Local climate change experts applauded President Barack Obama's signing an executive order Friday directing federal agencies to take steps to help the nation adapt to the effects of climate change, signaling an acknowledgment that dramatic transformation in the global environment is inevitable.
But even in doing so, their remarks reflected a belief that the problem is so broad and complex that any one step is hardly cause for celebration.
"There's some quite good language in there -- especially in the first section, about the reasons for doing this," said Kevin Trenberth, distinguished senior scientist at Boulder's National Center for Atmospheric Research.
"But it deals with climate preparedness and resilience primarily, so it's only dealing with a part of the problem," he added. "This order doesn't deal with mitigation, or trying to find out in any way, shape or form how the federal government might reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
Previously, the Obama administration had set a national goal of reducing carbon emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, a goal it has not stepped back from.
Obama's order directs federal agencies to take a role in helping local communities and state governments boost their resilience to droughts, storms and other extreme weather events, which many associate with climate change. It also establishes a task force of state and local leaders to advise the federal government on the issue.
"I think it's very sensible planning; recognizing that climate change is happening," Trenberth said. "It's going to continue to happen, even if we took exceptional action in terms of adaptation. The oceans respond very slowly, and the carbon dioxide is already in the atmosphere. We can't get it out. So, in that respect, (the order) is enormously sensible."
The White House action came the same day as the release of a new study led by a Boulder-based researcher which shows that each degree Fahrenheit of warming in the Salt Lake City region could spell a 1.8 to 6.5 percent drop in the annual streamflow providing water to that area.
The study's lead author was Tim Bardsley, the Utah liaison and hydrologist with Western Water Assessment at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado.
"I think that's great," Bardsley said of Obama's order. "There needs to be leadership on climate change and climate change adaptation now, coming from the highest level. Certainly, it's a very good thing for the process."
Bardsley said Salt Lake City is actively planning now, using tools including his study's results, for the changes that may be in store for its water-supply future. Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker was among those named Friday to the new climate change task force.
"I think what we're seeing, specifically here in Utah, is that it's not too little, too late," Bardsley said. "Salt Lake City is in a position, after this study and follow-up work with this study, to understand the impacts (of climate change) and plan for it."
Kristen Averyt, director of Western Water Assessment at CIRES, said WWA is one of 11 entities funded by Boulder's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to bring climate change science to bear on policy making. She cited as an example its upcoming assessment on the effect of climate change on Colorado, in collaboration with the Colorado Water Conservation Board.
"Just the fact that we're able to think about the broad scope of potential futures will help us in climate preparedness," Averyt said after the White House announcement.
"I think it's really encouraging to see the federal government recognize that people at every different level are looking for help, about how to move forward and how to prepare for what may or may not come in the future."
Tad Pfeffer, a fellow at CU's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and a professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering at CU, said in an email that the order appears to be a positive step forward -- or at least has that potential.
"I like the fact that the Task Force's mission is focused on adaptation and building resilience, rather than taking on the most contentious top-level issues -- reducing atmospheric CO2 being the most top-level among them," Pfeffer wrote.
"This simpler strategy has somewhat better prospects for success: any argument against the goals of the task force essentially requires a denial that environmental change is even occurring," he said.
In his email, Pfeffer also wrote, "Whether this stands any chance of survival and functioning as planned remains to be seen, but Obama's headed in the right direction in my view, and I'd certainly be willing to help advance their cause."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Charlie Brennan at 303-473-1327 or firstname.lastname@example.org.