Op Ed: Colorado's Climate Gap and the Path Forward

The ClimateGap

You may not have taken the time to think about it just yet, but virtually all of us in Colorado have already been affected in some way by the challenges of climate change. Whether it’s forest fires, drought, extreme floods or abysmal snowpack, we’re beginning to see the fallout from climate change across the state. What we used to assume was tomorrow’s crisis is happening today. And yet, the suffering is not evenly spread across the state.

Underserved communities in Colorado’s urban centers are being hit first and worst by the effects of climate change. The theory of the Climate Gap encapsulates this growing problem — the disproportionate and unequal impact the climate crisis has on poor and largely minority communities living in more polluted areas of the state.

In Colorado, many people have been struggling to manage the challenges of climate change for decades. For example, the climate gap means that underprivileged communities living in inequitable conditions are suffering more during extreme heat waves. Areas like metropolitan Denver are already experiencing intensified heat waves as the heat island effect makes summer even more grueling than in nearby rural areas. To make things worse, the West has seen a larger increase in average temperature in the past decade than any other part of the country. Without access to air conditioning or cars to escape the heat, families living below the poverty line are at a much higher risk for mortality than others.

Because of the climate gap, poor and minority communities in our urban centers will breathe even dirtier air than the rest of the state. Denver is notorious for its sub-par air quality — in fact, Denver was just rated the fourteenth most polluted city in America for high ozone according to the American Lung Association. In another terrifying realization pointed out by the Denver Business Journal , zip code 80216 in the northeast corner of the city is the most polluted zip code in the entire U.S.

What does this mean for families living in Denver, especially those that fall below the poverty line? It means their heavily-polluted neighborhoods pose a hazard to their health. It means they are projected to suffer from the largest increase in smog associated with climate change. It also means more cases of asthma among children, more missed school days, more unpaid days for the caring parents, less income for families who already struggle to access reliable and affordable transportation and more missed hospital and health care appointments. This is just the beginning in a long list of other concerns that ripple outward as we link climate change to equity, diversity and inclusion.

Where America Stands

With the Trump administration in charge, America has abruptly turned its back on national and international climate mitigation initiatives, including the Paris Agreement. Fortunately, in this vacuum of federal leadership on climate progress, many local, state and regional governments have taken the reins on greenhouse gas reductions. Initiatives such as the U.S. Climate Alliance,  America’s Pledge and We Are Still In represent bold commitments to reduce emissions to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. These groups continue to work alongside the rest of the world to limit the increase in global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The organizations and individuals who have signed on to these initiatives represent $10.1 trillion in GDP from the United States alone.

In Colorado, Governor John Hickenlooper recently reaffirmed our state’s commitment to climate progress with a 2018 update to the Colorado Climate Plan. The state objective focuses on cutting greenhouse gases by 26 percent from 2005 levels by 2025 and cutting CO2 emissions from the electricity sector by 25 percent compared to 2012 by 2025 and 35 percent by 2030. The updated plan outlines exciting advances in climate change management at the state level, as well as the progress that has been made since the release of the initial plan in 2015. Lastly, it takes into account changes in both global and federal climate policy that have necessitated an altered path for Colorado’s climate efforts.

Colorado citizens can take pride in knowing that this plan is more than just talk and that impactful steps have already been taken. Over the last three years, Colorado has joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, adopted the statewide electric vehicle plan, and passed the Denver Green Roof Initiative. These efforts represent our state’s progressive approach to climate action and eagerness to make a difference.

And so there is some light in a somewhat bleak outlook. Through strategic collaboration, individuals and organizations across the country are advancing climate change action despite federal-level barriers. In Colorado, our climate policies and plans are integrating environmental justice into the equation for climate change solutions.

But there is no way to debate the fact that we still have a long way to go. Despite our many steps forward, the authors of the 2018 Climate Plan recognize that, “for communities with inequitable living conditions, such as low-income and communities of color living in more polluted areas, climate change is likely to exacerbate existing vulnerabilities.” This open awareness of an ever-growing concern for many Coloradans is a crucial step in opening the doors to a future solution.

Where You Come In: Climate + Equity

Governor Hickenlooper and his senior staff spent time at the Alliance Center discussing the updated Colorado Climate Plan and how we can meet Colorado’s state goal with actions at all levels: personal, community, and government. If you missed this important conversation, you can catch up on the Governor’s remarks and find out how to get involved in Colorado’s road forward.

Here at The Alliance Center, we intentionally integrate equity into all aspects of our work. We believe that a climate change solution that is not founded on environmental justice is not a solution at all. Integrating equity into each aspect of our work takes dedication, clarity and plenty of help. In 2018 we will continue to create new educational and collaborative initiatives that feature equity at their core. For example, our Climate + Series connects climate change to everyday issues such as health or housing to give Coloradans the tools to take action in their own day-to-day lives.

As organizations statewide try to bring citizens together to create sustainable solutions, groups like The Alliance Center are working to break down the barriers to participation for members of under-served communities. Climate change is affecting each of us, and no community should have to carry the burden of these challenges more than another. If you’re interested in becoming part of the solution, read more about simple steps you can take to make Colorado a better place for all of its citizens.

Ashley Lovell is the director of communications and marketing at the Alliance Center.

Westword occasionally publishes opinion pieces on issues of importance in Colorado. If you'd like to submit one, email editorial@westword.com; you can respond to this piece at the same address.

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