Governor Polis said he wants to fight climate change. Environmentalists in Colorado don’t believe in it

On January 13, about 200 people gathered outside the state capitol in Denver, beating drums, chanting and waving signs. A poster saying “Your inaction is burning down our state” settled on the grades; Eight protesters dressed in red with huge watches on their faces carry letters that read “Out of Time”. A 12-foot-long canvas holds flame-colored scraps of fabric that read “We Are On Fire Polis.” Inside, Governor Jared Polis was giving his annual State of the State Address.

Environmentalists who gathered at the Capitol that day, members of a now-57-group coalition called United for Colorado Climate — were tired of the state’s worsening air pollution, fracking, and environmental racism. More than anything, they were upset by what they call the Polis administration’s slow response to the climate crisis. Two weeks ago, the Marshall Fire broke out in Superior and Louisville, destroying more than 1,000 homes and putting an exclamation point in their frustration. “We need Polis to be the climate leader he thinks he is,” says Harmony Cummings, organizer with the environmental nonprofit Colorado Rising and one of the main architects of the demonstration. “We’re just trying to get his attention.”

It is unclear whether they succeeded. A few days later, Polis told Colorado Public Radio that he had not heard what the protesters were saying.

Polis’ relationship with climate activists wasn’t always so toxic. In 2018, the then US congressman campaigned for the governor on a promise to transition Colorado’s electric grid to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 and won the endorsement of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club’s Colorado chapter. Cummings herself has spoken to at least 1,000 people as a volunteer at Polis, at times carrying her two young children in a pram while knocking on doors in Denver’s Valverde neighborhood. “I was really excited about what I thought he was a hero for: education, healthcare and the environment,” she says.

Polis seemed eager to repay that belief during his first year in office, by issuing an executive order to promote the sale of electric cars as well as signing landmark pieces of emissions legislation. The aptly named Climate Action Plan — and accompanying bill — pledged to cut Colorado emissions by 26 percent by 2025, 50 percent by 2030, and at least 90 percent by 2050 (using 2005 emissions as a baseline). “In 2019, the legislature passed laws that truly put the state in a position to be a climate leader nationally and globally,” says Alex DiGullia, director of state and regulatory affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund.

But since then, complaints from activists have piled up. “You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the environmental community who feels that Polis’ words match his actions,” Jean Rose, a legislative analyst for the Colorado Coalition for a Liveable Climate, says today.

This is worrying not only for Colorado, but also for anyone hoping for substantive action by world leaders. In a series of dire reports over the past year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body dedicated to studying the environmental crisis, has warned that humans are on course to dangerously warm the planet over the next few years. contracts. If temperatures continue to rise at their current rates, the Earth is rushing toward a future of major fires, severe storms, droughts, food shortages, and ecosystem collapse. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says global warming can still be curbed, but that will require drastically reducing our use of fossil fuels starting now. In June, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the authority to limit emissions from existing power plants, making states and their elected officials all the more important to force systemic change.

If Polis—the progressive governor who has promised climate action and heads the Democratic majority in both houses of the legislature—can’t get it done, well, who can?

The Climate Action Plan may have set ambitious targets, But it did not provide exact directions on how to get there. “The law is only as good as the regulations that make it,” Rose says. Activists claim the Polis administration has a track record of slowing, weakening or crushing policies that would help Colorado achieve its emissions benchmarks — such as the advanced clean truck base.

Climate advocates protested at the state capitol after the Marshall Fire. Governor Jared Polis says he hasn’t heard them. Spencer Campbell’s photo

In places like North Denver and Business City, where Interstates 70, 25 and 270 crisscross through neighborhoods, the constant flow of heavy trucks is causing more damage than just burning greenhouse diesel fuel. They also emit pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and ozone-forming compounds, all of which have been linked to heart disease, asthma and early death. And people who live near those highways — who are mostly Latino and low-income communities — suffer disproportionately.

Building on a California law enacted in 2020, the Advanced Clean Trucks proposal would require automakers to sell an increasing percentage of zero-emission medium and heavy-duty trucks. In Colorado, emissions rules have been proposed by the Air Pollution Control Division (APCD), which is part of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). After that, it is up to the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC), a nine-person body appointed by the governor, to approve, amend or reject it. The AQCC was due to begin the rule-making process for trucking regulations last February — state officials even pushed to look until late 2022 because, says Colorado Office of Energy Director Will Tour, the state needs to focus first on initial steps like installing charging infrastructure . (Tor claims that was only on the February table as a placeholder.) When environmental organizations petitioned the AQCC to expedite consideration of the proposal, the committee said no, citing the need for a rigorous rule-making process.

The AQCC’s explanation seems hollow for Katara Burola, the environmental justice organizer for the Colorado chapter of Mi Familia Vota, a national nonprofit Latino organization for civic engagement. “What we Latinos are seeing in these areas is far more important than the process,” she says. “I tolerate any delays on a personal level, as they affect our people. Black, brown and indigenous communities always feel the most severe cumulative effects of pollution.”

The truck show was the latest in a string of delays and setbacks. After the Climate Action Plan was passed, the country did not meet its deadline to issue new climate rules. In 2021, Polis threatened to veto a bill that would have strictly capped emissions through the economy, prompting lawmakers to weaken the legislation. Last year, CDPHE dropped a plan to encourage green mobility, because big employers opposed it, and delayed another proposed rule on industrial emissions.

“With each base setting slipping, achieving the 2025 and 2030 emissions targets is getting harder and harder,” says Stacey Tlinghausen, director of climate policy at Western Resource Advocates. According to a 2022 analysis by the clean energy nonprofit RMI, Colorado is expected to cut emissions by 33 percent by 2030, well below the 50 percent target. (The study does not include this year’s legislation or current rule-making.)

The governor’s strategy of choosing a carrot over a stick has particularly angered activists. In 2021, for example, the APCD withdrew management’s proposed program to limit employee mobility, which would have required employers to make plans to reduce single-occupancy vehicle movements among their workforce, in favor of financial inducements that would encourage the practice. “Voluntary steps, incentives, grant programs, easier adoption for consumers — these are all great things,” says Democratic Senator Faith Winter, a state Democratic senator, one of the Capitol’s top climate hawks. “But it doesn’t replace rule-making, measurability, and enforcement, especially when we’re talking about cuts in the near term, which are very important.”

Rose, with the Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate, scoffs at incentives. “Why should a company reduce its profits in order to reduce its carbon footprint without having to do so?” She asks. “If we rely on work to be Robin Hood, the planet is dying.”

It is not surprising that the ruler shrugs off criticism from the environmental community. “We’re moving as fast as we can with the urgency of the moment,” Polis tells 5280. “Colorado is really leading the way across the states.” Several climate experts, like Doug Fine of the Virginia-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, rank Colorado among the top 10 or so states for tackling the climate crisis. Tor agrees, the director of the state’s energy office. “Whenever I go anywhere outside of Colorado, what I hear from the defenders is, ‘Oh my God, I wish we could do the things that happen in Colorado. “”

This list includes making commercial and residential buildings greener through cleaner heating standards—and gas utilities now required to reduce carbon emissions by measurable proportions—and incentives for greener electrical appliances, tightening methane emissions in the oil and gas industry, and boosting electric vehicles through rules that require Automakers sell more zero-emissions vehicles, and boost emissions reduction targets for the oil and gas, electrical, and industrial sectors. Last May, Polis signed a package of laws to reduce air pollution through steps such as public transportation incentives. “You won’t be able to do this if you don’t have a conservative committed to climate action,” says Elise Jones, a member of the AQCC.

Polis has accomplished this even though each measure faces opposition from industries that will suffer financially and from Republicans, who oppose climate policy almost worldwide. Moreover, as inflation forces Americans to dig deeper into their fiscal portfolios, policies that can increase prices for consumers are a tough sell. Even Polis, who is running for re-election in November, backtracked on a gas tax increase scheduled for him earlier this year.

Says Auden Schindler, Senior Vice President of Sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company, author of Getting Green Business: Hard Realities from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolutionand a former member of the AQCC. Environmentalists will say we have to move faster. This is true. But it won’t help you if you lose the House and the Senate and get out of office.”

If only one person could be a judge Between Polis and his critics it’s Steve Running. Professor Emeritus of Ecosystem Science and Conservation at the University of Montana, shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work studying climate change for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

His message? Don’t get hung up on emissions targets, because the world doesn’t end the moment we pass them.

World leaders hope to keep the average global temperature increase at 1.5°C. Colorado’s emissions targets were set with this sign in mind. But a rise of 1.49 degrees is not acceptable, and a rise of 1.51 degrees is not a death sentence for all of humanity. “Because this whole issue of climate change will continue into the future for as long as we can imagine,” Jerry says, “anything we do to slow the momentum is worth doing.”

On the other hand, Ring says, even the most laudable climate policy “is not enough and not fast enough. But governors love [Polis] At least they’re trying to do something. Leading by example in the global arena is the best thing the United States can do right now.”

That sentiment is unlikely to satisfy Colorado’s climate activists. At one point during the environmental gathering at the state Capitol last January, Denver journalist David Sirota, who co-wrote the 2021 film Climate Change do not search, took the microphone: “What we all have to do, in every aspect of our lives, is try to get the people in this building, to try to get the people in Washington, to do what needs to be done.” The scientific reality underlying the climate crisis will not change, but the political culture that holds back action can. Perhaps hope, then, lies not in the rulers, but in the people who rule them.

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