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UN Climate Report spells out potential impacts for Colorado

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) - The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report detailing how climate change is causing dangerous disruptions in nature and is affecting billions of people at a faster pace than previously predicted.

Some of the main impacts that will be felt over the next 18 years are droughts, wildfires, and depleted freshwater sources -- all issues that have already increased in Colorado.

According to the report, beyond 2040 and depending on the level of global warming, climate change will lead to numerous risks to natural and human systems. Scientists identified 127 key risks, and say they are highly confident the mid and long-term impacts are up to multiple times higher than currently observed. Some of those key risks include intensified weather events like droughts and floods, pressure on food production and access, and the continued extinction of animals.

"The IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership," said Antonio Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General. "Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone -- now. Many ecosystems are at the point of no return -- now."

However, Peter Goble, a Climatologist with the Colorado Climate Center and Colorado State University says the news shouldn't send us into a panic.

"I think when reports like this come out, the first thing I like to do is just take a couple of deep breaths and then get a little bit clearer understanding of what the report is saying," said Goble. "One thing that I think is important to communicate about this new U.N. report is that it's not saying anything we didn't already know, in terms of climate sensitivity to human actions. What it is doing is cataloging the impacts that we've experienced to this point across the globe in a novel and maybe a more complete way than we've seen before. I think that the primary intent of this document is really to serve as a high-level policy guide for folks who would be planning the different mitigation strategies around the world."

Goble says there are indications Colorado will be affected by climate change if the warming continues at its current rate or accelerates.

"I've got to be really careful with the speculation because a lot is uncertain whenever you're talking about the future," said Goble. "We're highly confident that it will continue to warm. But in terms of impacts, we expect more of what we've seen to this point, like more wildfires. In the last two decades we've seen Colorado's 20 largest wildfires recorded, so that's something that we've already seen and would expect to continue. In the drier years, we'd be in greater danger of wildfires. In terms of water scarcity, the overall western U.S. may see more issues where that's concerned. We've certainly seen more water scarcity issues in our state over the last 20 years, with 2002 probably being the best example. I think that water providers sort of wised up after that one, but we still see water scarcity issues throughout much of the greater western and southwest U.S. with what we're seeing with Lake Powell and Lake Mead."

Stormtracker 13 Meteorologist Chris Larson forecasts some of the extreme weather the region has seen in recent years.

"The weather is what happens today, tomorrow, and the next couple of days, while the climate is what happens on a long term basis with our seasons and what we experience," said Larson. "But that climate effect can also have a shorter term effect on the number of weather events that we see. Colorado's had periods of drought, and we've had these boom or bust cycles where in one season you get great precipitation, and then you go back into that cycle where you have less than average precipitation. That's hard to manage and hard to handle."

Another area of the climate crisis that could affect Colorado, is the depletion of the snowpack. The report predicts if the earth warms approximately 2°C (3.4 degrees Fahrenheit), snowmelt water availability for irrigation is projected to decline in some snowmelt-dependent river basins by up to 20 percent.

But Goble thinks Colorado is likely in good shape when it comes to the snowpack.

"We haven't seen as big of declines in snowpack in Colorado as in some other regions in the U.S. and around the globe," said Goble. "That's because thankfully, Colorado builds a cooler snowpack than a lot of places. We still have a long snow season and we expect that even 20, 40 years into the future and beyond will have a snowpack. We do expect timing of things to change with snowpack if it continues to warm. We'll see snowpack melt more quickly and perhaps the onset of the snowpack season start a little bit later, as well as some differences in what elevations we really see snowpack build at."

The report stresses significant change needs to happen on a global scale in the next 10 years. Scientists say if the world warms more than 1.5°C, billions of people, animals, and ecosystems will suffer.

"Science tells us that will require the world to cut emissions by 45 percent by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050," said Guterres. "But according to current commitments, global emissions are set to increase almost 14 percent over the current decade."

"When the really bad effects of climate change begin to happen, I'm going to be dead -- I'm going to be out of here," said Larson. "But if you're a young person, and you're having a family, and your kids are going to have kids, those are the folks that are going to have to deal with it. It's kind of like the national debt. You know, we can keep pushing the buck down the road and let the next generation deal with it. Or we can try to do the best we can and deal with it now and and take proactive steps. Maybe small, incremental steps, but still steps that we can take that will be healthier and more beneficial for our planet, our environment, and our climate."

While the new report from the U.N. is worrisome, Goble says it doesn't mean the earth is doomed.

"No, I don't at all think this report means that we're doomed," said Goble. "What I like about reports like this is they're helping to drive the conversation of what mitigation and adaptation measures we should be taking. We're going to have to adapt to some warming. But in terms of what that will look like 50 years from now and beyond, you know, it's still largely an open question in the sense that, one: the amount of warming still depends greatly on what kind of actions we take in terms of mitigation. But two: human beings are just a really adaptive species. If we can adapt to having a metropolitan area in Phoenix, Arizona, we can adapt to a whole heck of a lot. So I don't take it as a sign that we're doomed."

Goble says while there's a lot still to be done, the developed world has made some progress when it comes to mitigation efforts, and that's good news.

"Over the last decade we have already made some important strides in terms of climate change mitigation," said Goble. "That's an important part of my "we're not doomed" outlook. When I was an undergrad ten years ago, the climate modelers warned of a horribly dystopian future that could arise if we were to continue "business as usual." Since then, much of the developed world has made some progress shrinking our carbon footprint, so the "business as usual" scenario looks less and less feasible."

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Mallory Anderson


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