As activists from 350 Colorado and other environmental groups lobbied lawmakers at the State Capitol on Tuesday, January 15, one thing quickly sank in: When it comes to climate change, there are scientific realities and there are political realities.
The science is clear: With global greenhouse gas emissions still rising, the world has a rapidly dwindling “carbon budget,” and drastic, immediate emissions cuts are necessary to avoid disastrous levels of warming. The path endorsed by the world’s top climate authority, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, calls for cutting overall emissions 45 percent by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
On the political front, however, Colorado leaders have some catching up to do; no one, not even Governor Jared Polis, has proposed a set of climate policies that would commit the state to meeting those IPCC-defined goals. Activists visited legislators on Tuesday in the hopes of changing that.
“We’re all here today because we know climate change is an emergency,” Micah Parkin, executive director of 350 Colorado, told activists who gathered for the group’s Climate Lobby Day at the Capitol. “We don’t have time for half-measures anymore. We need serious reductions.”
After a brief training session in the basement of the First Baptist Church, about seventy activists moved across the street to the Capitol, where they sought out their representatives and lobbied them on a range of climate and environmental issues. The group’s top priority is legislation that commits Colorado to a much more aggressive timeline for carbon-emissions cuts; the state’s current target, set by former governor John Hickenlooper in 2017, is a 26 percent cut statewide by 2025. 350 Colorado wants the state to achieve a 100 percent cut — i.e., net-zero emissions — by 2035 or sooner.
Top Democrats in the legislature, most notably House Speaker KC Becker, have said that addressing climate change is a priority this session, which runs until May 3. But while the details of potential climate legislation are still being hammered out behind closed doors, there were signs Tuesday that ambitious measures could prove an uphill climb — particularly in the state Senate, where Democrats have a slim three-seat majority compared to their seventeen-seat margin in the House.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat and supporter of more aggressive climate action, met with Parkin and other activists in his office and delivered both encouragement and a reality check.
“The question is: How far can we go?” Fenberg said. “What is the most we can accomplish this year to get something across the finish line on these issues? I think that does mean some emissions-reduction goals, but the devil is in the details of what those numbers are.”
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Polis has promised to put the state on a path to a 100 percent renewable electric grid by 2040 — but electricity generation accounts for less than a third of Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to state data. In order to make the necessary cuts, the state must address emissions from other sources, including the transportation and heating sectors. Polis has yet to endorse broader decarbonization goals, and while that’s likely to change in the coming months, activists are keen to make sure that any new targets match up with climate scientists’ latest findings.
“We’ve heard about an emissions reduction bill that’s [aiming for] an 80 or 90 percent reduction by 2050,” says Parkin. “And that’s just simply not in line with what the science is telling us right now.”
Parkin and her fellow activists, all but a few of whom are volunteers, dispersed after their brief morning meetings with legislators on Tuesday. For a sign of what they’re up against, one need look no further than one of the next events on the legislative calendar: Wednesday, January 16, is Colorado Oil and Gas Day at the Capitol, which will see a small army of lobbyists, consultants and executives pressure lawmakers to safeguard fossil-fuel interests. But activists hope that with new leadership at the Capitol, the oil and gas industry’s grip on the levers of power in Colorado has finally been broken.
“They have money on their side, but we have truth on our side, and scientific reality on our side,” says Parkin. “Ultimately, truth wins out.”