Our future, health depends on climate action

Colorado is at a turning point

May 29, 2021 6:44 am

A photograph taken by firefighting personnel battling the Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon. (Rocky Mountain Incident Management Team/BLM)

I just wrapped up my senior year at Colorado State University. It was one defined by many challenges like the COVID-19 crisis, devastating wildfires and adjusting to a new, virtual normal. In the past year and a half, the intersections of our environment and health have been exposed more than ever.

In Fort Collins, we breathe some of the most polluted air in the country, exacerbated this year by smoke from the most intense, uncharacteristic fires in state history. We also saw continuous virus outbreaks devastate our people, schools, and businesses. And in places with diminished air quality, COVID-19 caused higher rates of infection, hospitalization and death.


Yet in the midst of the pandemic, the 2020 presidential election offered a sign of hope. For the first time, Coloradans are under a federal and state government that promised plans to address the public health and climate crisis. My generation knows that the threat of more pandemics and climate disruption are too high, and we are determined to hold our leaders accountable in delivering on their campaign commitments.

Right now, Colorado is at a turning point: We can choose to robustly transition to clean energy, diversify our economy and prevent more climate warming, or we can fall back into our dirty fossil fuel past. There are two clear, immediate ways to take action today. First, Gov. Jared Polis must sign Senate Bill 21-200 into law, despite his threat to veto the bill. The legislation would hold Colorado’s biggest polluters accountable in meeting the state’s climate goals and ensure the most impacted communities are centered in the process. And, secondly, the Biden administration should make its pause on fossil fuel leasing on public lands permanent. Both of these moves will significantly reduce greenhouse gas output and help us reverse the trend of damaged air, depleted water and climate disruption.

At this moment, our lack of climate progress is met with the reality that our region is facing increasingly intensified drought, lingering vulnerability to COVID-19 outbreaks, and a projected devastating fire season. With climate change, wildfires are growing more frequent and dangerous. In recent years, forest fire smoke accounted for up to half of air pollution in the West.

I urge our leaders to be bold in this moment. We do not have time to waste.

Along with vulnerability to our health, fossil fuel dependency puts the stability of our economy at risk. Our state’s fossil fuel addiction has pigeonholed us into a boom-and-bust cycle. We’ve suffered fleeting jobs and unpredictable revenue streams — funds that are meant for our schools, public services and health care. My generation has been saddled with the opportunity to help rebuild our state and country into one with long-term, good-paying jobs that center on community investment and sustainability. That requires transitioning off of fossil fuels in a way that provides a just transition for oil and gas workers into clean energy and environmental remediation jobs.

There is no question that fossil fuel activity is contributing to both our health and climate crisis. As of 2019, leases sold on public lands in Colorado for drilling and fracking could have emitted up to 184 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. Fossil fuel activities on public lands make up nearly 25% of our emissions nationwide. Communities near oil and gas extraction sites are at a much heightened risk of danger from air pollution and health consequences as hundreds of drilling and fracking wells sit abandoned and leaking.

I urge our leaders to be bold in this moment. We do not have time to waste. Polis must sign SB-200 into law to put his own climate Roadmap into action, and the Biden administration should work to expeditiously phase out oil and gas drilling on public lands. The future is brighter the sooner we transition away from fossil fuel dependence. As a young person, I hope to see a world that is rooted in health, equity and sustainability — not just for our generation, but for those who come after us.


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Madi Smith
Madi Smith

Madi Smith is a senior at Colorado State University and from Fort Collins.