Boulder’s Climate Fight Exposes Sierra Club Divide

More than ever, it seems like there are two sides in Boulder’s struggle to address climate change. Both environmentalist camps are sincere, and both claim to offer a superior approach for city policy. But each calculates Boulder’s greenhouse gas emissions differently, leading to wildly divergent recommendations for housing and economic development.

The first approach to quantifying and addressing Boulder’s climate impacts uses municipal boundaries as a frame. By this logic, the goal of local climate action should be to limit that portion of greenhouse gas emissions that originate in Boulder. As Boulder competes with other cities to reduce its carbon footprint, capping or reducing the number of people living and/or working here becomes the most effective course of action. Recent editorials in the Daily Camera by Mary Lee, Gary Wockner, and Steve Pomerance provide clear examples of this thinking.

The trouble with this narrow approach is that it ignores the context of regional population growth. It simply pushes that problem outwards in the form of suburban subdivisions and car traffic – the 60,000-plus workers who commute to Boulder each day. Far from improving its climate impacts, a closed Boulder drives carbon-intensive development in surrounding communities.

A second more nuanced approach follows the familiar logic of “think globally, act locally”. With global, national, and regional populations all growing, an emerging group of urban environmentalists argue that Boulder should attempt to house more people while reducing its residents’ per-capita (rather than total) emissions. Essays by Mimi Mather, Jan Burton, and Mark McIntyre and Rachel Friend suggest that this is best achieved through intensifying land use. Boulder should house more people in more dwellings in its existing developed areas, and should increase opportunities for walking, biking, and transit use. In its aim to reduce car dependence and curtail suburban sprawl, this approach echoes the direction of the national Sierra Club, which supports policies “that increase affordable, urban housing density, and access to public transportation.” Building enough housing in a variety of types and sizes can also have benefits for affordability, as recent evidence from Seattle suggests. Climate policy can be housing policy, and vice-versa.

These contrasting approaches to local climate action reveal a divide in environmental thinking that is also visible in Boulder’s electoral politics. In 2017, the local Indian Peaks Chapter of the Sierra Club endorsed almost exactly the same slate of candidates as PLAN Boulder, which has opposed most local growth. Candidates backed by Better Boulder and Open Boulder took positions more aligned with the National Sierra Club’s ‘think globally’ approach (the National Sierra Club does not endorse local candidates).

Candidates for this year’s City Council elections won’t officially announce themselves until August, but a similar division will likely be on display. As climate-concerned voters seek advice from environmental leaders in 2019, it’s important that they understand the assumptions behind opposing visions of contemporary green cities. With so much at stake, it’s important to look to leaders and organizations that have a holistic understanding of today’s housing and transportation needs, rather than blindly following the endorsements of our increasingly myopic establishment environmentalists. In the world of climate action, a progressive Boulder is one that seeks to act and lead beyond its boundaries.