By Alex Burness The Denver Post
Despite increasing acceptance of the science of climate change across the state, what to do about it remains a politically sensitive question.
Colorado, as in the world in general, is getting hotter, drier and increasingly susceptible to floods and wildfires, and humans are influencing this climate change by burning fossil fuels, raising livestock and cutting down forests. Among many data points, Coloradans can now look to the fact that prior to this year the state had never seen a wildfire larger than 139,000 acres, and since July alone it’s had three fires at least that big, two of which are still burning.
Although there is scientific consensus about the existential threat climate change poses, and significant incentive for Coloradans of all backgrounds and political stripes to pay attention to it, politicians here have not always found addressing climate change to be a winning issue.
That’s changing now, too.
“Even two years ago, I think there was still some hesitancy,” said Karl Hanlon, Democratic candidate for Senate District 8 in western Colorado, who has worked on climate and water issues for two decades. “Especially in the right-leaning community, there was hesitancy to acknowledge that climate change was there and it was impactful. Well, it’s right square in front of everybody now.”
The Pew Research Center found that in 2020, for the first time in a series of polls dating back to 2002, nearly as many Americans (64%) said environmental issues were a top policy priority as those who said the same of economic issues (67%). Pew also found a 14% jump in just three years in people who believe addressing climate change specifically is a top issue.
This trend has been observed in Colorado as well. A 2020 study out of Colorado College found 63% of Coloradans “think that action should be taken to address climate change” — up 8% since 2011.
That’s encouraging, said Liliana Flanigan, a climate activist who recently graduated from Palisade High School. She grew up in a deep-red area with lots of jobs centered on oil and gas extraction, but she said she’s starting to see more of her neighbors recognize that climate change profoundly threatens the agricultural and public lands that also characterize the region.
“People here are less plugged in to the idea of cities, of pollution,” she said. “But we were hit hard by the Pine Gulch fire. Temperatures are rising; we’re setting record highs.”
The terms of debate on climate action in Colorado politics clearly have shifted, to the point that outright denial of human caused climate change is no longer a popular position among Republicans. Take U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, for example: 2017 comments from the Yuma Republican showed him hedging when pressed about the causes of climate change, but at a recent debate with his opponent, Democrat John Hickenlooper, he said clearly that he accepts the scientific consensus on what’s causing the trend.
But there remains a gulf between Democrats and Republicans, and even within the Democratic Party, over how urgently this global problem should be addressed, and what steps should be taken. Even as he says he accepts one scientific fact, Gardner also slams Hickenlooper — a former oil and gas geologist who opposes the Green New Deal — for voicing the idea that addressing the climate crisis means making fracking obsolete in the coming decades.
Gardner’s position is, more or less, the party line in Colorado. It’s a central theme in the campaign of Republican congressional candidate Lauren Boebert, who’s running to serve southern and western Colorado.
“Yes, I want to make sure our Earth is healthy. But I think that squashing the natural gas industry is the exact wrong way to do that,” said Chelsie Miera, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association, at a recent meet-and-greet for Boebert.
“When you regulate an entire industry out of existence, that’s where I do have a lot of disagreements,” Miera said.
Flanigan said Democrats who set policy in Colorado must do more to meet people with Miera’s viewpoint where they’re at.
“The messaging needs to be very different, for the people out here to understand, ‘Oh, the work that I do is contributing intensely to climate change,’” she said. “It’s difficult to provide a policy solution to, say, somebody whose family has worked three generations in an oil field, to say, ‘Here’s a transitional program.’ That’s what a lot of rural Republicans are trying to avoid.”
Hanlon, in the home stretch of his race challenging GOP state Sen. Bob Rankin, said he’s trying to thread that needle on the trail. He remembers when his family ranch in Jackson County rarely saw a day above 80 degrees and says now, “it feels like half the summer it’s above 90.” He says voters he meets share similar stories, that they see the impacts every day of dry streams and hotter summers, and that increasingly they feel it viscerally. And so he has made climate action a central part of his platform. Climate change is the very first item on the “issues” page of his website, in contrast to Rankin, who is an outspoken advocate for oil and gas jobs, and whose website does not mention climate change.
But Hanlon also has found it a challenge to communicate on the issue without alienating those who, like Miera or Gardner, are most concerned with preserving jobs in extractive industries.
“Frankly, talking about climate could cost me this election,” he said. “Unfortunately, in northwest Colorado the climate conversation has been distilled down to, do you support coal and natural gas and the people who work in those industries, or this idea that it’s an urban climate leftist agenda. That is still being used as a wedge issue out here.”