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Coconino Voices: Addressing climate change is an ultramarathon, not a sprint

Coconino Voices: Addressing climate change is an ultramarathon, not a sprint

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Ultrarunning — anything more than the standard 26.2 mile marathon, generally on trails rather than pavement — is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. Participation is up 350% in the last decade with more than a half-million people competing in ultramarathon events in 2018 (including our very own Senator Kyrsten Sinema).

I rarely feel more at home than when I’m in the woods; being in the mountains and amongst the trees is a release from the stress of life. It’s a sentiment that I share with the four million Arizonans that participate in outdoor recreation every year.

The sport requires a combination of planning, speed, endurance and grit—the same attributes we are going to need from all of our elected officials to take meaningful action on climate.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed the Senate is the first mile of the ultramarathon that scientists say we will need to complete if we are to prevent the most dire of climate outcomes. Losing this race is simply not an option. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists recently issued a "code red." If we are going to "win" the race of our and future generations' lifetimes, we need to not only finish, but pick up the pace immediately by making deep cuts in emissions of greenhouse gases to stabilize rising temperatures with every step.

As an ultrarunner, you get used to being uncomfortable; you don’t set out to run back-to-back marathons through some of the toughest terrain on Earth if you can’t sweat through a little bit of pain. But heat, terrain options and having clear air, have made ultrarunning even more difficult in recent years due to climate change.

While wildfires are a natural part of the ecology of the Western U.S., climate change has undoubtedly increased both their frequency and severity. These fires have closed trails where I train and compete. And wildfire smoke poses an enormous threat to the respiratory health not only of runners, but also the 50 million Americans who recreate outdoors, a group that Protect Our Winters calls the Outdoor State. One recent study found that the compounds released by wildfires are more likely to cause inflammation and oxidative stress in the lungs than comparable particulates found in urban settings. This is of particular concern to athletes, who need every ounce of oxygen we can muster to perform at our highest levels, particularly at elevation.

As an athlete, I’m constantly setting goals for myself, and solving the climate crisis is no different. As part of the Paris Agreement, the U.S. committed to a big goal of reducing its emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2030. It’s a big goal, but with focus and commitment, one that we can and must achieve. The IPCC study authors says that the 1.5C temperature increase we are working to avoid through the Paris Agreement will be reached by 2040 in all scenarios. And if emissions aren't slashed in the next few years, we will reach that mark even sooner.

After working backward on climate for years, we have arrived late to the starting line. Meeting these goals will be a real challenge, requiring not only grit and tenacity, but seizing upon opportunities to make up for lost time. We will need our leaders to move quickly on the new infrastructure investments including updating to a more resilient electrical grid for our renewable energy future and building a network of EV charging stations.

And for Senators Sinema and Kelly to take the next urgent step by ensuring that the budget reconciliation makes climate change a top priority by including a clean energy standard that would require power companies to replace fossil fuels with renewable sources such as solar, wind, and hydropower, clean energy tax credits, impose fees on methane and carbon polluters, provide new consumer rebates to help electrify and weatherize homes, and electrify the federal vehicle fleet and buildings.

Addressing climate change is an ultramarathon, not a sprint. Being out in the elements for many, many miles is to expect daunting obstacles and come to the starting line with a willingness to overcome all unforeseen challenges—especially those that climate change is throwing our way.

Getting across the finish line is always the most difficult part, but what helps me finish strong is a clear sense of purpose, and there is certainly no clearer purpose than securing a healthy future for all Arizonans. We look to the entire Arizona delegation to ensure that climate-related provisions are made a priority in the upcoming budget reconciliation process. And then for them to continue at a new, faster, more urgent pace in addressing climate because this ultra will require both speed and tenacity to win. This is a race we must win, because the prize purse is the most valuable of all — life on earth.

Jim Walmsley was named UltraRunner of the Year for four years in a row and is a member of the Protect Our Winters Athlete Alliance. He was born and raised in Phoenix and now calls Flagstaff home.


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