Activist Renee Millard-Chacon speaks at a “State of the Climate” rally by environmental groups on the steps of the Colorado Capitol on Jan. 13, 2022. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)
As Gov. Jared Polis stood in the Colorado House of Representatives to deliver his State of the State address on Thursday, dozens of Colorado environmental activists stood just yards away on the steps of the Capitol, once again demanding a more aggressive approach to the climate crisis from state government.
Just weeks after the Marshall Fire became the latest climate-related disaster to strike the state, killing at least one person and razing more than a thousand homes in Boulder County, activists urged Polis to declare a “climate emergency.”
One sign held by a rallygoer featured an image of a burning home and asked: “Who’s next?”
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“We already have a humanitarian crisis here on our streets — with the fires, the tornadoes, the floods, the heat, it is coming,” said activist Harmony Cummings. “Our elected officials are not doing enough to keep us safe.”
The “State of the Climate” rally, organized by a coalition of environmental groups including 350 Colorado, GreenLatinos and Colorado Rising, came as new data released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that the last six months were Colorado’s hottest on record.
In a monthly summary released Thursday, state climatologists with the Colorado Climate Center echoed other experts in identifying a warming climate as a key factor in the unprecedented Marshall Fire, which surpassed the 2013 Black Forest Fire to become the most destructive wildfire in state history. “Underlying climate conditions of drought, record warmth over the previous 6 months, and near record dry air … provided all the ingredients,” the report said.
Inside the Capitol, Polis, too, told lawmakers that recent disasters like the Marshall Fire and last year’s Glenwood Canyon mudslides underscore the urgency of “meeting the climate crisis head-on.”
“I’m grateful for the work my administration has done in partnership with Colorado’s legislative leaders to move our state toward a cleaner, more renewable energy future,” Polis said. “We’ve set Colorado on a path to reducing emissions statewide.”
But that path isn’t aggressive enough for many environmental activists, who want to see more ambitious emissions-cutting policies — and an approach from state government that includes restricting fossil fuel extraction. Their list of demands to Polis includes the development of a plan by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to phase out drilling by 2030.
“Fossil fuels are responsible for 80% of carbon emissions, but it’s business as usual at the COGCC,” said Christiaan van Woudenberg, an anti-fracking activist and member of the Erie Board of Trustees. “Not a single permit has been denied. Governor, in order to keep your promises, you need to stop issuing drilling permits.”
Focus on environmental justice
Wednesday wasn’t the first time Polis’ environmentalist critics have sought to put a spotlight on these issues during his State of the State address. Two years ago, 38 protesters were arrested by Colorado State Patrol officers for a variety of disruptions, including chanting and displaying banners, before and during the governor’s speech in the House chamber. The disruption charges were later dropped.
“No matter how many years in jail they threaten us with, we won’t stop our accountability on Polis or any leader that turns their back on us or future generations,” GreenLatinos activist Ean Thomas Tafoya, who was among those arrested in 2020, told the crowd Thursday.
Activists have clashed for years with Polis and his predecessor, Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper, over the rapid expansion of oil and gas drilling activity in Colorado during the last 15 years. That’s especially the case when it comes to the fossil-fuel industry’s impacts on communities with a long history of pollution, like the neighborhoods that surround the Suncor oil refinery in north Denver and Commerce City or the controversial drilling site near Bella Romero Academy in Greeley.
Thanks in large part to legislation passed by Democrats in the General Assembly, efforts to strengthen protections for “disproportionately impacted communities” have been launched by multiple state agencies in recent years, including the COGCC, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Department of Transportation. But now activists want to see those processes produce tangible results.
“We’re tired of being harmed,” said Renee Millard-Chacon, an activist and co-founder of the Indigenous group Womxn from the Mountain. “We’ve defined disproportionately impacted communities — I’m no longer here to define or be on councils. I’m here to finally bring change.”
Other speakers at the rally included Elisabeth Epps, founder of the Colorado Freedom Fund and a recently declared candidate for House District 6. Epps told rallygoers that the struggle for environmental justice and efforts to reform policing and prisons are linked — noting, for example, that some of those who are hurt the most by more intense and more frequent heat waves are inmates at prisons and jails who often have inadequate air conditioning.
“There are people in this building that have never stood up to power,” Epps said. “If you want leaders that are going to take the actions necessary to protect not just our planet but the people and cultures on it, you need to elect leaders that have already been doing that work.
“I hope this isn’t too controversial — y’all, the Earth is going to make it,” Epps added. “Do you understand that? The Earth is going to last. It’s us that might not make it.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:16 p.m., Jan. 14, 2022, to correct the list of groups who organized the rally. The story previously identified the Sierra Club as an organizer. The Sierra Club was a signatory to the letter submitted by rally organizers to Gov. Polis, but was not involved in the planning of the rally.
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