08 November 2009

Boulder County Commisioner Will Toor on ClimateSmart

Boulder County Commissioner Will Toor sends in the following comments following a bit of discussion on this blog about the recent Boulder County ballot initiative on the ClimateSmart Loan Program which failed. One clarification of Will's comments below in which he suggests that I don't approve of the program -- I do support the program, I simply think that it is misrepresented as being "climate" anything. It is an energy efficiency program and should be labeled and promoted as such. Further the failure of this modest program to win expansion in the recent election in Boulder County, which is more than just Boulder, should motivate some hard thinking about the program and its marketing. Such programs cannot do much if they are only successful in places like Boulder (city limits) and Berkeley. Anyway, here are Will's thoughtful comments. If you have questions for him, I'll be happy to pass along.
The ClimateSmart Loan Program was approved by the voters of Boulder County in 2008,when 172, 531 ballots were cast in Boulder County, and 63.7% of the voters approved the program. Voters authorized $40 million in bonding authority, to be used to finance energy efficiency and renewable energy investments on residential and commercial properties. The program is not paid for by tax revenues; rather, participating property owners voluntarily opt into a local improvement district, and the financing is paid back through an assessement that is paid along with the property taxes. The program has been very popular, and noncontroversial; to date, approximately 650 properties have participated, and $13 million of bonds have been issued, for efficiency and solar improvements. This has been a boon to the local construction industry, a boon to participating homeowners, and contributes to reductions in GHG , without requiring tax increases. There is $27 million available for 2010, so the program will continue to expand in 2010.

A ballot issue to increase the bonding authority by another $85 million failed this week, in a much lower turnout election (62,667 voters) by a margin of 50.97% to 49.03%. One reason for this was the nature of the local election - there were high profile races in a more conservative town in Boulder County, which had 40% turnout and voted against the issue by a margin of over 60-40, and only 30% turnout in Boulder, which voted for the issue by a margin of over 60-40. In addition, unlike last year, there was no campaign to explain what the issue was about. While the loss at the polls in Boulder County could cause the current bonding capacity to be used up by late 2010, it is highly likely that it will be back on the ballot in November 2010, with an active campaign this time, and with an even year election leading to high voter turnout, it will probably pass.

The program has been so successful that 3 other counties in Colorado placed the same program on the ballot this year, and it passed in all 3 (Pitkin, Eagle, and Gunnison Counties), and cities and counties around the country are developing similar programs. The Obama administration has seen the power of this model, and initiated a national effort to help local governments develop these programs, as a mechanism to generate investment in energy efficiency retrofits (this was announced two weeks ago by VP Biden in the Recovery Through Retrofit announcement). So the bigger story is not about limits to climate policy, but is about the explosive growth of a new financing mechanism that has the potential to move large investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy. This is precisely the sort of policy instrument that you should be supporting. It is not emissions trading, or attempting to increase the cost of energy, or any of the other policy directions that you criticize. Instead, it is designed to spur investment in efficiency and clean energy, in a way that invites a wide range of stakeholders from across the political spectrum to participate.


  1. Roger, it seems a useful thing to do, and will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the period of time til we get low or no CO2 energy. Why wouldn't it be helpful for climate change?

    Hopefully the benefits go preferentially to poorer folks who could really benefit from the financial savings of improved efficiency.

  2. -1-Sharon

    No, I don't think that the program should be justified for its hypothetical, symbolic or real impact on climate. It should be justified in terms of the primary benefits it delivers to those who take part. That might be jobs, saving money or prestige.

    As Toor says, "it is designed to spur investment in efficiency and clean energy."

  3. I don't know where he got the idea you were against it. The questions are why did the voters reject such a sensible policy, and why even have a vote at all if there are no tax implications? On the first point I'd hazard a guess that it's purely the name. Despite how many people say they believe in climate action they still see it as costing money, hence rejectable. Simply renaming it EnergySmart and telling people it's about saving money, would have made a big difference. Michael Moore truly wrote that you can't argue morals with conservatives, you need to convince them that it'll save them money. In fact though that's the easier way to convince Liberals too - they just don't like to admit it.

  4. I firmly disagree with Dr. Pielke that wide deployment of policies like the ClimateSmart Program should be justified only by the techniques supported and jobs created, and not for their 'hypothetical, symbolic or real impact on climate'. Improving human energy consumption efficiency through inexpensive financing of material expenditures with large up-front costs and long-term paybacks is a means to several ends. The fact that jobs are created, home cost-of-ownership is decreased, and energy consumption awareness are raised are some of the goals of a program like ClimateSmart. But wait, there's more. A combination of reducing per-capita carbon dioxide emissions and stabilizing population growth will also help to stabilize atmospheric CO2 levels. In the long run, programs like ClimateSmart could help reduce atmospheric CO2, depending on what is included in supported programs. For me, reduced CO2 emission are an important outcome of a program like ClimateSmart, and having the name reflect an important goal of a program (the most compelling one, in fact) seems useful. To argue that the impacts of the single Boulder County program will not be ultimately determinative on climate is to have a very narrow vision of the point: solutions will have to be broad-based and many-faceted. You could point to any single mitigation approach and level the same criticism - not impactful enough to be meaningful. This is a local, beneficial step towards a broad goal, which is to stabilize and then reduce the concentration of environmental GHG's in order to keep climate chemistry (atmospheric and marine) within well-understood bounds. To be so vocally critical critical of the naming of the program seems little more than gratuitous hair-splitting, unless there is another agenda at work.

  5. -4-Sam

    Regarding your comment:

    "To be so vocally critical critical of the naming of the program seems little more than gratuitous hair-splitting, unless there is another agenda at work."

    Let me respectfully suggest that it is possible that people of good will can arrive at different, even contradictory conclusions about matters of policy without one party having a hidden agenda.

    If you support ClimateSmart for the climate benefits, then great. I'd emphasize that in the most recent election a majority of people did not.

  6. Being "Climate Smart" requires more than promoting the well-intended but narrowly focused goal of reducing carbon emissions. Being Climate Smart (or literate) must go far beyond energy efficiency. Were it not for the City of Boulder signing the Kyoto Protocol some years back to reduce GHG emissions, I suspect the program would have been called "Energy Smart."

    Because of our involvement with developing the Essential Principles of Climate Literacy here at CU Boulder/CIRES, which have been reviewed and endorsed by 13 federal agencies, (see: http://www.globalchange.gov/resources/educators/climate-literacy ) we've approached staff from the Climate Smart programs several time to explore ways of going beyond the usual simplistic equation (get out your carbon calculators and reduce your emissions because CO2 is "bad") and using this as a teachable moment-- since many folks do say they'd like to learn more about climate.

    But we were told by Climate Smart staff that they didn't really do "climate" because it was too controversial and confusing to people. I strongly disagreed with them: being smart about climate must go far beyond solely focusing on climate mitigation through reducing GHG; understanding the basics of climate and getting serious about adaptation strategies should be part of the discussion.

    But the staff (very nice folks, I might add, but with a different agenda/marching orders,) said they were really just focused on managing the loan program, which is focused on energy efficiency and renewables: noble goals but they won't really do much to help people become smarter about climate.

    Climate is complex. Being inherently interdisciplinary, it's fallen through the disciplinary cracks and suffers all too often from whiplash. In some respects, it's understandable that in the political realm, steering clear of "climate" and focusing on energy makes sense. Governor Ritter ran for the state's highest office in part because of his frustration that not enough was being done to deal with climate change. But he rarely speaks in public about climate change, emphasizing instead "the New Energy Economy," a strategy we see in DC with the Climate/Energy debate.

    For short term political gain, focusing on energy efficiency and jobs makes sense. In the longer term, (say, beyond mid-term elections) a national strategy for fostering truly climate smart, energy aware, science savvy society that can think beyond counting carbon is imperative.

  7. Roger
    Isn't it odd that some people just prefer to fight than to reason. It's bleeding obvious that you have to correctly sell any idea, however good you might think it is. You'd think they'd accept that. But no, the self-righteous want to appeal to the morals of the populace - bearing in mind these are the same people (liberals and conservatives) who splurged on ugly gas-guzzlers in the first place, simply because they loved the idea of burning a lot of cheap fuel. Well good luck with that approach everyone! It certainly makes me wonder about other agendas - ie is it really about climate or energy at all or is it some kind of moral crusade by angst-ridden left-leaning, middle class intellectuals?

  8. -5- Roger

    To the first point (reasonable people can disagree): that's fine, but I still think the strength of the invective is out of line with a perfectly acceptable name - ClimateSmart. You didn't bother to address my substantive point: less CO2 emissions is one part of environmental damage mitigation, so why quibble with the linkage in the name? I now understand (from a deeper read of your blog and a similar read at the Breakthrough Institute) that being contrarian is a valued trait in your peer circles. It's all well and good to keep the pot stirred and the orthodoxii annoyed, but making the perfect the enemy of the good in everything from naming Boulder's energy efficiency financing program to promoting current renewable energy technologies has its own negative consequences. Delay does not favor environmental health, and running global chemistry experiments in the name of preserving current levels of GDP is truly playing dice with our corner of the universe.

    To your second point (Boulder voters reject expanding ClimateSmart program), Will Toor started this thread with a great explanation of the pragmatics of that decision. I kind of doubt it was because the program name was wrong. A friend suggests an alternate explanation to add to Toor's: the declaration of 'with no increase in taxes' was not in the first two lines of the ballot measure. The attention span factor probably plays a part as well in the rejection.