It’s time for our legislators to stop ignoring science

How public policy-making ought to work: Get the facts, make the policy.


Mike Keefe/Colorado Independent

Let’s say you were a legislator in Colorado during this year’s session, and you needed some help making policy decisions on a topic that required scientific knowledge. What might you do?

Because you’re a booster of the state, you’d know that we have some of the finest academic and research institutions in the country. These include the University of Colorado, Colorado State University, the University of Denver, the National Renewable Energy Lab, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. So it would make sense to ask those groups what they think on a given subject before moving forward. That, after all, is how public policy-making ought to work: Get the facts, make the policy.

But the facts-first and policy-later approach is not how some Colorado leaders like to tackle at least one serious issue: climate change. During Colorado Senate debate about adopting targets for the state’s Climate Action Plan, Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R, testified that the science wasn’t “settled” yet. Sen. John Cooke, also a Republican, went further. Man made climate change was a myth, he said, effectively putting our hard work on climate change on the same level as believing in unicorns and fairies. Neither man is one of the fringe elements of the Legislature; in fact, the leading force behind climate denial has been the Republican president of the Senate, Sen. Bill Cadman.

Yet their positions run counter to conclusions reached by every one of the state’s academic and research academies. Are these elected officials really discounting the work of our great state institutions?

There is absolutely no scientific case to be made for denying human impact on climate change. That means that the opinions of these legislators are just that — opinions based solely on hearsay or newspaper and talk-show statements by non-scientists who cite non-climatologists.  If that’s how some policymakers approach this issue, how are they thinking about health care, economics, public safety, education or water quality?  Is this the approach you’d take when fixing your car, having serious surgery, or making heath-care decisions for your child?

Most lawmakers in the nation and around the world don’t act this irresponsibly. Science-based policymaking on climate issues has become a global phenomenon, now integrated into decision-making by almost 200 nations and in every area of our federal government. 

2015 was the hottest year on record since record-keeping began in 1880.

In Miami, the science behind rising seas is one of daily concern. For water planners in California, drought science is nothing short of riveting, and in Alaska, where coastal communities built on permafrost are collapsing into the sea, science is meeting the budget in painful ways.

Lawmaking based on ideology is damaging in material ways. At the end of March, Colorado GOP legislators voted to defund the state Department of Health and Environment so that it can’t issue air-quality permits or perform inspections. Why? Because these elected officials oppose enforcement of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, the American response to climate change, which brought China and India to the table in Paris to try to broker a global deal.

But defunding an environmental agency won’t stop the Clean Power Plan; it merely hurts business. First, it does nothing to stop regulation, despite what some might think; it merely delays it. That means law-abiding businesses that need air permits to operate will simply have to wait, and then wait some more. Second, polluters breaking the law and violating the Clean Air Act at the expense of our kids’ health will no longer get caught and punished. (This is not a controversial issue: We all agreed that clean air was a good idea in the ’70s, and Americans overwhelmingly support the Clean Air Act.) Third, if Colorado refuses to do this work, the EPA will step in, so you’ll get out-of-state regulation anyway, exactly the opposite of the GOP’s goals for the state. 

Why do legislators want to do this silly stuff? Because, according to Rep. Bob Rankin, Western Slope residents are “terrified” of the EPA Clean Power Plan. Give me a break: The state has mostly met the plan. Solar energy is thriving and producing tons of jobs. Aspen/Snowmass and Vail Resorts, responsible directly or indirectly for tens of thousands of jobs, both support the plan. Even the gas drillers at WPX Energy I met with last fall were diligently monitoring their own methane emissions and were hardly terrified.

Fact-based policy-making tends to work really well. It’s when we make decisions based on fantasy, sadly, that real people and real businesses suffer. 

Auden Schendler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is vice president of sustainability for the Aspen Skiing Company and board chair of Protect Our Winters.

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