Wildfires burning just west of Boulder on Oct. 16, 2020. Credit: John Herrick

This summer, Boulder residents might see cyclists riding around with temperature sensors mounted on their bikes. 

The volunteer scientists will be collecting temperature data across the city as part of a nationwide urban heat mapping project funded through a recent grant the city received from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

The purpose behind the research is to better understand the disparities in how rising heat affects residents across the city. Research indicates buildings and paved surfaces intensify heat, while parks and open space have a cooling effect. Urban heat can exacerbate health disparities for low-income residents and people who work outside.

The project is among the first in the city’s Cool Boulder campaign, which launched on Thursday, April 28, part of a larger effort to expand the city’s climate resiliency work under its new Natural Climate Solutions program. The heat data will be used to guide urban infrastructure investments designed to cool the city down. 

“You can have as much as a 20- to 30-degree difference across a single community, depending on the nature of the built environment and the level of shade that exists there,” Brett KenCairn, policy advisor for the Natural Climate Solutions program, said in an interview. “There’s emerging science that’s going to start to confirm that we can literally change local climate conditions by the way we manage landscapes.” 

Cool Boulder, and the urban heat mapping project, provide the public the first concrete look at the city’s shift and expansion of its climate work. After focusing primarily on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from energy, the city is pivoting its strategy. It wants to create an urban landscape better equipped to lessen the growing impacts of heat waves, wildfires and floods and draw carbon down from the atmosphere. 

Under its Cool Boulder campaign, city officials are partnering with local organizations that are already running programs related to natural climate solutions — strategies that restore soils, forest and habitats to sequester more carbon and hold water. Their efforts range from planting trees and using compost for backyard gardens to replacing grass lawns with more water-efficient vegetation and establishing “pollinator pathways” to encourage more biodiversity. 

“I think we’re really experimenting,” KenCairn said, “in how we de-center the city from the sole role of leading the climate charge, and instead recognize what I think is going to become an increasingly common theme or reality: When we say it’s an all-hands-on-deck moment, it absolutely is.”

He continued: “There are a lot of people who are eager for a new way to do climate action. When climate action was all about buying an electric car or putting solar panels on your house, it just sort of excluded a whole bunch of people from this work.” 

According to the city, local organizations are already lining up to be part of the program. Among the 20 organizations that have signed on is Eco-Cycle, a recycling nonprofit. The organization collects compost that is later used on farmland and in people’s backyards to sequester carbon dioxide, according to Marti Matsch, the deputy director of Eco-Cycle. 

“There’s a lot of depression around climate change,” Matsch told the Boulder Reporting Lab. But, she added, “you can go in your backyard, and you can get more connected to the actual ecosystem in your backyard and understand it better, and actually make it part of a climate solution.”

Matsch is hopeful the Cool Boulder campaign will help her organization raise more money for these kinds of projects. 

“We have already been applying to two different grants, where our involvement with the Cool Boulder campaign will be of great interest to them, and perhaps help us earn those grants,” Matsch said. 

‘How we change systems’

To help pay for the expanded climate work, the city is planning to seek voter approval in November to extend its Climate Action Plan tax, a surcharge on electricity bills first passed in 2006 that is set to expire next year. The city hopes to raise $3.9 to $8 million per year for climate initiatives, depending on the to-be-decided tax structure and rate, according to city officials.

In addition to preparing for climate change, city officials said they are still aiming to meet Boulder’s climate goal of achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. 

But KenCairn said the city can’t achieve this goal alone. And he said cities should rethink their decarbonization policies to have a broader impact and protect the health and safety of their communities. 

“Our work is less and less about hitting some specific carbon goal for the City of Boulder. It’s more about how we change systems that will move the entire thing,” KenCairn said. “If our city hits that goal, and nobody else does, it’s pointless.” 

Boulder – the city, its scientists and pioneering climate activists – has long been a national leader in municipal climate action. In 2002, Boulder was one of the first cities to sign onto the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and set a goal to reduce its greenhouse emissions. 

Since around 2003, it has primarily focused on forming its own electric utility and putting pressure on Xcel Energy, the region’s utility, to dramatically decarbonize its energy mix. In 2020, voters decided they didn’t want the city to create its own electric utility. Advocates associated with the municipalization campaign helped influence a settlement agreement in which Xcel will close a coal-fired power plant by January 2031, almost 40 years sooner than originally planned. Some are working to push Xcel to pursue more aggressive strategies

“Boulder was a leader in the early days,” KenCairn said. “But that was in the era in which climate change was still this hypothetical. Our world has changed. Within the last two or three years, we’ve come to this kind of unavoidable realization that it’s not if. It’s not when. It’s how much and how soon,” he added, referring to unavoidable impacts of warming.  

The city’s Cool Boulder campaign comes on the heels of the devastating Marshall Fire, which was the state’s most destructive in terms of property damage, and the NCAR Fire, which burned across city open space and prompted evacuations. The fires struck amid a decades-long drought across the state that shows little sign of abating. This April may go down as the driest April in the city’s 130-year climate record, according to local meteorologists. 

KenCairn is also the director of Nature-Based Climate Solutions, an organization created in partnership with the Urban Sustainability Directors Network. He said the organization meets monthly and includes representatives from communities including Kansas City, Missouri; Lincoln, Nebraska; Montgomery County, Maryland; and Burlington, Vermont. 

“All of this is intended to lay groundwork not just for our community, because every community in the country is going to need this,” he said. “It’s a new field. I think it’s very analogous to where we were with city-based energy systems work 15 years ago, where [the city] didn’t quite know what to do, but we were trying to get involved.”

John Herrick is senior reporter for Boulder Reporting Lab, covering housing, transportation, policing and local government. He previously covered the state Capitol for The Colorado Independent and environmental policy for VTDigger.org. He is interested in stories about people, power and fairness. Email: john@boulderreportinglab.org.