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As Wildfires Burn Across Colorado, We Ask An Expert About Climate Change Policies

Oct 22, 2020

It’s impossible to miss the signs of climate change as the state has experienced hundreds of thousands of acres of wildfire this season, along with drought in every part of Colorado. But how do issues of climate change manifest on the ballot? For the answer to that question, Aspen Public Radio spoke with Max Boykoff, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder who studies cultural politics and environmental governance. 

This story is part of Aspen Public Radio’s ongoing series that sets out to answer the question: “What can I expect from my government?”

This has been an intense wildfire season for Colorado and the entire western United States. What kind of policies could help prevent a repeat of this year?

We can think in the short term about forest management, but we do need to be thinking in the medium to long term as well about climate change policies. We need to think very carefully about how scientific evidence is showing us that climate change is now fueling these wildfires leading to increasing drought, leading to some of the conditions that amp up then the intensity and the breadth of what we've been seeing this summer.

When you look at policymakers in federal, state and local governments, do you see more lofty and nebulous ideas in response to climate change, or plans with actionable steps?


It varies considerably. Climate change in and of itself is not a political issue. However, it has certainly become highly partisan and highly polarized in 2020. On the heels of some of these wildfire events, you have our president, Donald Trump, who is going out to California and saying that he actually thinks that it is going to be getting cooler, just you watch, and that the scientists aren't sure. 

I sit within one scientific institute among many that has over 800 natural and physical scientists that have been devoting their professional lives to these topics. And while we wish it were different, we can confidently say that the climate is changing. Things are warming and this is contributing to ongoing extreme events.

Just evaluating this in climate terms, there are certain policy decision makers that have put forward very concrete plans with funds attached to them about how to take action in the face of these intersectional challenges. And there are other leaders that have not done that. The democratic party for instance, has put forward climate change as part of their 2020 platform. At the Republican national convention, unfortunately, they had punted and said that their 2016 platform is what we'll be using. And that has not come out strongly nor explicitly on climate policy action.


What is standing between where we are now and significant collective action that can reach some of the goals to reverse the course of climate change?

There are significant barriers. We can start with the political economic barriers of a great deal of lobbying efforts that go at the national level and at the state level to impeding progress on many different environmental policy aims associated with climate change. We can think about it in the cultural and social – where some of us resist this messaging because of the implications that it has on changing our lives.

I think that's quite logical because of what it necessitates in terms of adapting our infrastructure to future climate challenges. Across the spectrum, there are many barriers that can be seen as institutional and structural, but can also be seen as psychological.


Who in government has the most significant decision making impact on the climate? Can it happen at local, county and state levels? Or does change have to come from the federal government?


Well, there's good news and bad news. The good news is that we can make significant change at all levels. The bad news is that it impacts every aspect of the way in which we live, work, relax and play in society. 

If we just focus though on that good news, there are many levers that we can pull as a local community, as a neighborhood, in order to address these challenges. When we scale up to the state level and to the national level, certainly that is more influential.

Ideally when we're working in the international arena through international policy negotiations – like the Paris climate agreement – moving forward in that way stands to make the greatest difference. At the national level, certainly here in the United States, in the belly of the beast with 17-18% of global emissions, what we choose to do in the various sectors that contribute to a changing climate makes a huge difference going forward.

What should we expect our government to be able to do? Is it reasonable to expect that we can turn the tide on climate change through law and policy, or does that need to happen outside of government?

I put a lot of faith in the ability of government to take these kinds of actions. We cannot just take care of our own selves and our own lives and consider ourselves greener than everybody else, and then things are sorted out. This global challenge requires global scale, national scale, regional scale and state level concerted and coordinated action.


Pueden encontrar la versión en español aqui.

 Spanish translation of this story is made possible by a grant from the Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.