While the debate rages on, the climate of the Rockies continues to transform, with consequences that will reverberate nationwide. Stream flow in the Colorado River basin is expected to decrease over the next 50 years, purely as a result of precipitation and temperature changes, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. The median projection anticipates a 9 percent decrease from the historical mean by 2060, said Carly Jerla, a co-manager for the Colorado River Basin water supply and demand study. “There will be more extreme highs, more extreme lows,” she said, “all trending toward a lower, decreased overall mean.” Over the same period, the bureau predicts that the human population dependent on the Colorado River for drinking water will rise from the current 40 million people to between 49.3 million and 76.5 million.
Significant economic effects could follow. Experts warn that changes could disrupt a thicket of local and regional water-rights agreements and necessitate expensive infrastructure changes. Agriculture across the West could experience a major hit as growing conditions change and water supplies shift. In mountain towns, such as those in Summit County, the omnipresent recreation industry may have to cope with less-than-epic snowfall.
Despite the alarming predictions, communities in Colorado and elsewhere don’t yet feel that they’re living the future that climate models predict. A full-throated call for action in Washington seems unlikely, no matter how often advocates try to provoke one.
“We have to have a two-pronged approach,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Democrat whose district is primarily the city and county of Denver. “If you just try to deal with the practical issues without the underlying cause, then over time, the situation on the ground is only going to worsen for our state. ... From a congressional standpoint, what we should be doing is trying to steer our public policy so we move away from fossil fuels.”
Right now, Colorado’s congressional delegation is working to address the effects of the beetle outbreak—not the changing climate that’s helping drive it. But Boucher said he believes that Congress, rather than the Environmental Protection Agency, should again attempt to act to regulate carbon emissions, because EPA can’t create a “buffer against economic disruption” like Congress can. The threat of EPA regulation-by-fiat could help build bipartisan consensus for action—if only there were consensus that the problem exists in the first place.
For now, the political cost of action remains too high and the economic incentives for taking drastic measures too low. Until that dynamic shifts, supporters of climate-change policy will have to marshal their facts and continue to point to episodes such as the beetle infestation to try to convince those on the fence. Scientists worry that by the time evidence becomes undeniable and political will has amassed, it will be too late for reducing emissions to make any difference. Many worry that the tipping point for action has already passed.
To cope with a changing climate, communities from Denver to Dhaka need to do two things. Adapt, step by step, to the new normal, and move, step by step, away from burning fossil fuels. Little incentive exists to make punishing changes to the economy while the evidence of climate change remains opaque to so many people. But by the time the evidence overwhelms us, millions of trees will be rotting on the ground.
This story is part of a yearlong series that examines America’s crumbling foundations and how to rebuild them. Find more on the Web at nationaljournal.com/restoration-calls.