As climate changes, Colorado preps for heat-wave deaths

Experts say the state’s not ready for climate impact

As climate changes, Colorado preps for heat-wave deaths

Climate change has tripled the heatwaves hitting Fort Collins in the last 15 years. That’s nothing compared to an Indian heatwave cracking 118 degrees and killing nearly 2,500. Now, to prepare Colorado for future crises, Hickenlooper’s administration is following cues from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local climate organizations by launching a Resiliency Framework.

“A what?” you might ask.

“Communities throughout the state have been impacted by blizzards, wildfires, floods, tornadoes, and even an earthquake in the past decade,” Hickenlooper said in a release announcing the framework. “Through these disasters, Coloradans have shown great resolve to build back stronger which we want to continue to empower. The Framework is one more example of Colorado developing innovative solutions to build a better future.”

According to the new Colorado Resiliency and Recovery Office, the framework is designed to help the state prepare for both man-made climate impacts and natural disasters.

What does resiliency mean and why do we need it?

To folks at the CDC, resiliency means keeping the public healthy so society doesn’t have to spend serious resources to heal the sick and injured. To infrastructure people, resiliency means well-dug culverts and bridges that hold up when the water rises. And for climate activists, resiliency means preparing for as many of the impacts of climate change as you can, from keeping people cool in extreme heat to building more reflective cities that resist heat in the first place.

Resiliency means a lot of things to a lot of people and the word is sometimes used to circle around the politically charged phrase “climate change” while still addressing its impacts. Although Hickenlooper has so far avoided pointing directly to climate change as the major driver behind his new office’s “resiliency” work, the administration itself has not been shy in defining what resiliency means to them:

From the Resiliency Framework

From the Resiliency Framework

Climate change concerns

While the state’s new “Resiliency Framework” acknowledges that Coloradans must prepare for the results of climate change, Stephen Saunders at the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization felt Hickenlooper could do more to develop concrete, climate-change specific resiliency strategies.

“We need state government to take a lead in providing more information to themselves, to local government and to the citizenry about the Colorado-specific risks we face,” said Saunders. “We need more detailed assessments. We need much better dispensation of information. We need a central hub [at the state level] for climate-change information.”

Chief Resiliency and Recovery Officer Molly Urbina said that while her office just formally expanded to include resiliency this week, it is heading in the direction Saunders described.

The office has already begun developing a wildfire tracking system funded by the state Legislature this session. The agency plans to work with local governments, businesses and non-profits to figure out what resiliency means for particular communities and to put systems in place before disaster strikes.

Part of Urbina’s message is that achieving “resiliency” isn’t just for greenies or folks living near flammable forests or swellable streams. It’s every Coloradan’s responsibility.

“It’s difficult to connect all the sectors and local communities that want resiliency resources,” said Urbina. “What we’re trying to do is make a commitment to be that convener and bring all these agencies and resources together to build stronger communities.”  

Taking the temperature

“Heat waves do pose a significant public health threat,” said Dr. George Luber, who works on climate change and public health for the Center for Disease Control. 

The CDC calls heat waves and extreme heat the “leading cause of extreme weather-related deaths in the United States.” Deaths from extreme heat are also on the rise.

Luber said that although there’s a connection between temperature and health effects at numerous levels, heat waves are particularly dangerous because they represent weather events that are far outside “normal” for a community.

He added that what’s normal for one community might not be normal for another. For example, Luber lives in Florida where people are culturally and physiologically attuned to dealing with heat and where just about everyone who can afford air conditioning has it.

But Luber said there is something every community has in common: Normal is changing.

“One measure of resiliency is how quickly you can get people back into their homes after a flood… back to ‘normal.’ But with climate change that baseline normal is moving. Normal is less normal,” Luber said. 

Community solutions

RMCO recently partnered with local governments across Colorado to develop a “local resiliency” plan for climate change preparedness. Much of that report focuses on what local and state government can do to prepare for climate-change driven impacts to both daily and extreme conditions.

When it comes to tackling heat waves, Saunders said he’d like to see cities develop protocol for identifying when a heatwave is occurring and for reaching out directly to at-risk populations such as those too poor to afford air conditioning, those who live alone and the elderly.

“The local risks posed by climate change may be new, but local government action to reduce local risks has been important for as long as we have had local government,” agreed former Fort Collins mayor Karen Weitkunat in a release.

Saunders added that state government does have a large role to play in developing Colorado communities’ resilience to climate changes.

Nearly two years after Colorado experienced the most disastrous flooding in history, those at the Colorado Resiliency and Recovery office say they’re finally operating “in the black” – not just digging the state out of the slush left by the floods, but moving to shore it up against future uncertainties. With resiliency now in her title, Urbina said she’ll be heading out to local communities this summer to develop site-specific plans to do just that.

“Government alone can’t make this happen,” said Urbina. “This is about partnerships and collaboration … to make our communities stronger.”

The heat is rising

“At the end of the 20th century, the average number of days over 95 degrees in Fort Collins was three per year. In the first 14 years of this century, the average was nine. So we already had a three-fold increase,” said Saunders.

RMCO wrote a report which draws on data from Colorado State University’s weather station saying that days above 95 degrees are not normal in Fort Collins. Historically they account for less than 1 percent. But since 1961, the occurrence of these ultra-hot days has increased by 1,069 percent.

Saunders said that if current emissions rates stay the same, Fort Collins will see an average of 17 ultra-hot days each year by 2050 and 38 per year by 2100.

“Going from three at the end of the last century to potentially 38 at the end of the next is just an enormous increase,” said Saunders. “We are not prepared.”

Image by Guian Bolisay.

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About the Author

Tessa Cheek

She writes and makes photos about communities. Her book, Great Wall Style, a monograph-profile-lyric essay, is out from Images Publishing. tcheek@coloradoindependent.com | 720-440-2527 | @tessacheek

2 Comments

  1. David on said:

    This is actually kind of funny to read. I thought it was an Onion satire story at first, then I realized it was for real.

    Um, it’s kind of convenient that the data before 1960 is missing. That’s before any kind of EPA or emissions regulation or really anything.

    And to take a few years of increasing “days of extreme heat” and extrapolate that to 100 years from now is really just another way to scare people.

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