Apr 30, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Jon Lamson | Illustration by Xixi Qin
On the final Tuesday of Block 7, instead of studying for exams and writing their final papers, Colorado College students representing the Colorado Springs Sunrise Hub waited for four hours to virtually submit testimony in favor of Colorado Senate Bill 21-200, a bill which they see as essential to addressing the climate crisis in Colorado.
The Hub Coordinator Olivia Jacobson ’22 represented the student group at the bill’s hearing with the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee. She spoke personally about how wildfires have affected her life, and the growing risk of wildfires due to greenhouse gas emissions.
“This is no longer an issue that will only affect our futures,” Jacobson said. “It is affecting us, our families, and our neighbors right now, particularly Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, low-income communities, and other marginalized groups. We feel fear in our hearts as we anticipate another hot and fire-filled summer, overlaid on top of the ongoing pandemic.”
Following the hearing, the bill passed the Transportation and Energy Committee by one vote, along party lines.
“I think we definitely have an important perspective speaking for young people in our state,” Jacobson said about her experience at the hearing. “This should’ve been solved 30 years ago, and so the next best time to take action on it is now.”
The contested bill puts teeth behind Gov. Polis’ Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap, which aims to create a path to achieve the state’s emissions goals of a 50% reduction by 2030, and a 90% reduction by 2050, which were passed by the legislature and signed into law in 2019.
Climate advocates have criticized Polis’ ‘roadmap’ for lacking concrete methods of enforcement. To bolster the plan, the recently-introduced Senate bill sets deadlines for sector-specific emissions goals, requires electricity generation companies to develop energy plans to eliminate emissions by 2040, and creates the position of an environmental justice ombudsperson and an environmental justice advisory board in the Department of Public Health and Environment.
The bill centers environmental justice while addressing the climate crisis, and requires the Air Quality Control Commission (which is tasked with creating policies and rules to reduce emissions to meet the state’s climate commitments) to consider the social impacts of greenhouse gases.
“This bill is basically taking Polis’ ‘roadmap’ and trying to lock those promises into legislature, so that it’s not just some empty words,” said Filip Čarnogurský ’23, a Bonner Fellow working with the Sierra Club and the Colorado Springs Sunrise Hub. “With the current policies and plans, we are not even halfway there to meet the 2050 goals. So that’s why I think this bill is necessary.”
At the hearings, Sunrise was joined by other environmental groups including the Colorado Sierra Club and Earthjustice, Indigenous activists, and other social justice organizations advocating for the bill. They faced opposition from fossil fuel, mining, and utilities companies, as well as representatives for Gov. Polis.
Gov. Polis announced his intention to veto the bill in a recent meeting with the Colorado Springs Gazette editorial board. The board has also announced its opposition to the bill; notably, the Gazette endorsed Donald Trump in the 2020 election, citing Trump’s energy and climate policy.
According to Polis, the bill limits the state’s flexibility in reducing emissions, and gives too much power to the Air Quality Control Commission, which is appointed by the Governor.
In his interview with the Gazette, Polis said that the bill would give “dictatorial authority over our economy to one unelected board that lacks the broader mandate and experience.”
Polis’ response to the bill has angered activists, many of whom were encouraged by the governor’s rhetoric on climate change during his campaign and from his administration’s ‘roadmap’.
“He uses these words like ‘top-down approach’ and the ‘dictatorial approach’ of the bill to companies, and says we need more talking between businesses and politicians,” said Čarnogurský. “But he’s really just supporting the status quo, even though we know that the status quo is not going to solve anything. To me it is just a huge hypocrisy.”
Julieta Lechini ’22, another Bonner Fellow and the chair of the Chair of Aprender Mediante Amistad (a student club that tutors ESL students and advocates for immigrant rights), also took issue with Polis’ comments.
“When we started working on this, we didn’t know what the governor was going to do, but we never imagined that he would openly say that he would veto his own plan of action,” Lechini said. “These companies have a lot of money — I’m not quite sure how top-down this is. It’s very much top-top.”
For the student activists advocating for the bill, it has been a busy couple of weeks. Following the hearing for the Transportation and Energy Committee, a group of students from the Sunrise Hub met with State Senator Pete Lee, who represents central Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs. Lee was supportive of their efforts and invited them to speak at this Wednesday’s hearing for the Senate Finance Committee. Following the hearing, the climate bill passed along party lines, with Lee’s support.
However, many obstacles remain in the bill’s path to becoming law. First, it must pass the Senate Appropriations Committee, after which it will appear on the Senate floor. If it passes both, it will have to face committees in the Colorado House of Representatives, followed by a general vote. If different versions of the bill are passed by the House and Senate, it will head to a conference committee to reconcile the differences and write a final version of the bill, which then must be voted on by both chambers. Only then will it then be placed on Gov. Polis’ desk.
But despite the obstacles, and Gov. Polis’ indication that he will veto the bill, the student activists remain optimistic and resolute in their advocacy around the bill.
“We can still push Governor Polis to not veto it,” Čarnogurský said. “If we organize ourselves enough around Colorado, I think it will still be possible to pass it.”