Homes and businesses destroyed by wildfire are seen on August 14, 2023 ,in Lahaina, Hawaii. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The results of a recent annual poll of Coloradans showed that their top concerns are the cost of living and housing affordability. Humans are facing the most dire threat to their existence since they appeared on the planet, but the climate crisis merited only a middle-of-the-pack placement in the poll, behind “government” and “overdevelopment.”
This alarming apathy is present throughout the country.
The U.S. is the second largest greenhouse gas villain, yet among the world’s biggest emitters comparatively few Americans worry much about climate change, according to a recent Yale Program on Climate Change Communication survey. And the U.S. has the most people, by far, who outright dismiss the notion that humans are causing climate change.
Meanwhile, global warming, which there is no serious doubt is the result of humans pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, is causing universal mayhem.
June was the hottest June ever recorded. Then came July, likely the hottest-ever month on Earth in 120,000 years. The devastation in Maui is only the latest lethal manifestation of a warming planet. Wildfires, extreme weather, melting ice sheets, ailing oceans and other symptoms of worldwide ecological catastrophe are everywhere upon us and getting worse. The changing climate is killing tens of thousands of people, and many more face displacement and property loss. The survival of countless whole species, including humans, is at stake.
Yet Americans aren’t all that concerned. Why?
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It mostly boils down to dishonesty and greed. Fossil fuel corporations have gargantuan investments to protect and the financial wherewithal to ply public officials. Their rhetoric of denial and false pragmatism has created a political environment in which half measures are ballyhooed and gradualism reigns.
But nature’s systems are blinking red. Incremental measures mean more death. Immediate, bold, decisive action is the only possible response to a crisis that otherwise will obliterate whole swaths of habitable Earth.
Colorado gets much credit, some of it deserved, for relatively enlightened climate policies. Democrats in the Legislature passed sweeping environment-focused changes to regulation of oil and gas production and set aggressive statewide emission reduction targets.
But, in light of the climate crisis, the state’s failures increasingly stand out.
Colorado is not on track to meet its own greenhouse gas emission reduction goals. According to a state analysis, oil and gas production in Colorado is projected to increase through about 2030. State officials, particularly Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, too often rely on market-driven and voluntary action, which allows pollution to accumulate and kill.
These are intolerable conditions for a state that postures as a climate leader.
While the climate crisis is ignored, too many people will pay the ultimate price.
The single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Colorado is Xcel Energy’s Comanche 3 coal-fired power plant in Pueblo. At one point the plant was expected to operate until 2070, but a series of negotiations shortened its projected lifespan, and it’s now expected to shut down by Jan. 1, 2031, representing the date on which the last coal-fired power plant in the state would shutter.
The early closure was hailed as a landmark achievement for the environment. But the truth is that this monster is authorized to spew poison into the air for the better part of the decade. That’s no achievement to celebrate.
Coloradans should demand a pace of progress that meets the emergency. The burning of coal, among the most damaging fossil fuels, for which there are affordable green alternatives, would cease today under a sane climate policy. Oil and gas production would come to a halt in favor of publicly-supported development of renewable energy sources and the new technologies needed to propel a rapid transition.
There is lately some momentum for emergency climate response. A proposed statewide ballot measure would end new oil and gas fracking permits in the state by the end of 2030. A landmark case in Montana was decided in favor of youth plaintiffs who demanded the state follow its own constitution and protect their environment. The case, Held v. Montana, was the first that challenged state and national climate policies to make it to trial in the U.S., and it’s akin to Juliana v. United States, in which youth plaintiffs on constitutional grounds seek climate protections on a national level.
These young people have the right idea — and they have more to lose in a warming world than anyone. Their elders are failing them in downplaying climate change or dismissing the science that shows humans are wrecking their home.
Maybe the new reality of unlivable heat in Phoenix will persuade doubters. Maybe the increasing prospect of snowless mountains in ski-crazy Colorado will shake residents from their stupor. Maybe more than a hundred dead in Maui will change the perspective.
Coloradans are justified in their concern about the cost of living. But while the climate crisis is ignored, too many people will pay the ultimate price.
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