Climate Change Debate Comes to Colorado Hearth

One of the biggest controversies in the May 8 mayoral election in Aspen, Colo., is the fate of a small fire hearth downtown that serves as a popular gathering spot. The city's anti-global warming plan recommends putting out the fire. It says that if the city is serious about stopping global warming, then no measure is too small.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

NPR and National Geographic are launching Climate Connections, a yearlong look at how people are changing Earth's climate and how climate changes the way we live. Climate change is also affecting this week's mayoral election in Aspen, Colorado. The famous ski resort town has a lot to lose as the Earth warms up. But how far residents should go to reduce their carbon emissions has become a heated topic.

Here's Aspen Public Radio's Ben Bergman.

BEN BERGMAN: A few years ago, Aspen realized it had a problem. The city's downtown was empty most of the time. So they did some studies and came up with a way to liven up downtown. Build a natural gas-burning fire hearth.

I'm here at the fire hearth, which is about a block from the Aspen Gondola and near luxury shops like Prada and Gucci. The fire is off right now because it's spring; there are not many people around here now. But in the winter, people pack around warming themselves on the flames. And if that's not enough, there are also heat lamps the city turns on. So there's warmth, community, expensive shopping, what's not to like?

Ms. CALLA OSTRANDER (Employee, Aspen Environmental Health Office): Having an open natural gas burning fire hearth in the middle of downtown stands out as a broken window in terms of behavior for the community.

BERGMAN: That's Calla Ostrander, she works for the city's environmental health office, which came out with something called the Canary Initiative about the same time the hearth was being built. The initiative is a plan for Aspen to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050.

To reach those goals, the initiative have many recommendations: cut back on energy consumption, use more wind power, increase public transportation. There was also another recommendation, shut off the soot-belching fire hearth downtown. Even though the hearth only produces a tiny bit of C02, it could be an important symbolic gesture.

Mr. MICK IRELAND (Candidate for Mayor, Aspen, Colorado): It really makes a statement about us when we gather around and we're burning a non-renewable resource unnecessarily.

BERGMAN: And that's Mick Ireland, one of four candidates running for mayor in the election this Tuesday. Ireland, who rides a bike to every campaign event, has taken a stand against the hearth. One of Ireland's opponents is a local tennis pro whose full legal name is Torre. He says he's the environmental candidate, but Torre thinks dousing the fire hearth goes too far.

Mr. TORRE (Candidate for Mayor, Aspen, Colorado): We all could do a lot to cut down on our energy consumption, but there are certain things that I just wouldn't want you to not do, like wash your clothes perhaps. We could all sit here and say, that, you know what, that's terrible, you shouldn't do that except for maybe in a free running stream because other than that it uses energy. I'm not going to say anything as ludicrous and I think it's the same case with the fire hearth.

BERGMAN: Current Mayor Helen Klanderud doesn't ride a bike for transportation or even drive a Prius. In fact, Aspen's mayor can be seen on the streets of her town cruising around a Jeep Grand Cherokee. She likes the hearth.

Mayor HELEN KLANDERUD (Aspen, Colorado): I happen to think it sends a very positive message that, you know, for a group to gather in warm place does more for interaction among people.

BERGMAN: As mayor, Klanderud wants the world to stay cold enough to keep Aspen a top ski destination. But if she takes too many creature comforts away - the fire hearth, the heated sidewalk - visitors might take off to other ski resorts.

Mayor KLANDERUD: The majority of people will not follow you if you're beating them all the time about what you should do.

BERGMAN: At least some visitors agree.

Mr. GEORGE VAUSLAND(ph) (Resident, Germany): Ridiculous. That's absolutely ridiculous.

BERGMAN: This past week, George Vausland, a tourist from Germany, was chilling by the hearth when he heard about the local controversy.

Mr. VAUSLAND: If you have a fireplace in the middle of the city, it's beautiful for the people. I mean, why do you drive those big cars, why do you have your houses heated in every room, but this fireplace is a good thing. I mean, it attracts people.

BERGMAN: So with all these debate, could there be room for some sort of compromise? Well, maybe. Aspen's Environmental Health Office said this past week that they changed their mind and they'd be okay keeping the hearth, but only if it's powered by some sort of renewable biofuel.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Bergman in Aspen.

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HANSEN: You can explore more of our climate connections coverage at npr.org/climate.

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