CU Boulder scientist warns: Climate change is going to make Colorado’s transportation woes that much worse

Professor Paul Chinowsky contributed to the latest national climate assessment: “There is a certain amount of a fear factor that has to come in.”

Traffic congestion on I-25 northbound. (Photo by John Herrick)
Traffic congestion on I-25 northbound. The Trump administration finalized new rules on March 31, 2020 to rollback vehicle emissions standards. (Photo by John Herrick)

Traffic, transit, and taxes — Colorado’s infrastructure woes have been front and center for years as the state tries to address population growth and deteriorating, jam-packed roads. Now add to that congested mess the findings of last week’s second part of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which outlines in its chapter on transportation how “a reliable, safe and efficient U.S. transportation system is at risk from increases in heavy precipitation, coastal flooding, heat, wildfires, and other extreme events, as well as changes to average temperature.”

The Colorado Independent reached out to University of Colorado Boulder professor Paul Chinowsky, whose research focuses on costs, adaptations and infrastructure impacts related to climate change and who co-authored the report’s chapter on transportation.

His central message: Funding transportation is no longer a question of taxation and dollars spent but a public safety issue and economic necessity.

Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How does climate change affect Colorado’s infrastructure?

Road surfaces are actually designed to handle a pretty small range of temperatures. When it gets hot, the asphalt gets soft. When you have trucks and a lot of traffic going over these soft roads, you start getting potholes, you start getting cracks. Whereas before these roads might have lasted 10 or 12 years before they have to get resurfaced, now you might have to do it every five or six years. You can imagine the doubling of road repair costs and what that does to local communities. Or you have the option to not repair them. Then everybody complains about their cars getting destroyed from going through potholes, buses get much more impacted and you have to raise the fares for transportation.

What else?

The impact on the rail system. Rails really do a poor job of handling heavy freight train traffic when the temperatures are getting into the upper 90s. You actually have to slow or stop rail traffic. Well, most of our goods travel by rail. In 30 years, Colorado’s climate is anticipated to look a lot more like Albuquerque. Even sooner, the hot weather that we just experienced this past summer, that is going to be a lot more of the norm.

When you take that hot weather and you put it onto infrastructure that was designed for the climate 30 or 40 years ago, you have a huge mismatch. We are going to experience roads breaking down faster, buildings that don’t have air-conditioning right now that need to be cooled. And then you really get into: Where does Colorado get that energy from?

Colorado voters just rejected two ballot measures that dealt with transportation funding — but this climate report seems to suggest that the state’s infrastructure woes are only going to get worse from here…

Colorado has a real issue in that we tend to be a state that doesn’t like taxes, we don’t like paying excessively for public goods. Yet, without taxes, where is the money going to come from to actually deal with these traffic and road issues? The alternative is that we are going to deal with a much worse problem than we’ve got today.

Do you think the public understands yet how connected infrastructure and climate change problems are?

We are still arguing about whether climate change even exists. And a lot of people have it in their minds that even if climate change exists, this isn’t going to be a problem that is going to affect us for another 40 or 50 years. And we haven’t been telling the story enough or in the right way that people understand that it is happening today.

What is the right way to tell the story, then?

What’s been missing is: How does it impact the individuals in their life? When you talk about the fact that climate change might result in a half a degree warming and it is going to cause ice caps to melt — yes, that is true, and it is very important, but the average person doesn’t understand that. They do understand that if you have a young child in elementary school, in two years they are likely to be sitting in classrooms where the temperature is regularly over 90 degrees in August. How are they going to learn in that environment?

What can or should people who are trying to effect change in the infrastructure sector in Colorado learn from these last few weeks: First, the failure of the two transportation ballot measures — and now this climate report?

The argument that has traditionally been made about roads has very much been about traffic, that we need to build more roads and more infrastructure to deal with traffic. We don’t tend to say, ‘Here is your stark choice: Either we pass a resolution like this and we start spending the money on this, or the roads are going to be in worse condition.’ We don’t show them the negative effect of saying ‘No’ very well.

Photo of Paul Chinowsky by Patrick Campbell/University of Colorado

How does climate change affect infrastructure differently in urban and rural areas of the state?

If you are living in downtown Denver, you are used to hopping on a bus or the light rail. There is going to be an interruption of such conveniences. Whereas in rural areas, it is much more of an impact on the actual support for your economic well-being. We are extremely dependent on road and rail to get, for example, agricultural crops to distribution centers. If those roads can’t handle large trucks or if that rail has interruptions of service, then we can’t get those crops on schedule to where they need them. Transportation in rural areas is essentially the economic engine.

The report outlines not just issues of mitigating climate change effects, but it also focuses strongly on how to adapt to what has already happened, and what — due to the longevity of already-released greenhouse gases — is going to keep happening for the next few decades. Colorado had the floods in 2013, it is seeing increasing numbers and more intense droughts and wildfires. How do we adapt to this new normal?

That is one of the main takeaways from this report: Adaptation is as important as mitigation. That is something that people need to start hearing: We need to adapt now. How do you get people to do that? The first thing is that people need to be educated and be aware. Adaptation means being aware of vulnerabilities.

We don’t always have to start at the most expensive, largest adaptation, we can start at things like cooling centers and looking at what our elementary schools need. We also need to — at the state level — really start to prioritize the top 10 things we as a state are going to put our adaptation dollars into. It can’t all just be, ‘here is something, there is something’, by chance. We need leadership.

Do you see that leadership right now?

I don’t see it right now in Colorado. It will be interesting to see if it happens with the change in administration. Gov. [John] Hickenlooper has tried, but I think he has run into the force of the oil and gas industry. And it is really going to take somebody standing up and saying, ‘Yes, these are important industries, and we are going to figure out how to do adaptation without closing down those industries — but the health and safety of our citizens in Colorado has to come first.’

Do you think that Gov.-elect Polis feels accountable on this issue given that debate around climate change was almost non-existent during the gubernatorial campaign?

From what I’ve seen, yes. I think he does understand it. He’s in a position in a state that is not quite progressive enough to fully commit to dealing with climate change. This is a state that very much still puts climate change in the context of jobs. The challenge is to change the narrative that climate change is about life and safety and not just about jobs. And the question is: Is he ready to take on that fight? I hope so.

The climate report didn’t lay out policy recommendations as much as it pointed out what is going to happen. Let’s do that next step now: What can state agencies — such as the Department of Transportation — do to mitigate and adapt to climate change effects on infrastructure here?

There’s three immediate things that need to be done. There needs to be a policy that no major new project or renovation can be approved without a consideration of its climate effects. That is an adaptation issue. The second is an administrative issue where the agencies need to put together a state-level independent commission that gives recommendations on what the priorities are — just like we would do in any other major emergency situation. We need to treat this like we are trying to avoid an emergency. The third thing from a marketing or public relations standpoint, there needs to be a very specific campaign that is aimed at the local level on why this is important and why adaptation now is important. If we did those three things, we would be moving significantly down the road toward implementation.

What — if anything — is already being done here in Colorado to mitigate and to adapt to the findings the report lays out?

Other parts of the country that are seeing those immediate effects are doing a little bit more. In Colorado, it is scattered. We are seeing some efforts in Boulder with going to alternatively-fueled vehicles or electrification of buildings. But as a state, we are lagging behind. We are working hard on alternative energy, and that is a really positive move, but in terms of really dealing with the adaptation of infrastructure, we are not doing very much.

What states should be the role models for Colorado?

California is doing a lot in the road sector, requiring that the climate be looked at and trying to do more in terms of wildfire mitigation. Washington is looking at their water treatment plants and what vulnerabilities they have to flooding. Nevada is undertaking quite a few studies on what the heat effects on their public infrastructure and their water utilities are. Each of these states has strong state-level leadership to move these things along. In Colorado, although we really prize our independence and local control, in order to make systemic change, we need to look at the state-level leadership in these other places.

There is this paradox of a constant yearning for better and more infrastructure, and at the same time, the transportation sector is the chief contributor to climate change as measured by the production of greenhouse gases. Can this cycle ever be broken?

There is going to have to be a culture shift. It is going to take a couple of issues. We can’t delude ourselves into thinking that everybody is going to suddenly take public transportation. So we have to at least make the cars that we are driving cleaner and more fuel efficient. That is part one.

Part two is we do need a campaign that really makes public transportation appeal to people. I don’t know exactly how that is going to happen, but we need to look at especially Europe, where public transportation is a much more integrated part of people’s lives. That is a different type of focus than what we are used to. That is going to take time.

Do you think that conversation is really — and honestly — happening here in Colorado right now? We have been talking about a train from Boulder to Denver for decades…

I don’t think it is happening at a level where people are taking it seriously. People don’t believe that train is going to be built. People don’t trust that a change can be made. We are in this situation where people know it is a good thing but they don’t think it is necessary. We haven’t created the imperative that we need to change.

How do you do that?

There is a certain amount of a fear factor that has to come in. Look at a lesson from California investing in earthquake protection in buildings.People are very concerned what happens if they are in a building during an earthquake and that building is not up to standard. We need to start saying: If you are in an area where temperatures are so high then your roads are breaking down, your costs of taking care of your car are going to go up. We are not taking into account that people tend to only want to spend money when they have concerns for their own safety. We haven’t made the argument that this is a personal safety issue.

If I am reading this interview right now, what can I do?

This conversation needs to be one that is not just being seen in a publication, but it is a conversation that has to happen over dinner, at workplaces, in restaurants. It needs to get to the point where people will feel like it is OK to take action. I am not even asking anybody to change any of their habits at this point. Yeah, it would be great if people started using more public transportation. Right now, I am asking them to start talking about it and to find out who their representative in the Colorado state legislature is. Write that representative a note and tell them this is important to you. Go to the city council meeting. Until that happens, it is too easy to just put this on the back burner and say, ‘Not enough people are interested.’

The report mentions that, “Transportation is the backbone of economic activity.” Politicians love to talk about the economy. Remember, “It’s the economy, stupid!” Why is that not enough to find consensus on some sort of climate action?

A lot of times, politically it is a lot more exciting to put money into new things then it is to talk about putting money into adaptation and repairs. Adaptation is being perceived as requiring taxes. That goes back to the messaging. As long as we have this discussion in terms of dollars or taxes, people are not going to be interested in doing this. Politicians have a real responsibility to turn this back into a discussion about health and safety and where it is a threat to our economic backbone.

The fact that our roads and bridges and airports need to be updated is one of those rare issues where everybody seems to agree, yet little is being done. Add to that equation a hot-button issue such as climate change, and it doesn’t seem to increase the odds for money to start flowing soon, especially on the federal level…

It is actually one of the most frustrating things for someone who works in this area. Everybody agrees that there is a problem, but we are still not moving forward and solving it. It is truly puzzling to me. It gets wrapped up in how we are going to fund this. One side says, ‘This is a tax problem’. And the other side says, ‘No, this is a local governance problem’ — and we never get anywhere. I don’t see us making much progress. It is disappointing. I have yet to see the true leadership to try and bridge that gap.

Is there something that gives you hope?

The thing that gives me hope is that we are actually finally talking about impacts. I actually believe that this report may begin to make a change in that we begin to change the conversation. That is always the first step.

What do you make of President Trump’s reaction to his own administration’s report, saying he doesn’t believe the central findings presented?

What’s my reaction? Disappointment. Frustration. This is a time when we desperately need federal government leadership, and we are seeing not just an absence of leadership, we are seeing a rejection of leadership on the issue. It is a disappointment that we have leadership that doesn’t understand the problem.

Do you think the administration truly doesn’t understand the problem or that they choose not to deal with the problem?

They are choosing to ignore the problem because of political reasons. There are people in the administration who understand what the problem is. That’s where the heart of it is — individual political interests have outweighed the good of the country.

Everything we have talked about, can any of this be successful in the absence of federal leadership?

With the new Congress, that helps. Before that, I would have said, ‘No’. But the reintroduction of science into Congress is a major step, and we now have the foothold to develop the foundation for these successful steps. The opportunity is there. I am more hopeful than I was six months ago.

The Republicans still control the Senate and the White House, though…

What can be done right now is to at least start the conversation about the necessity of doing this. That is the first step. It may be that that’s all that can be done for the next two years. On the other hand, it is also that maybe we can slow down some of the environmental rollbacks. What I am hoping is the negatives slow down and the positive starts.

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