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Colorado Rivers Illustrate Realities of Extreme Weather Activated by Climate Change

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The river raced. I was standing near the bridge on College Avenue over the Cache la Poudre River in Fort Collins, CO. Due to the torrential rainstorms, the river had peaked about six hours earlier in the middle of the night, but it was still flowing about 100 times bigger than it usually does in September. A huge tree raged along in the floodwaters, smacked up against the bridge with a cracking sound, and then disappeared under the bridge. Spectators oohed and aahed–a couple dozen of us were watching, mostly because almost everyone in this town of 160,000 people had nothing else to do. The river, which encircles most of the roads leading out of town, rose up and closed down every bridge. We watched and stared and took pictures.

Gary Wockner, on the edge of the Cache la Poudre in Fort Collins, doesn't want to see its water diverted. Photo credit: Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

The river spoke in ways I never could.

I am an environmental activist. I became a working environmental activist because of this river, the Cache la Poudre. When I moved to Fort Collins 13 years ago with two small children, we bought a house just two blocks away from the river and played and played in the rocks and sand and water along the river, a wonderful activity for kids and for dads too. And so when I heard about a proposal to build a big dam that would drain and destroy the river, my adult friends and I stood up and started taking action. Activism is like that–you dip in your foot, and then your whole body is soon engulfed, and you become activated to protect and defend what you love.

As a part of my work as a river activist, two years ago I was appointed to a Floodplain Working Group for the City of Fort Collins, on which I tried to encourage a group of developers and business people to take flooding seriously and to not build homes and businesses in the Cache la Poudre River's 100-year floodplain. I was not successful, and was voted down 12-1 repeatedly in these meetings. And it got ugly–I was called derogatory names and funders quit funding our organization because I was trying to protect human life and property and protect the river itself. I was “standing in the way of progress." And then the developers started browbeating the City Council, threatening their re-elections. A majority of the Council caved in, including my pathetic City Councilman who I regret supporting and donating $75 for his campaign, leaving Fort Collins with very weak floodplain regulations. I spoke up in those meetings and to the City Council, my passion and intensity rising, as best I could, but they didn't listen.

On that floodplain group, I learned a lot about floods. A “50-year" flood is of moderate size that has a one-in-fifty statistical chance of occurring in any one year; a 100-year flood is much bigger and way more damaging; a 500-year flood can wipe away low-lying towns and cleave a landscape like a butcher's knife. Along the northern Front Range of Colorado–from Boulder to Longmont to Loveland to Fort Collins–this September flood of 2013 ranged between a 50-year and a 500-year flood event depending on which creek or river it raged through.

If you were a betting person, you would not have predicted a massive flood in 2013 in Colorado, but with climate change and the new extreme weather it brings, all bets are off. Along the Boulder to Fort Collins mountain landscape, we've had three consecutive years of near-record extreme weather events–near record high snowpack in 2011, near record heat/drought/forest fires in 2012, and now near record high rainfall in 2013.

The forest fires last year in the mountains were huge and damaging in Boulder County but especially the High Park Fire west of Fort Collins in Larimer County. And then this year, the flooding and fires all mixed into a maddening fury when the torrential rain swept over the fire-burned areas. Because the fires killed the trees and charred the soil, the water raced off the landscape carrying with it trees, rocks, mud and coal-black soot which turned the Cache la Poudre River into a black debris-filled torrent. Over the last 12 months, every time it rains the Cache la Poudre River turns black; in this September 2013 flood, the river was a flooding black tornado.

The impacts of the drought, snow, fires and rain are devastating, but the role that politicians play in enabling this chaos is maddeningly worse. As just one example, our Governor, John Hickenlooper (D-CO), has been all over the board on his statements about climate change. He's a former oilman and huge supporter of oil and gas who brags about his oily background and got national media attention when he sat in front of a U.S. Senate Subcommittee and told them he drank Halliburton's fracking fluid. Right before he was sworn into office in 2011, he told the New York Times that we should “drill the living daylights out of natural gas" in Colorado, even though natural gas is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas that is an increasingly large contributor to climate change. Those of us in the environmental community who supported him, including me with a personal donation of $1,050 which I wish like hell I could get back now, got snookered. But now the Governor is in an awkward position because he's had to call President Obama twice and ask for federal disaster aid to fight climate-change linked record fires in 2012 and record rain and flooding in 2013. Is the Governor listening yet?

And then there's the oil and gas industry. Every year in Colorado they spend millions of dollars lobbying to make sure that every proposed new regulation is defeated. In Colorado this industry completely controls the state government, donating vast sums of money to the Governor, state legislators and lobbying at the federal, state and local level to gut regulations, increase their profits and further pollute the public's health and our environment. There are 50,000 active oil and gas wells are in Colorado, and over 20,000 in Weld County alone, a county that, as this flood story unfolded, also happens to be downstream and in the path of the raging torrent.

I traveled around the northern Front Range of Colorado during the week of flooding, from Fort Collins to Boulder and Denver, and up and down I-25 corridor through the eastern portion of Weld County. As the rain poured down, the Big Thompson River coming out of Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park cut its winding canyon highway into pieces and flooded the city of Loveland down below. This highway is the “Gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park" and may take two years to rebuild which will likely devastate businesses in the city of Estes Park as well as the budget of Rocky Mountain National Park. In years past, I've hiked, skied, camped and watched elk in that park. In the fall, the aspen leaves quake, the elk bugle and the crisp clear mountain air makes you feel that life is pure and natural and never more worth living. Perhaps not this year.

The St. Vrain River to the south, also coming out of Rocky Mountain National Park, shredded the canyon road that ran beside it, marooned hundreds people in the mountains who later had to be helicopter-evacuated, partially destroyed the town of Lyons at the bottom of the canyon and flooded Longmont ten miles east on the plains. Lyons is a small and unique community, with a kayak park on the river right in town, a quaint little main street, and bluesy brew pub that attracts national performers (and me occasionally). It will be years before it is all rebuilt and alive again.

Boulder Creek, even farther south, rose up like almost never before and flooded part of downtown Boulder, air-raid sirens screaming in the night attempting to evacuate thousands of people who live along the Creek's floodplain. Some of the smaller mountain creeks west of Boulder experienced a 500-year flood event. In the past, I've rode thousands of miles on a mountain bike in the pristine canyons above Boulder, including near Jamestown where my first child was born and which was damaged severely in this flood. Most of these canyons are now so covered in mud and debris and pieces of homes and lives that they may never fully physically or emotionally recover.

And then there's Weld County, a few miles east and where the landscape flattens out and where all the creeks and rivers from the mountains flowed into the South Platte River and its wide meandering floodplain. The river rose up and spread across the land as if it had always been there, and knew exactly where to go, covering every nook and cranny–homes, oil wells, cattle feedlots, businesses and highways all submerged and be-damned.

Thousands of oil and gas wells in Weld County were submerged as the river rose. Oil and gas tanks floated along in floodwaters, and oil slicks streaked across the liquid landscape. The State government, which is supposed to regulate the industry and protect the public, has very little manpower and money (due to the endless lobbying by the oil and gas industry) to address this problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency engaged, but also has limited manpower and funding. And so the oil and gas industry–which is worth about a trillion dollars–initially did their own inspections and “self-policed." Using helicopters and boats, the industry shut down nearly 2,000 submerged wells and first reported back to the newspapers that "all's well, nothing to see here, keep moving along." But as the oil slicks increased, the industry changed its tune to say, "yeah, there's a problem, but it's small and we're addressing it." A day later when more chaos unfolded, the industry said, "we're not sure of the exact scope of the problem." And then finally, as the waters receded and a dozen spills made headlines, the industry went into a grotesque public relations spin mode and congratulated themselves for their “heroic actions" that contained the disaster. And then, sickly, Gov. Hickenlooper started parroting the industry's talking points.

For years the industry has fought every new regulation, including those for drilling and fracking beside rivers and in floodplains. Will they ever listen?

Back in Fort Collins, the Cache la Poudre River starts on the northern edge of the continental divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, flows 80 miles down an extraordinary canyon as the only National Wild and Scenic River in the state of Colorado, and then spills on to the plains a few miles west of Fort Collins. In this epic rainstorm event, Fort Collins got lucky because the rainfall along the Poudre River was only about half as much as in Boulder County to the south. As the water subsides, the City of Fort Collins government is surveying the damage, and now gets to decide if it's going to build those new commercial buildings in the floodplain. At one time during our Floodplain Working Group process, the proposed regulations allowed commercial buildings in the 100-year floodplain but required that the business create elevated space inside the building, or roof access, so that when a flood comes, stranded workers (or shoppers) could stand on the roof and wait for evacuation. But, believe it or not, the developers and business people howled and ranted and even got that small regulation removed. And the City will also now decide if it should allow a little subdivision along the river within inches of the 100-year floodplain where, believe it or not, a child could step five feet beyond its driveway and get swept away by the black, muddy, debris-filled torrent. The developer has named the subdivision after a historic name given to the Poudre River, “Pateros Creek." Be careful what you ask for, I said. Will they listen now?

I do this work for a living. I represent environmental organizations and I absolutely love what I do. I travel and speak around the state of Colorado and throughout the Southwest U.S. on issues of river protection, clean water, climate change, drought and now flooding. I speak a lot. I write a lot. I send out a lot of press releases and media updates. I blog, post, tweet. I communicate relentlessly. I also race–with my words, work and life. I try to speak loudly and make a difference.

But most people are not listening, especially the developers, the business people, almost all of the politicians, and of course the oil and gas industry whose short-term profit is the only thought on their mind, and then they buy and sell the elections and politicians to make sure that no long-term planning occurs, to make sure that the long arm of government keeps its business out of their business, until of course a human-caused disaster strikes, then who is the first in line to ask for a government subsidy and bailout?

I speak, write, text, tweet, post, blog, lobby and sometimes I yell.

But nothing I could have ever said, with voice, word, Facebook or Twitter–no press release, no blog, no instagram photo–could speak as well as the rivers did in September of 2013.

The rivers rose up and said, “I am river! Hear me roar!"

Will we listen?

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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