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Zornio: Climate change is not enough of a focus in Colorado’s 2022 legislative start

Two weeks after the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history, lawmakers appear ready to downplay the climate crisis

As the new legislative session kicked off, Coloradans got a glimpse at what state legislators are prepared to prioritize. There’s a lot of good stuff: education, public safety and the economy. 

Unfortunately, of the 102 bills and resolutions already submitted in the House and Senate, few appear ready to seriously tackle the root causes of climate change — fossil fuels.

To suggest this oversight is irksome would be a gross understatement. In the past few years, Colorado has seen firsthand the impact of a rapidly changing climate. Most recently, the Marshall fire became the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history, destroying nearly 1,100 structures worth over half a billion dollars.

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

Before that, Colorado has been experiencing growth of extreme wildfires, including a truly historic 2020 fire season. This included the Pine Gulch Fire, the Cameron Peak fire and the East Troublesome fire, all of which easily passed 100,000 acres burned — and one over 200,000 acres — breaking records multiple times within the same season.

Then there were the Glenwood Canyon mudslides in 2021 that went well beyond anything engineers had prepared for due to the intensity of the fires.

The slides closed I-70 on and off for weeks at a time, severing the primary connection across the state and prompting officials to seek over $116 million of taxpayer dollars for repair costs. The intensity of the mudslide was a direct impact of climate change.

Setting extreme wildfires and mudslides aside, there’s been a myriad of record-breaking events in Colorado as of late: record-breaking heat, record-breaking winds, record-breaking drought, record-breaking hail, record-breaking tornadoes, record-breaking cold and even record-breaking bombogenesis. Of note, my iPhone desperately wants to autocorrect that last one to “bimbo jeans,” a testament to the relative newness of word use.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Particularly concerning is that it’s no longer unique enough to simply break existing records. Now we shatter previous records, even breaking the record-breaking heat, winds, drought and hail with new record-breaking heat, winds, drought and hail all in the same darn season.

For all intents and purposes, the solution is deceptively simple: more policies that reduce the burning, release and accumulation of carbon into the atmosphere.

Yet for years the urgency to act has been lacking, as if climate change is still yet to come. We set goals for 2030 or 2050, implying we have time when we don’t. Climate change is not an on/off switch; it doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long, roiling boil, and for years the molecules have already been moving faster and faster.

For this reason, the climate crisis must be a constant legislative priority this year, next year, and every year to come for the foreseeable future. We must also be exceptionally clear in our messaging: Actions taken now are not to prevent climate change from occurring — this is impossible, it’s already under way. Instead, today’s actions are to mitigate the severity of impact from our past actions. What we are experiencing now is merely a warning sign. 

Critically, prioritizing the climate crisis does not mean we somehow abandon other priorities. On the contrary — almost any area of policy addressing climate change is part of the solution. 

Consider the economy. If the goal is to save Coloradans money, one of the best solutions is to address climate change. At a personal level, we won’t gain nearly as much from a few dozen tax dollars back per year as we do by avoiding a loss of thousands of dollars in insurance deductibles, lost wages and displacement costs when a wildfire fueled by climate change burns down much of our town.

Similarly, we can’t achieve social equity without mitigating climate change — the burdens will fall disproportionately on disadvantaged communities. We can’t achieve sustainable agriculture or outdoor tourism on the West Slope without mitigating the lack of precipitation. We can’t even achieve a sufficient education with sweltering classrooms, reduce health concerns or maintain a federal budget with increasing billion-dollar disasters.

It should be noted that there are several bipartisan wildfire mitigation bills this session, and that’s something to be proud of. Still, this is adaptation, not a mitigation strategy for climate change. Without doing more to target the underlying source of the problem — by and large the burning of fossil fuels — there’s only so much that can be done.

After listening to the State of the State last Thursday, it became incredibly clear that climate change is simply not the focus this session — and unless the messaging changes drastically, it won’t be. As one journalist keenly pointed out on Twitter, the governor used the word “climate” three times, just once more than he mentioned Taylor Swift.

This got me thinking.

Perhaps Coloradans would do well to make our pleas directly to Ms. Swift instead. After all, a catchy song on climate change appears to be the only way it will ever make center stage.


Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.


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