Paris Climate Pact Matters to the Economy

I didn’t need a scientist or even the Colorado Department of Transportation to tell me that global warming was real. I’m 65, a skier and a Colorado native. I have seen the evidence accumulating all my life.

I got a reminder last week when I noticed that the Fall River exit sign on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs now references only Alice and St. Mary’s. During my childhood, it also included “St. Mary’s Glacier.” Apparently CDOT doesn’t number among the governmental agencies now denying climate change.

As the Trump administration has disavowed the Paris climate accord, vowed to cut funding for climate-monitoring satellites and ocean buoys and undermined the EPA, my response has swung from heated anger to floods of despair. My moods mirror what meteorologists are recording: wild weather fluctuations, early springs, alarming increases in drought, flood and wildfire. Science has linked all these changes to the greenhouse gases humans have been injecting into the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

But on June 1, Trump bailed on the treaty limiting those emissions. The reason, he says, is that the accord “disadvantages” the U.S. and causes “lost jobs and lower wages.”

But here in the Roaring Fork Valley, most of our jobs rely, in one way or another, on snow. That many of us owe our livelihoods to Aspen’s robust ski economy should be apparent. If Aspen failed to open one winter, what would happen to local restaurants, nightspots, clothiers? Not to mention our building trades, real estate and property values?

But it’s not just skiing that relies on snow. CU Boulder’s Environmental Center reports that 70 percent of Colorado’s water comes from snowpack. When we don’t have enough to meet the needs of fishermen, whitewater enthusiasts, ranchers, farmers and urban dwellers, we pump groundwater and, astonishingly, supplement the runoff with water from “ice holds” across the state.

Colorado holds 14 named glaciers and more than 135 “permanent” snow or ice bodies. Like St. Mary’s Glacier, they’re all shrinking. Of course, glaciers have retreated before and will return — sometime. Geologically, 100,000 years is no big thing, but we humans don’t have that much time to spare.

On the Aspen-Snowmass website, SkiCo puts it bluntly: “Climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity, not to mention the ski industry. Because the problem is so big, the fix won’t come through changing light bulbs; government must act.”

The Paris accord represented 190 nations that promised to act to mitigate climate change. Sen. Michael Bennet said that bailing on the accord was “a catastrophic mistake,” and Gov. John Hickenlooper likened it to “ripping off your parachute when you should be pulling the ripcord.” Rep. Scott Tipton said nothing much about it and Sen. Cory Gardner, who generally opposes greenhouse regulation, quibbled about the treaty not having been sent to Congress for debate.

I, for one, cannot fathom how anyone who cares about jobs in Colorado can fail to also care about our climate. As state Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver said, “It’s our collective livelihood … The Paris accords are about protecting people. Declining economies and scarce resources are certain outcomes. Marginalized communities in urban and rural Colorado will be hit the hardest.”

In the coming decades, none of us has a snowball’s chance in hell of escaping the impacts. New York City has spent millions elevating power stations after Hurricane Sandy flooded a substation, causing a five-day blackout in Manhattan. Some coastal Florida and California homeowners have already been priced out of flood insurance. And Coloradans will be seeing the cost reflected in both wildfire insurance and water bills.

Collectively, many Colorado elected officials are moving to fill the Hurricane Sandy-sized hole in leadership left by the Trump administration. I’m thankful to know that mayors from Denver, Aspen, Boulder, Breckenridge, Edgewater, Lafayette, Lakewood, Longmont and Vail will continue to uphold the Paris accord. And that more than 40 Colorado elected officials attended a May conference convened by Aspen Mayor Steve Skadron where they began to create a compact that will enable their towns, cities and counties to collaborate on climate mitigation actions.

Little we do will be remembered after our lifetimes. But as I nervously watch summer nibbling away the snow on Sopris, I’m reminded of an aphorism: “Life is like a blanket of snow. Be careful how you step on it. Every step will show.”

It already does show in our on-again-off-again springs, our shortened ski seasons, the periodic droughts in our reservoirs. I’m praying that we’re careful, mindful and take the right steps in slowing this irreversible catastrophe. Because the steps we take here and now will show far beyond our lifetimes.

The Trouble with Pre-Existing Conditions

Last week, during a Glenwood Springs town hall meeting with Senator Michael Bennet, many locals worried about congress replacing the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Bennet thinks the senate will consider the replacement, the American Health Care Act (ACHA), sometime before July 4.

Although individual market ACA choices haven’t been good in our valley — along with a couple other mountain counties, we pay the highest premiums in the nation — Senator Bennet sees nothing in ACHA that’s going improve our condition.

I’m not surprised.

Before aging into Medicare last fall, I repeatedly wondered whether the high cost and low quality of care available locally would eventually force me to leave this valley. I wasn’t alone; I know several people here who pay more for ACA insurance than they pay for housing!

While the proposed ACHA does prevent health insurers from outright denying coverage to people with “pre-existing conditions,” it doesn’t limit costs. State-run “high-risk pools” (which existed pre-ACA) are proposed to help, but according to an AARP report, premiums could reach as high as $27,500 a year. That’s in states that actually have pools (not all states must run them) and in states that don’t run out of money (which is what happened pre-ACA.)

ACHA wouldn’t improve much on the situation I faced when I moved here in 2011, prior to landing a job with health care. Because I had worried about losing coverage when I left my California job, I had stockpiled medications for two pre-existing conditions, asthma and depression. I had received excellent medical care at Kaiser San Francisco for 28 years, courtesy of various employers. That had enabled me to seek help for my two pre-existing conditions, but it also meant that they were on my medical records.

Sure enough, they kept me from getting medical insurance prior to passage of ACA.

Ironically, neither of my pre-existing conditions now exist. It turned out that the asthma was sparked by polluted urban air and allergies to plants that don’t grow here. The depression was largely a reaction to San Francisco’s persistent fog. The prescriptions I had stockpiled — a year’s worth of drugs that would have would cost over $5000 under that policy I couldn’t get — wound up being thrown out. What a sorry waste!

But ACHA could return us to the bad old days. While only about one out of every 33 babies born each year in US each year has a birth defect, from then on out, life is full of dings and scrapes. The Kaiser Health Foundation estimates that 27 percent of adults under 65 have health conditions that would have made them uninsurable under pre-ACA underwriting practices. “Pre-existing conditions”, as variously defined by ACHA health insurers, would include about 50 health issues ranging from AIDS and acne to high cholesterol and cancer.

That’s no big worry for those covered by employer-sponsored health care, but life tends to be what happens when you’re making other plans. Nearly 20 percent of Americans lost jobs during the last recession and can testify that the timing of a job change—and hence the need to apply for individual health insurance — is not necessarily something one can control. Thus, the time when a “pre-existing condition” starts to exist can be rather arbitrary.

Biologically, the propensity to develop many medical conditions exists from birth. Differences in DNA do increase or decrease our chances of getting a disease such as diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s or breast cancer. Fortunately, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) has prevented discrimination by health insurers and employers since May 2008. Recent political discussion hasn’t included comments about pre-conditions written into our DNA, but the ACHA discussion and prospects for coming generations do prompt me to ponder what health care is for.

In 2015, a Bloomberg report ranked 55 developed nations on health care efficiency—comparing life expectancy, health care costs per capita and costs as a percentage of GDP. The US fell near the bottom, at number 50. A 2012 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association asserted that waste—including unnecessary treatments, overpriced drugs and procedures and under-use of preventive care—makes up 34 percent of total US health care spending!

As former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, recently observed in a talk at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, no patient would opt for getting treated for a disease over avoiding the disease altogether. But our “health care system” routinely offers incentives that prioritize illness over health.

The problem, I suspect, has to do with pre-existing conditions: 1) insurance companies (and big pharma) and 2) their outsized contributions to our elected officials. Since they get rich when we get sick, there’s little incentive for them to diagnose, let alone cure, the problem.

Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on June 15, 2017