Jackson officials inspired, troubled by climate conference

JACKSON — A conference on climate change earlier this month gave Jackson Hole officials new ideas about how to curb the region’s impact on the environment, just weeks after updated data revealed a rise in carbon emissions in Teton County.

The conference, Mountain Towns 2030, was a gathering of resort communities in Park City, Utah. It attracted representatives from more than two dozen Western locales — including a delegation of Jackson Hole leaders — to discern their individual and collective roles in preserving the planet.

“Everyone was there because they’re invested in doing something,” Energy Conservation Works Executive Director Phil Cameron said. “It was encouraging to see.”

Despite that sense of collaboration and eagerness to act, though, the conference was, in a different sense, equally disheartening — as Mayor Pete Muldoon put it, “somewhat depressing, to say the least.”

The speakers presented a grim outlook for the planet, barring radical efforts to reverse global warming. The most authoritative research on the subject, reported a year ago by United Nations scientists, showed that to avoid the most severe effects of climate change, the world has only until 2030 to drastically reduce carbon emissions.

That was the inspiration for the conference’s overarching message: To save the Earth — not to mention their climate-dependent economies — mountain towns must strive for carbon neutrality within a decade.

Many of those communities are already well along that path, having enacted policies and fostered behaviors to scale back their carbon footprints. However, even the best among them have a long way to go.

Teton County, for example, can tout its Green Power Program, through which electricity consumers can opt to pay more for energy derived from renewable sources, like wind. But given the fact that the region’s carbon emissions are up 17 percent since 2009, those successes don’t change the fact that “right now our trend trajectory is upward,” Cameron said.

“Those are things that are positive — that we should celebrate,” he said. “But we also want to recognize that’s a small piece of the pie.”

The broader story is that greenhouse gas output in Jackson Hole has not only grown, but grown faster than population, according to the Jackson Hole Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, which was updated last month for the first time since the first iteration in 2009. 

The inventory found that ground transportation is responsible for nearly 65% of emissions, by far the largest single cause. That includes the daily travels of residents and tourists but also of those who commute from neighboring counties.

That’s led some to the belief that housing ought to be the keystone of Teton County’s environmental strategy, to give those commuters a place to live closer to their jobs. Muldoon said as much soon after his return from the conference, during an impassioned appeal at a joint meeting of the Town Council and Board of County Commissioners, in which he argued for denser housing in a controversial project in town.

“The most effective thing that we can do here in Jackson is to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled,” he said, “and by far the most effective way we have of doing that is to house people locally.”

Town Manager Larry Pardee, who also attended the conference, came away with the same impression.

“We need to focus on everything, but if we’re going to make the biggest gains on behalf of Teton County, it’s going to happen in the transportation world,” he said. And, he said, “housing, to me, is the number one thing that directly relates to transportation.”

But Pardee and his colleagues also came away with other ideas, some straightforward and some more creative. For example, Pardee said, officials in some Western communities have worked with ranchers to sequester carbon, capturing it in their land.

On the other hand, Cameron said much of the progress to be made in Teton County involves augmenting the structures already in place: encouraging more people to ride the bus, ride a bike, purchase electric vehicles, enter the Green Power Program.

“We have some good solutions we can take action on now,” he said. “There’s so many different things each and every one of us can do.”

County Commissioner Mark Newcomb, who joined his town counterparts at the conference, is skeptical that anything short of a carbon tax — which would have to be enacted at the state level — will truly spur people to willingly cut back on their carbon usage. He acknowledged that officials should still pursue other climate-oriented policies but said he doesn’t think it will be enough.

“I believe we’re just not going to see the kind of shift that really would bring us to net zero in Teton County without a price on carbon,” he said.

But Pardee is hopeful that the average person will step up, especially when presented with the bleak reality of climate change. To that end he invited Rob Davies, a physicist at Utah State University, to speak in Jackson.

Based on Davies’ talk about climate change at the conference, Pardee said, he “presents it better than anybody I’ve ever seen.” Though he’s not sure when it will take place, Pardee hopes that talk will inspire others in the community to consider their own role in staving off climate change.

Just two weeks after the conference it’s unclear what it’s ultimate outcome will be. But a similar event in 2006 led to the creation of Energy Conservation Works and an initiative to cut energy usage.

If the community and government officials can muster the motivation, Councilor Jonathan Schechter said in a debrief about the conference, he believes Jackson, Teton County and Energy Conservation Works could lead the way in a new sustainability movement among mountain towns.

“If we were so inclined, if we as a community think it’s an emergency,” he said, “there’s a real leadership opportunity we can take.”

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the conference, Cameron said, is that it doesn’t seem to be a one-off event. The various communities didn’t commit to anything like the international Paris Agreement of 2016, but they did agree to meet on an annual basis.

Cameron hopes that in hindsight this conference will be the first spark of a lasting coalition of eco-stewards. With experts across the mountain towns talking regularly and exchanging ideas, each will have a better shot at drawing down its own impact on the environment, and presenting a good example to the rest of the world.

“Everyone who I interacted with down there presented something we can learn from,” Cameron said, “and also received something from what we’re doing that they can learn from.”