Frisco–Local governments in Colorado’s High Country have spent thousands of dollars in taxpayer money on climate studies pushing questionable emissions scenarios.
The studies—conducted by Rocky Mountain Climate Organization (RMCO) on behalf of Summit and Eagle Counties and the towns of Frisco and Breckenridge—project a future of extreme heat that threatens to disrupt quality of life in the mountain communities if no action is taken to mitigate climate change.
“These numbers show both how much Summit County has at stake as humans continue to change the climate and how much difference climate protection actions can make to head off unacceptable changes,” Stephen Saunders, President of RMCO, said. “And this will be of interest in other Colorado mountain communities with similar elevations, because they can expect similar changes.”
While the predictions sound startling, a deeper look into the methodology uncovers that the dire consequences are the result of models using an unrealistic greenhouse gas emissions trajectory.
These scenarios are reliant on a faulty “business as usual” projection known as Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5, which experts like Professor Roger Pielke, Jr. of the University of Colorado Department of Environmental Studies calls “untethered from the real world.”
“The misuse of RCP 8.5 involves the transformation of what is more accurately described as a worst-case scenario into the sole ‘business as usual’ or baseline scenario that has become a centerpiece of climate policy discussions,” he wrote in a 2019 Forbes article.
Complete Colorado has previously covered Professor Pielke and his criticism of RCP 8.5’s ubiquitous presence in climate reporting despite its flaws.
“The consequences of RCP scenario misuse include a myopic perspective on alternative futures and a correspondingly limited view on policy alternatives, the creation of a vast academic literature with little to no connection to the real world, and an unwarranted emphasis on apocalyptic climate futures that influences public and policy maker perspectives and the climate policy discourse in broader society,” he said.
Local media coverage of these reports has in turn run with the questionable science, publishing catastrophizing tales of the mountain communities in climate-induced upheaval without new policy interventions.
The Summit Daily published two separate articles based on the report’s findings, each leading with the worst-case scenario effects of RCP 8.5 projections.
“New study predicts worst-case scenario of 54 days with temperatures above 80 degrees by century’s end,” the subheading of an August article detailing RMCO’s findings reads.
Another September article shared the predictions of RMCO President Stephen Saunders, who suggested emissions projections in Summit County will “create more smoke and hazy conditions, create a lack of water availability, impact tree mortality and insect infestations, and have negative effects on the local winter and summer tourism seasons.”
In total, the articles dedicated only one line each to considering any alternative, less dramatic scenarios.
Clinging to bad science
When climate scientists want to paint a picture of the planet’s environmental future, they use a set of four RCP emissions scenarios ranging from very low (2.6) to very high (8.5) concentrations of greenhouse gases in the future.
But for some, an emissions trajectory of RCP 8.5 represents a “business-as-usual” path, assuming no steps are taken to mitigate global emissions from a base-line scenario estimated over a decade ago, resulting in severe consequences for the environment by the end of the century.
A trajectory of RCP 8.5 would lead to an average temperature increase of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by 2100, according to the Inergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
However, there are many reasons to be skeptical of RCP 8.5’s “business-as-usual” designation.
In addition to unrealistically predicting the undertaking of zero mitigation efforts, it also relies on equally unrealistic assumptions about the future of global energy trends.
As climate scientists Zeke Hausfather and Glen Peters write in Nature, “Emission pathways to get to RCP8.5 generally require an unprecedented fivefold increase in coal use by the end of the century, an amount larger than some estimates of recoverable coal reserves.”
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) it is generally understood that global coal use actually peaked in 2013.
Additionally, the scenario discounts the pledges many countries have already made to shift away from coal well before 2100. At this year’s UN Climate Summit, over 40 countries pledged to end their uses of coal power by the mid-century. Colorado, for its own part, is looking like it will phase out coal by 2035.
And while the US did not agree to end coal development at the summit, trends in the domestic energy market have made a phase-out of coal power all the more likely.
According to the US Energy Information Administration, coal consumption in the United States peaked in 2007, and coal production peaked in 2008. Both have declined in nearly every year since those peak years mainly because of diminishing demand for coal-fired electricity generation.
Zero mitigation just isn’t so
Meanwhile natural gas, which emits half the amount of CO2 as coal, reached record levels in 2019 and now accounts for more than three times coal’s share of energy produced and consumed domestically.
Likewise, renewable energy production and consumption both reached record highs in 2020, driven mainly by record-high solar and wind energy production. Renewables now make up a greater share of the country’s energy mix than coal, and will only see that share increase as public and private sector investments continue to pour into the industry.
Great strides continue to also be made in carbon capture technology that will make it possible to remove existing GHG emissions from the atmosphere, further reducing the impact of residual coal use.
In other words, the emissions scenarios imagined in a world under RCP 8.5 become increasingly unfeasible by the day as much of the world transitions away from coal power and as developed countries continue to take major steps to combat climate change.
Yet, according to Pielke, you wouldn’t know it based on much of the media coverage and reporting from some in the climate science community.
“The result of the disproportionate emphasis on RCP 8.5 combined with its mischaracterization as the ‘business as usual’ scenario has been an avalanche of studies and corresponding media coverage that presents a worst-case scenario as the most likely future,” he said. “At best, this represents a form of cherry picking.”
Eagle County reportedly paid $15,000 for its study, while Summit County, Breckenridge, and Frisco each paid $5,000, $3,000, and $5,000 respectively.