Climate misinformation still reigns in GOP Senate primary amid Colorado drought, fires
Rep. Ron Hanks mistakes climate change with ‘weather’
A home burns after a fast moving wildfire swept through the area in the Centennial Heights neighborhood of Louisville on Dec. 30, 2021. (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)
Residents in Big Thompson Canyon east of Estes Park became the latest Coloradans to flee their homes in fear of a nearby wildfire on Monday, just hours after the NCAR Fire forced evacuations and closures 30 miles to the south in Boulder.
It’s been three months since the Marshall Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes and left two people dead, and nearly two years since Colorado’s three largest wildfires on record burned in the summer and fall of 2020, razing mountainsides, choking the skies with haze and eventually causing mudslides that killed four people in Larimer County and left Interstate 70 in Glenwood Canyon shut down for weeks.
The increasingly tangible impacts of the climate-driven “megadrought” that has affected much of Colorado since 2000 — stressed water supplies, more intense wildfires, losses in the agricultural and tourism sectors — have served as a rallying cry for Democrats who highlight the urgent need to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But the 2022 campaign season has brought little sign of a change in Colorado Republicans’ long-running pattern of denying or downplaying human-caused climate change.
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In the crowded GOP primary for U.S. Senate, misinformation, half-truths and conspiracy theories still dominate candidates’ rhetoric on climate and energy issues.
State Rep. Ron Hanks of Cañon City, the race’s only sitting lawmaker, said earlier this month that climate change is a Chinese hoax designed to “emasculate” the American economy.
Eli Bremer, a first-time candidate and former Olympic pentathlete, has spread debunked claims that wind power emits more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels.
And Gino Campana, a former Fort Collins city councilman who once supported the city’s emissions-cutting programs and co-founded a clean-energy startup, has joined other Republicans in blasting Democrats for holding back domestic energy production — an assertion belied by the oil and gas industry’s own statements.
Ahead of the state GOP assembly next month, climate change has rarely come up in debates and other campaign events featuring Republican Senate candidates. Several leading contenders ignored repeated requests from Newsline to comment on climate issues, and none have detailed a plan to achieve the greenhouse gas emissions cuts that an overwhelming scientific consensus says is necessary to avoid increasingly catastrophic effects. Other GOP candidates who filed to run for the Senate seat include Joe O’Dea, Deborah Flora, Greg Moore and Peter Yu. Observers generally name Hanks, Bremer and Campana among the frontrunners.
“Human-induced climate change, including more frequent and intense extreme events, has caused widespread adverse impacts and related losses and damages to nature and people, beyond natural climate variability,” wrote 270 scientists in the latest report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last month. “The magnitude and rate of climate change and associated risks depend strongly on near-term mitigation and adaptation actions, and projected adverse impacts and related losses and damages escalate with every increment of global warming.”
‘It’s called weather’
A Colorado College poll released last month found that 82% of Centennial State voters agreed that climate change is a serious problem, up from 60% in 2011. Nearly 7 in 10 Coloradans say they’re supportive of climate action, including efforts to transition to 100% clean energy within “the next ten to fifteen years,” the school’s annual State of the Rockies poll found.
Republican voters, however, are much more evenly split on the issue, with about half declaring climate change “not a problem,” according to poll results across an eight-state Western region. And despite periodic predictions of a Republican shift on climate issues from pollsters and pundits, little about party leaders’ views has changed over the last decade.
During his six-year U.S. Senate term, former Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner acknowledged that “the climate is changing” but consistently cast doubt on the extent to which warming is human-caused. The same position is held by many Republicans in the state Legislature, including Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker, who said of “so-called climate change” during a floor debate last year: “I do not believe that it is man-made.”
In fact, virtually all of the 1.07 degrees Celsius average global temperature increase observed since 1850 has been the result of rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations “unequivocally caused by human activities,” IPCC scientists wrote last year. Non-human drivers like solar and volcanic activity and natural variability have had no quantifiable long-term effect.
Hanks, a first-term lawmaker who was present at the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol and a leading proponent of conspiracy theories relating to the 2020 election, staked out the primary’s most extreme position on climate change at a candidate forum earlier this month.
Asked how he would respond to concerns about climate change in a general election matchup with incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, Hanks replied that Republicans need to “start marketing the truth.”
“I don’t want to sit here and pretend climate change is a real issue. It’s called weather,” Hanks said to laughter and applause, according to video posted by his campaign.
Echoing baseless claims made by former President Donald Trump, Hanks called climate change a “serious effort from China to emasculate us” by impeding domestic manufacturing and economic growth.
Bremer, a onetime chair of the El Paso County Republican Party, is among the only candidates in the primary to have publicly addressed the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. “Our approach should be led by data, science, and common sense rather than tilting to the political winds of the day,” reads a section devoted to environmental policy on his website.
But Bremer’s recent claims about emissions from renewable energy sources like wind turbines are contradicted by a vast body of existing research.
“On the yardstick of greenhouse gas emissions, environmental policies fail … If you look at windmills, there’s a lot of greenhouse gas emission cost that we gloss over,” Bremer said in a March 23 Fox News interview, claiming that the emissions resulting from the manufacture and construction of wind farms offsets their lower operating emissions. “Virtually every expert that I’ve talked to believes that the overall return is negative.”
In fact, a 2021 analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden concluded that even when “total life cycle” emissions are calculated wind energy projects produce only a tiny fraction of the emissions of fossil-fuel-powered electricity generation. Evaluating the results of hundreds of previous studies, researchers concluded that the 13 grams of CO2-equivalent emissions per kilowatt-hour produced by wind generation — nearly all the result of one-time construction emissions — are 77 times smaller than the emissions from a typical coal plant and 37 times smaller than emissions from a natural gas plant.
From smart-grid investor to ‘unleash Colorado energy’
Campana, a wealthy real estate developer who served a term on the Fort Collins City Council between 2013 and 2017, has attracted establishment support for his Senate candidacy, including endorsements from former Trump administration figures like Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Kellyanne Conway, who joined Campana’s campaign as an advisor last month.
During his city council term, Campana frequently aligned himself with Fort Collins’ ambitious emissions-cutting efforts. In 2014, he voted to approve an update to the city’s climate action plan, which aimed to reduce emissions 80% by 2030, and endorsed another resolution calling for the city to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. In 2016, he also expressed support for the “objectives” of a legal brief filed by city officials in support of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, though he didn’t vote in favor of it. The Trump administration later gutted the policy.
Years earlier, Campana had been one of four founders of Windsor-based Ice Energy, a manufacturer of thermal energy storage systems. Experts say so-called “smart grid” technologies are a key part of the transition to a fully renewable electric grid, helping improve efficiency and offset the intermittency of wind and solar resources.
In 2010, Ice Energy received millions in government funding in the form of tax credits authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — the same stimulus bill under which California-based solar panel manufacturer Solyndra received a $535 million federal loan guarantee that became notorious among conservatives after the firm went bankrupt a year later. Campana reported income from Ice Energy in a financial disclosure as late as 2013; the company later moved out of Colorado and declared bankruptcy in 2019.
In a financial disclosure filed earlier this year, Campana estimated his net worth at between $44 million and $141 million, and detailed an extensive list of corporate stock holdings that include tens of thousands of dollars invested in both fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Occidental Petroleum and clean-energy firms like Tesla and Vestas Wind.
As he looks to win support from the GOP base ahead of next month’s state assembly — and fight off attacks from opponents who say his city council record makes him a “tax-and-spend-liberal” — Campana has positioned himself as a champion of the oil and gas industry, calling on policymakers to “unleash Colorado energy.”
“Biden and Bennet are stifling America’s energy production, costing us jobs and higher gas prices,” he wrote in a tweet earlier this month. That’s a widely repeated GOP attack line that’s contradicted by the thousands of approved drilling permits held by oil and gas producers in Colorado and beyond, and the repeated assurances companies have made to investors to limit production growth.
On his website, Campana touts his “background in environmental engineering” and endorses an “all of the above energy strategy” that he says can lead to reduced emissions.
Scientists, however, warn that plans for continued fossil fuel production by governments around the world are “dangerously out of sync” with the targets outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which called for limiting average global temperature rise to 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius.
“The research is clear: Global coal, oil, and gas production must start declining immediately and steeply to be consistent with limiting long-term warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Ploy Achakulwisut, a lead author on the 2021 U.N. Production Gap report, said upon the report’s release last year. “However, governments continue to plan for and support levels of fossil fuel production that are vastly in excess of what we can safely burn.”
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