Boulder voters overwhelmingly approved a new city climate tax on Nov. 8. With projected annual earnings of $6.5 million, the city will have significantly more than the $3.9 million currently available for climate resiliency efforts. The extra money will be spent on a swath of different projects, from forest thinning to EV charging stations, but all will be implemented with equity in mind.
“There is a strong connection between climate change and equity,” said Jonathan Koehn, Boulder’s Climate Initiatives Director. “Simply put, the effects of climate change are going to be worse for some people.”
Unless significant action is taken, climate change will balloon the gap between the wealthy and the underserved. Disaster in our area has already offered a hint of what an untempered future might bring.
Think of the Marshall Fire. Those who lost their homes, but had adequate insurance and savings, have been able to better rebound from the catastrophe — at least financially, as lost memories and grief are felt by everyone. Yet those whose homes burned without comprehensive insurance are probably the ones who needed insurance most. Without money to rebuild, they’re left without their memories as well as a place to live. And the Marshall Fire can’t be seen as a fluke.
“Like a lot of cities across the country and the world, Boulder is adjusting to a new normal,” Koehn said. “The future can’t be predicted looking backward at historic trends, because warming really starts to accelerate the changes we’re going to see.”
One accelerating change could be the disproportional suffering of lower-income areas of our city. There are many things that can insulate people from some of the effects of a warming planet, but most require time and money.
Consider electrifying a home. It takes time to research electric gadgets, time to negotiate with contractors and time to figure out your new utility needs — should you get solar panels? Then after all that, you’ve got to figure out a way to pay for it.
“The majority of people are going to say, ‘How in the world can I electrify my home?’” Koehn said. “How can I justify spending $40,000 on a heat pump when I have a gas furnace that works just fine now?”
As it looks to spend its new climate tax money, the City of Boulder is hoping to level the climate investment playing field. Per the city’s website, the tax will enable “direct cash assistance to homeowners, landlords and businesses to fund energy efficiency upgrades.” That might help someone choose a heat pump over a gas furnace that will emit greenhouse gasses for decades to come.
Yet solving the equity issue of climate change isn’t as simple as getting everyone a heat pump, because the effects of climate change aren’t simple. They’re an interwoven blend of chaos.
To illustrate this, Koehn gave the example of a drought.
Imagine a Colorado forest suffering several years of little rain. Now, just as that drought reaches maturity, a community of beetles welcomes itself into the woods, and thirsty trees, already stressed by the lack of moisture, put up little resistance to hungry insects. Soon standing deadwood makes up every other tree.
Then a wildfire, started by lightning or a careless camper, finds deadwood dried to kindling. The fire gorges itself. Temperatures get so hot the remaining live trees are killed and the soil cooked. So when rain falls a few weeks later, the landscape absorbs nothing. All the storm’s contents careen downstream to flood a nearby town.
“Solutions can be pretty complicated to any single problem,” Koehn said.
And climate-related problems can be more severe in less affluent communities.
A drought often means heat, and those without air-conditioning are at higher risk for heat stroke. And if they can’t afford, or don’t have time, to do costly fire mitigation — removing standing deadwood from near their home — or they’re a renter with a landlord who has no interest in landscaping, their belongings are at higher risk of incineration.
Should a fire roll through, its smoke is more likely to impact people with poorly-insulated windows that leak air, and an old HVAC system that fails to filter that air. And finally, in the case of a flood, most towns prioritize high-value assets, like nicer houses, in flood mitigation efforts, leaving others to bear the brunt of flooding — again, likely without robust insurance.
Boulder’s new climate tax will hopefully address many of these concerns. Grants for residential wildfire mitigation, funding for microgrids and grid resilience, and money for heat pumps (which also work as air conditioners) could ensure everyone enjoys a more resilient future.
“Our investments are now going to the most vulnerable first,” Koehn said. “Equity has to be at the core of all our efforts to reduce our climate impact.”
Long-term funding enables more holistic projects
Carolyn Elam, Energy Systems Senior Manager for the city, said the duration of the tax adds to its benefits.
“One of the things that is valuable in the nature of the tax is that it extends through 2040,” Elam said. “That longer duration really opens up some different tools than we’ve [previously] had available. I can think about a $10 million program instead of a $1 million program that I have to fund from year to year. It opens the door to more holistic solutions that are kind of a long game.”
One of these programs Elam cited was “bigger and more aggressive programs in our more vulnerable housing stock.”
Over the last year, Boulder has been helping manufactured housing communities recover from wind events of last December, including the gusts that encouraged the Marshall Fire. Windows were broken, roofs and shells of homes were damaged, and those living inside didn’t have money for repairs.
“These homes that got damaged are particularly vulnerable [to poor air quality and temperature extremes],” Elam said. “So we’re helping make those repairs to those homes right now.”
The next phase, Elam said, funded by the new tax, will be returning to those manufactured home communities to make efficiency improvements and install “better insulation, better air cleaning and heating/cooling technologies,” she said. “Which will address the fact that many of those houses don’t have access to reliable heating and cooling.”
The long-term goal would be getting these communities local power sources, like onsite solar, or membership to a solar garden, providing greater resilience in the neighborhood.
Spending to benefit the masses
Boulder historically provided solar and energy efficiency rebates to Boulderites, but “the majority of those types of rebates and incentives are tied to property ownership,” Koehn said. “So right there, you’ve excluded 50 percent of our population.”
This is why certain incentives have been removed, like the city’s cost-share program for undergrounding power lines. After doling out more than $600,000 to help homeowners underground their utility cables, the city realized the only people initiating undergrounding projects were property owners in affluent areas of Boulder.
“[We want to ensure] the limited funds available are being directed towards projects that benefit many residents and businesses, not just those who have the financial capacity to cost-share an undergrounding project,” Elam said.
Now, when the city undergrounds utility lines, it concentrates on areas that will protect the most amount of people. “We are focusing [our efforts] on mainline corridor projects,” Elam said.
The city also recently changed its strategy on flood mitigation to prioritize people over property.
But climate change adaptation isn’t Boulder’s only focus. Mitigation — lessening our city’s carbon output to deter the worst of global warming’s effects — is still key.
“I think we recognize now that we’re beyond the point of preventing climate change,” Koehn said. “Now there’s a need to develop strategies to cope with the inevitable challenges we’re going to experience. But that doesn’t mean we’re giving up on mitigation strategies. We know what needs to be done [in terms of mitigation]: We know we need to cut emissions in half by 2030; we know we have to transition off fossil fuels; we know we have to protect our forests and undeveloped land to absorb carbon.”
To achieve these goals, some people will need help transitioning to electric mobility. (With fossil fuels still making up a hefty chunk of Xcel Energy’s portfolio, even if everyone in Boulder soon drives EVs, there’s still going to be lots of new carbon entering the atmosphere — unless Xcel also rapidly shifts its priorities.)
“The idea is to not just put more cars on the road,” Koehn said, referring to people who buy an electric vehicle as an extra car. “The idea is: How do we replace those internal combustion engine vehicles with electric vehicles, and how do we make sure the most vulnerable among us also have access to electric options?”
Accessibility, Koehn said, is key, not just to affordable EVs, but to charging infrastructure. If you don’t have a garage to charge an electric car in, your life could become a constant hunt for a charging station. Do you work from the passenger’s seat while your car is plugged in by Trader Joe’s?
“I’ve lived in two single family houses in Boulder that didn’t have a garage, it was just street parking,” said Matthew Lehrman, Boulder’s policy advisor for energy utilities. He said because of this common issue, the city is asking questions like: “Are there ways to install curb charging stations that would enable neighborhoods to access shared charging?”
The climate tax could fund neighborhood charging stations. But, echoing Koehn’s thoughts on adapting to disasters, Lehrman said decarbonization efforts are never going to focus on just one piece of the puzzle, even within the same sector.
“Electric vehicles are just one part of [electrifying transit],” Lehrman said. “Almost half the hop buses are now electric. We have electric scooter share. We have electric bike share. Certainly cars are one part of it, but there are multiple other components of electric mobility that fit into accessing zero-emissions transportation.”
And multiple components means multiple ways to bring everyone along.