Gov. Polis’s climate crossroads: A time for hard choices

by Roger L. Freeman

In 1974, a report titled “A Time to Choose: America’s Energy Future” shook the energy establishment. The report cited the threat of climate change and challenged the belief that economic growth must be coupled with energy expansion, then offered ground-breaking recommendations on conservation, renewables, utility reform, and future energy production. It became the foundation for President Carter’s energy policy and spurred such programs as the CAFÉ vehicle standards, Colorado’s own NREL, and the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act.

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The principal author was my father, S. David Freeman, who passed away at 94, exactly one year ago. Affectionately known as the “Green Cowboy,” he devoted his life to championing renewable power and conservation programs. With his legacy in mind, I want to address an emerging controversy that is central to the work that he pioneered and to Colorado’s future.

Gov. Jared Polis has publicly opposed and threatened to veto Senate Bill 21-200, which is progressing through the State legislature. The bill would provide a pathway for significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions by setting sector-specific caps and authorizing emission fees. This would support the carbon reduction goals already embraced by Gov. Polis and identified in HB 19-1261. The bill, which also incorporates environmental justice considerations, would task the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, or AQCC, with developing and implementing regulations.

I first met Gov. Polis over 20 years ago, when he joined the Board of Directors of Conservation Colorado (then called Colorado Conservation Voters). As an early supporter of his gubernatorial campaign, I helped vet the 2018 climate and energy policy that defined his overall platform. The Polis Administration has since advanced this agenda through a series of laudable executive orders, legislative fiats, and administrative actions. Gov. Polis’s heart—and the priorities of his excellent team—are clearly in the right place.

But his resistance to so-called government “mandates,” reflected in his approach to other controversial topics (e.g. vaccines), fails to account for the urgencies of the climate crisis. Despite all recent efforts, the ultimate arbiter—Mother Nature—is unimpressed by our progress, and increasingly angry. We see this in countless scientific studies and projections, frightening weather and droughts, and numerous other barometers.

Fifteen years after Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” the sad reality is that we need dramatic and immediate action to stem the worst of the tide of global climate impacts. We may be progressing towards long-term carbon cutbacks in the energy sector, but the majority of emission cuts still lie ahead, requiring transformation of our transportation, heating, building, waste handling, and manufacturing sectors. In short, our overall way of life has to change, and quickly.

Which leads back to SB 21-200. The Administration’s view is that imposing emission fees and binding sectoral limits could foster a cap-and-trade system that is less efficient than the state’s current decarbonization approach, especially when it comes to transportation and buildings. But the State’s current approach lacks teeth in these and many other areas, relying on market-driven shifts and voluntarily reductions.

Sadly, like Dad’s long life, time has run out. We need all the policy hammers in our toolbox. Turning the “goals” that the Administration is proud to champion into enforceable sector standards will complement and jump-start current initiatives and support long-awaited national reforms. Imposing caps and fees may not be the perfect or the ultimate solution.

This is from the May 12, 2021, issue of Big Pivots, an e-journal. To sign up, go to BigPivots.com

But we need policy reinforcement against the climate disaster—“feedback loops,” if you will—to counteract the array of climate impacts that even the best scientists cannot foretell. And if we are truly on track to reach long-term climate goals under the Administration’s plan (despite Colorado’s spiraling growth), the AQCC’s job will be that much easier.

Gov. Polis also believes that the bill would give “dictatorial authority” over our economy to one unelected board (AQCC) that lacks the requisite power and expertise. Yet, through Gov. Polis’s executive orders and recent legislation, the AQCC has already been tasked with a number of critical rulemaking fiats, many of which dovetail with SB-200 requirements (e.g., refinement of Colorado’s methane rules, touted as a national model). Implementing SB21-200 presents a daunting challenge, but there is a no-more qualified body available.

Under established administrative procedures, the AQCC will get extensive direction and support through public, technical, economic, and scientific testimony and submissions. This delegation and deliberation process, a hallmark of environmental policymaking, will be far from “dictatorial.”

During the campaign, I gave Gov. Polis a copy of dad’s last book, “All Electric America: A Climate Solution and the Hopeful Future.” Written in 2015, it contained a sector-by-sector plan for decarbonizing our entire system, using mandated reductions. It voiced the need for courage and leadership, especially among “intelligent deniers” – those who recognize the severity of the climate crisis, but come up with rationalizations to avoid making the hard choices.

Dad’s last book drew from many historical teachings; one that was ever-present in the family den, and cherished by my father, was “Profiles in Courage” by John F. Kennedy. In those days, perhaps the most notable example of such “chutzpah” was the notion that we might someday place a man on the moon.

I hope Gov. Polis still has his copy of Dad’s book. It might be time to re-examine the administration’s aversion to government “mandates” in this context and its reluctance to present the hard truths to Colorado’s citizens and industry about the role government must play in fighting the worst of the climate crisis.

Also I hope that the parties involved are able to fashion an acceptable way of enacting the basic requirements of SB21-200, and move forward.

Otherwise, we will take one giant leap (backwards) on mankind’s latest mission—not to reach the moon, but to save the earth.

Roger L. Freeman is a longtime renewable and environmental lawyer and advocate, based in Lakewood, Colo. He serves on a number of boards and works with a number of solar entities and other institutions, but the views expressed herein are solely his own.

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1 thought on “Gov. Polis’s climate crossroads: A time for hard choices”

  1. Thank you Roger. What a compelling case you make, so warmly wrapped in your love and respect for your dad and his life’s work. I hope our Governor will read this and decide to support SB 200.

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