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Politics and Government

Andrew Romanoff goes apocalyptic on climate change. But will fear drive support for his U.S. Senate bid?

The insurgent Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate uses his first campaign video to hit rivals John Hickenlooper and Cory Gardner

A screenshot from former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff's new campaign video in Colorado's Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. (Provided by the Romanoff campaign)
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In the first video for his U.S. Senate campaign, Democrat Andrew Romanoff declares a climate apocalypse is near.

The bleak, 4-minute miniature movie starts “in the not so distant future” focused on a family in Colorado Springs hiding inside a foil-lined bunker from 127-degree heat and poor air quality outdoors.

“Mommy says baby brother will be born soon — that it’s not safe for him, or for me,” a little child says. She finishes: “I just hope we can see the sunshine again one day.”

The doomsday scene is designed to shock viewers and take viral the campaign’s argument that Colorado’s competitive U.S. Senate race is key to the future of the climate change debate. Romanoff says in the video that the election represents “a last in a lifetime chance to rescue the world we know and the hopes of billions not yet born.”

The hyperbolic tone speaks to Romanoff’s insurgent campaign for the Democratic nomination in a primary against former Gov. John Hickenlooper, the well-funded preferred pick of the national party. Still, the video is a risky play that seeks to use fear to motivate voters to act, an unproven tactic that may alienate others.

“I think the most frightening part (of the video) is that it’s not unimaginable,” Romanoff told The Colorado Sun in an interview ahead of its release. “I don’t know when (Colorado) looks like that, but for many parts of the world, that hellscape is already here.”

Democrat Andrew Romanoff, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Colorado, attended the climate strike protest in Denver on Sept. 20, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Romanoff narrates a dark tale aimed at his opponents

Romanoff plays the role of narrator starting 80 seconds into the video and talks in a somber tone as images of wildfires, hurricanes, refugees and a rotting animal corpse are juxtaposed against pollution-emitting power plants. 

“This is not the stuff of fiction or some far off threat,” Romanoff says in the video, his voice crackling as if through a radio. “This is a clear and present danger to life on Earth.”

Halfway through, Romanoff turns to the U.S. Senate race. He shows a video clip of Hickenlooper testifying to Congress in 2013 in defense of the fracking fluid used by Haliburton, suggesting his rival is “business as usual” and compromised by corporate influence. He flashes images of President Donald Trump and pivots to a clip of Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner speaking against the Green New Deal proposal.

The only image of Romanoff comes in a brief moment near the end, where he talks about climate change in a television news interview. And the video finishes by invoking the global climate protests, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez  and activist Greta Thunberg as it touts the Green New Deal as the best way to address the issue.

In the campaign, Hickenlooper, a former geologist for an oil and gas company, has labeled climate change as his top priority, and promises to bring an urgency to addressing the issue. But in his  two terms, he frequently rebuffed tougher regulations and allied himself with the industry.

MORE: Colorado’s U.S. Senate candidates feel the heat from a growing bloc: climate change voters

A drive to go viral with extreme ad also can backfire

Romanoff is spending only a few hundred dollars to promote the lengthy video on social media platforms, but he hopes the spot, produced by WIN Digital Media, riles Democrats and environmentalists across the nation and helps boost fundraising.

The video certainly ranks as one of the more extreme in Colorado politics, and it contrasts sharply with the sunny spots aired in past elections by Hickenlooper and Gardner. 

Not all campaign attempts to go viral work. Just a year ago in Colorado, Democratic congressional candidate Levi Tilleman produced a video in which he pepper sprays himself in the face to push an anti-gun message. But the cringe-worthy spot backfired and became a national joke

Joanne Ostrow, a TV critic who contributes to The Sun and watched the video, said it doesn’t make sense. “This is a hard-hitting (if heavy-handed) lament on behalf of the planet, narrated by someone we barely see,” she said. “What this mini-movie has to do with Romanoff is a mystery. Perhaps it would be better suited to Greta Thunberg’s next campaign.”

In an interview, Romanoff defended the dark tone and recalled a recent conversation on the campaign trail with a father who asked the candidate pledge that the world would be inhabitable for his daughter. “When I travel around the state, people raise this crisis every day,” Romanoff said. “So we are reflecting the concerns we are hearing.”

MORE: Hickenlooper makes campaign trail debut touting compromise. His rivals in Senate race say it’s the wrong approach.

Does climate “disaster porn” motivate voters to take action?

The evidence about whether fear — dubbed by one researcher as climate “disaster porn” — motivates voters to take action is inconclusive. A handful of studies show that focusing on the negative can lead to behavioral shifts, but if it makes people feel hopeless, it could negate the effect. A study published in an academic journal earlier this year tested two different messages, one positive and one negative, and found the positive boosted political activism.

Romanoff argues that his video walks the line. “If the effect of the video were simply to deepen fears and produce paralysis, that would be unfortunate,” he said. “Our goal is to stir action. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to project what the world might look like and what large parts of the globe already look like.”

How to talk about climate change is a topic of great debate in the environmental arena, and the topic took a prominent place at a November retreat in Denver for environmental leaders from across the nation. 

The attendees generally concluded that framing the issue in a way that motivates people to work toward a solution is preferred — a contrast with fear-based ads in Colorado from 2018 that suggested a Republican congressman’s votes could lead to more cancer. 

“People are scared enough as it is,” said Garrett Garner-Wells, at Conservation Colorado, a leading environmental organization that is neutral in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate but airing TV ads attacking Gardner.

“People can see what’s going on,” he continued, pressing the case for an empowering tone. “You look at the hottest months on record, the hottest years on record, we keep setting records. We don’t have to go out there and drive a narrative that’s going to result in fear for people to be fearful at a certain level.”


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