Justice Levy, says “When I’m angry, instead of just exploding, I go to the garden and use the hoe so the plants can have a better place to grow. It makes me feel good to know that I can also teach people in my community how to care for things”. Wow. If that doesn’t make you go out and throw a seed bomb or two, I don’t know what will.

Next up on my whistle-stop tour today was YouthBiz, another wicked organization that empowers inner-city youth and teaches them business skills to take into their adult lives. What I didn’t realise was how hands-on it was! I arrived and a girl of about 14 years old greeted me on reception and asked me to take a seat before I met Habbakuk Ammishaddai, the Programmes Coordinator. He then took me on a tour of the building, where loads of kids, mainly from the local Latino and African-American communities, were receiving training from peer mentors on Power Point, public-speaking and t-shirt screening. The first room I entered, one kid (who couldn’t have been older than 12) came up, firmly shook my hand and introduced himself. Then another, and another, until all 13 kids in the room had shaken my hand (and very firmly). Turns out an important part of the training is the ‘business handshake’! It was incredible to see these young kids be so self-assured.

Here’s the exciting part. After sitting down with Habakkuk and telling him all about Otesha, he got so excited that he wants to try and introduce cycle tours into their programme! We ended up talking about different possibilities for collaboration – either sending a couple of kids from YouthBiz to do one of our cycle tours or doing one of their very own! He has a meeting on November 10th where he is going to float the idea and we are going to keep in touch. I didn’t know whether this visit was going to throw up any opportunities for working together long-term, but it looks like it just might…!

Wednesday: Another full day. This morning we met with Environmental Learning for Kids (or ELK – another good acronym) who work with disadvantaged youth from Denver, getting them all out in the great outdoors and educating them in environmental science and biodiversity, with 3 – 4 field trips a month to the surrounding Rockies and plains. Lucky them!

We spoke to Dwayne, who first got involved with ELK in 6th grade, and now works part-time for them whilst studying business management at college. Before 6th grade, he had never left the city of Denver, let alone the state of Colorado. The first field trip he ever went on with ELK, he was so scared of camping that he slept in the van. The second night, he learnt more about nature and made it into the tent. Nearly ten years on, he takes his friends and family up into the mountains, teaching them about all the different trees, and helps run ELK. Go Dwayne. If he is ever in the UK, he is going to pay us a visit!

Then it was a lunch with some students and professors from Colorado College who are involved in environmental organisations at the college. They were great and so motivated, implementing a college-wide sustainability plan and even publishing policies with the Roosevelt Institute, a student think tank (do we have these in the UK? If not, we so should). The students took my card and if their studies ever bring them to the UK, they are going to apply for a cycle tour!

Then a quick coffee and a chat with Richard Skorman, who is an influential figure in the grassroots climate movement in Colorado and is setting up a Conservation Hardware store down in Colorado Springs, in an attempt to make it easy for local residents to ‘green’ their homes and get education and advice on the issue. It’s especially important in this area, as there is a massive Christian right community out here who still don’t believe that climate change is man-made. Sigh.

Just as an aside, I am writing this in the car back from our meeting in Colorado Springs (they don’t seem to have much in the way of public transport here). We just filled up a whole tank with 8 gallons of petrol for $22 (around £15 max). It would have cost about £30 in the UK. I can’t believe the Americans are complaining so much about the cost of fuel! How much do they think it’s going to cost in another ten years?!

Last up, a meeting with Colorado Springs Utilities. Bless them, they put on a great show, with slides and everything, about what they are doing to make their company sustainable. However, I felt like I was being given a massive sales pitch, and there was little in the way of substance. After some questioning, they admitted that they won’t set themselves any definitive goals or targets because they are a public utilities company and answer to the city council. They are waiting for the city council to make a sustainable city plan before they take any real action, as they don’t want their customers to complain that their bills are going towards a scheme that isn’t necessary. I know. Crazy.

I have been left slightly disheartened by today – the utilities people and even the professors at Colorado College did not seem that environmental, and certainly didn’t like to admit that the US still has a long way to go. Having asked a lot about the upcoming election this week too, the general opinion seems to be that neither Obama nor McCain will sign on to an international climate agreement. Not only that, but people seem to dismiss the idea as irrelevant, or are quite suspicious of it. There does seem to linger an over-arching opinion that the US is an exception to the rule.

The students were a different story though, and filled me with optimism. They are working hard, and are not afraid to recognise where the US should be doing better. Ah, the youth of today.

James went off to another meeting this afternoon – with Tom Meyers, a senior bod at Westmoreland Coal! Here’s James’ 101 on the world according to a coal bigwig…

Westmoreland Coal specialise in surface mining of coal, but are not involved in power generation. Part of Westmoreland’s strategy is to co-locate mines with or nearby the newer coal-fired plants, allowing them to enter into long-term contracts for coal and insulate themselves to some extent from the world markets. Tom is confident that coal is going to continue to be a large part of the US energy mix. Why? The US has massive supplies of coal, something like half of the world’s coal reserves. Coal is the cheapest source of energy, and, as a domestic source of energy, contributes to all important energy security. Bear in mind that coal currently contributes something like 70% of Colorado’s electricity.

But what effect would cap and trade or a carbon tax have on the future of coal? According to Tom, a carbon price may in fact have little effect on coal use in the US, as the only direct alternative in the short-term is natural gas.  As the world markets for natural gas are very tight, switching to greater generation from natural gas would push up the price of gas, resulting in coal staying relatively cheap to use. As for the potential for cap and trade policy in the US, Tom thought this could be watered down as the financial crisis strengthens concerns over restricting the US economy. Tom thought that greatly increased energy bills would be unacceptable to many, despite the economic rationale (see the Stern report) for strong and early action on climate change.

Given these factors, the US coal sector does not necessarily need CCS to continue to play a large part in the energy mix. CCS however, is only good news for coal mining companies, as the efficiency reduction due to the capture process would result in greater burning of coal for the same power output.

Thursday: Thursday morning was beset by disaster when I wasn’t let into the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) because I didn’t have photo ID and couldn’t prove I was who I said I was, or something. But all was not lost, Melinda Marquis from NOAA whisked me away on a whistle-stop tour of the surrounding mountains and bought me pancakes. Result. Over breakfast, she told me about the Pine Bark Beetle that is devastating the trees in Colorado. Over the past few years Colorado has been getting warmer nights and less snow, so the larvae are surviving the winters and infesting the trees. It is predicted that in about 3 years, 90% of the trees in Colorado will be dead, which is tragic, as they are so beautiful. And when they die, they will release a fair amount of carbon, and so the vicious cycle goes.

In the afternoon we went to the National Center for Atmospheric Research(NCAR) and met with the scientists who work on climate models, which provide the data for the IPCC reports. This was v. v. scary. They showed us the last climate models, which had fed into the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. The models predict different outcomes, depending on how we modify our behaviour and reduce our emissions. The different outcomes are called Commitment, Best Case, Most Likely and Worst Case. They also have a Worse than Worst Case (just in case, presumably). Here’s the bad news – based on our present emissions, our current trajectory shows that we are actually doing WORSE than the Worse than Worst Case scenario. OMG. I wanted to either run screaming or stab myself in the eye with a fork. They are now working on new climate models for the next IPCC report, which comes out in 2013. Goody.

Hurricane Katrina has been referenced a lot this week as making a lot of Americans wake up to the potential consequences of climate change, so there has been a lot of talk about New Orleans in our meetings. Many of the people that we have met with, as controversial as it may sound, don’t seem to think that it is worth rebuilding New Orleans, as it will be under water soon anyway – that the effort is just wasted dollars. Which makes you think, it’s not just New Orleans is it? What about New York or San Francisco? What about our coastal towns in the UK? How do we begin the incomprehensible task of reimagining our coastal cities and thinking about where to put all those people, if and when the time comes?

Habakkuk from YouthBiz had put us on a guest list for their fashion show fundraiser on Thursday night, and it was a blast. It was a real uplifter, seeing these kids strut their stuff on the catwalk and talking to them about their plans for the future. I hope that we stay in touch as I am a total YouthBiz convert and love what they are doing for the local kids.

Friday: This morning we visited the National Renewable Energy Laboratory(NREL). Among other things, they test the efficiency of different solar panels, and come up with different solar, wind and biofuel technologies themselves. They are making huge leaps in renewable technologies and we can only be glad about that. However, I felt some of the emphasis in their messaging was slightly off. They really underlined that energy demand in the US was going to rise sharply and that renewables need to be able to meet that need. There was no suggestion made that Americans might also need to focus on reducing their energy use, since their individual carbon emissions are almost double that of the average European. Perhaps NREL think this is implied, but since 70% of cars in Colorado are SUVs and pick-up trucks, and only a fifth of people in the state actively recycle, I’m not sure the average person in Colorado is looking to reduce their own footprint.

They are big on biofuels here in the US and NREL are trying to make them more commercially viable. I wish I knew a bit more about biofuels, it seems to be a tricky subject. I get that second generation biofuels are way better than first generation. But NREL were very insistent that second generation biofuels do not endanger food supply in any way – that it is not a food vs. fuel issue and that much of the debate has been generated by the media. I found this hard to believe though – you need a lot of land mass to create a relatively small amount of biofuel. Even if the land does not have rich soil, it can be used for grazing, housing, green spaces…. is there no conflict in any of these areas? I will have to read up.

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