Good grief: Scenes and stories from Colorado’s climate change strike
Indy reporters fan out to talk to Colorado climate strikers and others taking action
My two sons are always bickering about our gas-guzzling SUV, the newspaper we have delivered each morning, and the yogurt containers that occasionally end up in our trash can rather than recycling bin. Kid #1 points out how wasteful and polluting we are, and kid #2 argues that tweaking a few of our family’s consumption habits won’t move the needle on global climate change.
I listen with a mix of shame in the face of my eldest for not doing more to reduce our carbon footprint and sadness that my youngest feels so much resignation about the trajectory of our planet and so little power to do anything about it.
Such is the grief of climate change for those of us lucky enough to live in places that aren’t already flooding or burning or being fallowed because of global warming, people for whom the issue is just that – an issue, rather than an immediate, tangible threat. That grief, that melding of powerlessness and shame, that nagging awareness of the enormity of the problem, especially in the context of economic entrenchment, dark money politics, denial and our own laziness, weighs on many of us more than we can probably know.
That is why we at The Independent set out this sunny Friday to speak with Coloradans trying to make good out of their grief. Some took to the streets of Denver and Boulder and Fort Collins as part of the Global Climate Strike, chanting for urgent and immediate policy reforms. “Mama, I’m at the Capitol. Can you excuse my absence?” went a phone call from my eldest, a high school sophomore, who was one of them.
— Susan Greene
Eight-year-old Mahdvi Chittoor stood on the steps of the state Capitol, hundreds of people standing around and in front of her, waving signs and chanting about the harms of single-use plastics.
“What we do or do not do right now will affect my entire life, and the lives of my children and grandchildren,” says Mahdvi, who, like many others there, skipped school to participate in a worldwide Climate Strike.
She spoke about pollution and the threat to the world’s oceans and ended with a chant to ban glyphosate, a commonly used industrial pesticide.
The hot sun beat down on the Capitol crowd, which had marched there together from Union Station. At its peak, the crowd was at least 2,000 people deep. It was fitting that a day meant to promote action on climate change was about 10 degrees hotter than Denver’s average for Sept. 20. There have been several daily heat records set here this month alone.
On the march from Union Station to the Capitol, the 16th Street Mall was flooded by people of all ages, including the elderly and toddlers whose parents brought them. Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke was also there, as were several Democrats vying for Republican Cory Gardner’s U.S. Senate seat.
Julie Feeny marched a few steps behind her children, who attend the Denver Language School as they chanted “Climate action now.” The influence that these children can have over their parents, grandparents and other adults is huge, Feeny says.
“They don’t get to speak up a lot and have their voices heard.”
A student from Boulder High School, marching with a blue banner with a picture of the earth on it, says he would like to see the U.S. reenter the Paris Agreement, an international treaty to limit carbon emissions, from which it withdrew in 2017.
“I want my children’s children’s children to experience all of the amazing things I’ve experienced here, and I feel like at the rate we’re going they are going to be f——,” he says.
While the crowd was multigenerational, the speaking portion was steered by youth, who were flanked by indigenous elders on the Capitol steps.
“It’s hard to confront the idea of not having children in the future because of the state of the world,” a girl named Isata Kanu tells the crowd. “There are everyday people out there, like you and me, who worry about that constantly. It’s like a dark cloud.”
Tomas Lopez Jr. emceed before a sea of protesters with homemade signs extolling sustainability, urging saving the planet and the immediacy of the threat to it. Some were blunt: “The planet is burning”; “We have no future” and “We are literally dying.”
Fossil fuel companies and proponents were centered in the crosshairs of many of the chants both during the march and at the Capitol. Five of the U.S. Senate candidates — Lorena Garcia, Diana Bray, Andrew Romanoff, Alice Madden and Trish Zornio — came to the speaker area to reaffirm they won’t accept large ($200 or more) campaign contributions from fossil fuel interests.
Two teenage girls sang to the crowd, opening with a climate-related rendition of the folk classic “500 Miles.” They also sang “This Land is Your Land,” again changing the lyrics to promote climate justice.
Three students from the University of Denver — Cassidy Bromka, Emily Zujewski, and Sally Thornton-White — held up signs with a quote from the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg: “Our house is on fire.”
Events like Friday’s get the word out to people who might not know what’s happening, Zujewski added.
“A couple of kids in our class had no clue who Greta was,” she said.
— Alex Burness and Forest Wilson
It is likely that within every march and demonstration Friday, some specific threat motivated people to come with signs and banners and T-shirts like the one Ruth Grant in Fort Collins was wearing: “Science doesn’t care what you believe.”
For many among a couple dozen people — young in spirit, if not necessarily in body — who gathered near City Hall, that threat was oil and gas development. Larimer County hasn’t been a particular hotbed of development, and the Coloradoan has reported that from October 2018 to April of this year, oil and gas operators submitted 130 drilling applications, 17 times more than what they submitted in all of 2017.
“When they knew Gov. Polis (a Democrat with a history of pushing for greater oil and gas regulation) was going to be elected, they flooded Colorado with oil and gas applications,” Deb Bjork, an organizer pushing for more limits on drilling, says.
Larimer County is preparing regulations on such development now that state law gives local governments more say in land-use permitting, and to those here from the Larimer Alliance for Health, Safety and the Environment, the county is moving too fast. Their preference is that the county commission slow down to take its cue from state regulations now being drafted and that the city of Fort Collins reenact a moratorium on drilling it passed a few years ago. That moratorium was later thrown out by a state Supreme Court ruling.
“Methane emissions lead to global warming,” Bjork says, “and as long as fracking is continuing, we want it to be as safe as possible to protect public health, safety, the environment and wildlife.”
Sonia Koetting, with the Climate Justice Ministry at Foothills Unitarian Church, drew the line from local concern to global challenge this way: “A lot of people will say ‘We can’t control what’s happening beyond our borders’. The irony here is that we are not just drilling oil and gas for our needs, we are selling it overseas and some of that pollution coming from China, for example, is coming from fuel that we sold them.”
Among those joining the Fort Collins rally was Cory Hudson, who brought along his five-year-old daughter, Arya. He’s not part of any environmental organization, he says, but he has kids, Arya and a younger sibling, and that’s enough to get him out. The two of them that morning made a sign that read Save the Earth. He says Arya told him that she was nervous about joining a march, so they talked about bravery and standing up even when you are scared.
With a five-year-old, he says, a conversation about climate change doesn’t even really use the phrase. It’s more about how cars create pollution and pollution makes it hard to breathe or about how when the earth gets too warm, ice melts into the ocean and waters rise and…”
“Floods,” Arya, overcoming her shyness, interjects.
Talking to a five-year-old is not that hard, Hudson says. The difficult conversation is with his wife, “and we struggle a lot with how do you honestly make change.” And the harder conversation still, he adds, is with his father, who does share the urgency about climate change.
“He’s a Baby Boomer. He’s got maybe 15 years left. I’ve got 40. And she,” he pauses, touching his daughter’s head, “has 75. And sometimes I think, ‘When will you stop projecting your needs upon the world and let me do it and let me do it with my children, who are your grandchildren?
Do you really need to do this to the bitter end?’”
Having young children who can only really focus on figuring out what is in front of them helps both he and his wife, Hudson says.
“She’ll say, ‘Hey, let’s take that empty plastic bottle and put a flower in it and make it into a vase.’ And so we do.”
John and Ruth Grant — she in the science-doesn’t-care-what-you-believe T-shirt — are both in their 70s and both were out marching from City Hall down to the nonprofit FoCo cafe where everyone who needs to eat does and then donates what they can to cover the cost of the meal.
The Grants are there because, it seems, it does not occur to them not to be.
“I was an elementary school teacher for 35 years and have been a naturalist for various organizations,” Ruth says. “I’ve always been interested in environmental issues. I’ve never needed to be brought over. I’ve always been there. But the urgency is making us more activist types. So one of our goals is just show up. There needs to be more people our age showing up, and there needs to be a volume of people.”
They come to their concern through differing paths. Ruth took the more organic route — “She built a pond science lab for her students 30 years ago” John says, looking at her admiringly — and he, a former professor, approached it intellectually. And so his telling of awareness weaves through the findings of studies, of books on carbon debt and moral development, of papers on United Nations sustainable development goals, and symposia in which speakers ask, “How do you get a 75-year-old farmer in Iowa who has worshipped chemical fertilizer in his pretty fields for 50 years (to understand) that for the sake of his grandchildren he should stop and his fields don’t need to be pretty?”
“This has been a slow evolution for me,” he says, and maybe in the end it comes down to the fact that their grandchildren, five of them, live close to sea level and “the reality of this hits close to home.”
And so they give money to environmental causes, they educate themselves, they bought a Prius, they balance each other out when he surfaces from his reading to say something like, “Under the best-case scenario, tens of millions will die,” because she is the optimist of the duo.
Yes, there is despair, she says, “but despair doesn’t really do anything.” And yes, there is anger and for her it is directed at “all the people who knew all along the damage they were doing and all the politicians who had the power to stop it, but instead perpetuated the damage,” but anger doesn’t accomplish much either.
So on beautiful Friday morning, she puts on that T-shirt and they both don baseball hats, and the pair does what they do: they show up.
— Tina Griego
A CU-Boulder senior stood atop a wooden box at the edge of the Norlin Quadrangle park and picked up a megaphone. Students walked by on their way to class. Other gathered at the edge of the crowd, estimated at about a thousand people, doing classwork on their laptops in the shade of an oak tree.
“Anyone feeling hot?” the man says into the scratchy and muted megaphone. “Me, too.”
Seconds passed before the crowd chimed in.
“Louder,” they roar. “Yell into it. We can’t hear you.”
“We don’t want to disrupt classes,” the student replies.
The crowd jeered, some chuckled. Piercing feedback filled the air as the student lowered the megaphone. They clamored for more volume, anger and energy. For the students and others who gathered on the campus green for Friday’s climate strike, there was a more pressing issue at hand.
“We’re not being polite to all the people we’re oppressing,” a man yells from the crowd.
The crowd then gathered in closer, students coming and going. A woman giving a tour of the campus to prospective students told the small group this was the first time she had seen a protest on the lawn. “It’s mostly a study space,” she tells them.
Students and residents, old and young, carried signs. Some carried handfuls of them. They advocated for eating less meat and riding bikes to work. Others called for an end to capitalism. Mike MacFerrin, a researcher at the Boulder campus’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES, was standing in the sun wearing sub-zero degree winter clothing. He said his boots were rated to negative 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
“A picture is worth a thousand words. And this is what I had,” MacFerrin says.
The strike was subdued and orderly despite the angst. Volunteers wearing yellow vests ushered people off the sidewalk and steps and onto the grass. They wanted to keep the sidewalks clear for students to get to class. One volunteer scolded a journalist for speaking to a man wearing a self-made shirt that read “climate activists are insane.”
Police yawned at the edges of the rally, in the shade of buildings or beneath the canopy of trees.
Other volunteers held up QR codes plastered on cardboard signs to gather signatures for a petition. To promote the petition, Paul Rastrelli, a senior who helped organize the event, read off a list of demands he and others want CU-Boulder to adopt. More transparency for the endowment. A climate emergency declaration. And, chief among them, a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050. That is what a United Nations panel of climate scientists say is needed to avoid irreversible climate change impacts. The university’s climate pledge calls for cutting emissions 80%, compared to 2005 levels, by 2050. That is the same as the state’s climate goal.
In response, the crowd yelled, “2030” before breaking into a chant: “12 more years.”
— John Herrick
“What are we going to do?”
Stacey Decker used to teach advanced placement environmental science at a high school in Virginia. Her students called her course “AP We’re Screwed.”
“I’d sometimes worry about depressing them because global climate change is such a, well, big, big thing.”
Now a stay-at-home mom and volunteer in Denver’s Southern Hills neighborhood, Decker has decided not to downplay the problem with her 4- and 7-year old daughters. Nor, she notes, could she downplay it, even if she wanted to: “Our 7-year-old came up from school one day asking how we’re going to save the planet and take carbon out of the atmosphere,” she says.
She and her husband Stephen Decker, a wetlands mitigation banker, set about responding to Sophie’s question in the way environmental scientists do: by analyzing their options for reducing their carbon footprint. The data showed that trading in their minivan for an electric car would have the most impact, so that’s what they decided for their family.
But 7-year-old Sophie was unrelenting. “She still kept shaming us to walk the walk and take more steps to reduce our impact.”
That’s when Stacey noticed an article in The Denver Post about Solar United Neighbors, a national nonprofit that educates communities about solar technology and financing options and guides them in forming co-ops in which residents and businesses collectively hire a company to install solar panels at scale prices. The group has helped organize more than 200 co-ops nationally, including ones in Fort Collins, Steamboat Springs and in Denver since launching in Colorado in January.
For the Deckers, the co-op’s lower prices will allow them to recoup the cost of solar panels in nine rather than 16 years had they hired a contractor solo. They expect the system will be installed on their roof by year’s end.
“Yay! So, we can cross that off our list,” Stacey says.
But the problem, she says, sighing, is that she still feels she’s not doing enough. Guilt nags at her that she has known about climate change since she was in high school 20 years ago, but waited until she had kids to invest in reducing her footprint. Powerlessness overwhelms her when she thinks about the far more sweeping national and geopolitical shifts it will take to stabilize the trajectory of global warming. She stays up at night thinking about vulnerable communities worldwide that already are suffering from a changing climate, and wondering when and how her own girls will be affected. She feels ashamed for not having answers to Sophie’s “Mom, did you know that there are huge amounts of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean? What are we going to do? How are we going to clean this up?”
“It’s daunting and kind of shameful,” Stacey says. “I look at these kids and think why didn’t we do more when I was their age and why did we have to dump this all onto them.”
— Susan Greene
The bandaged place
Robin Saltonstall sees hope in a wounded planet.
The Boulder-based integrative health practitioner teaches college courses about climate change, among other topics, and draws from a mix of science and humanities to help students understand its enormity.
She describes a tendency toward “climate fundamentalism,” a common sense of urgency bordering on panic that leads some people to prescriptive responses such as recycling or solar panels, often without any introspection.
“That feeling that you’re never doing enough, we have to listen to that and understand it,” she says.
Saltonstall asks her students and clients to think about climate change as “the natural result of our human belief in being separate” from water, rocks, soils, plants, insects, fish, birds and other living things, including each other.
“We’ve been living off the backs of other species, expecting them to sacrifice their lives in order for us to drive our cars and use our plastic bags and so on,” she says. “Our separatist ideas about how we live on the planet are in direct contradiction with what science is showing and what indiginious folks have always known: That living is about being part of a community of other living things – maybe unique from them, but not more special than them. And when we live with those relationships, we care about those things and we take care of them.”
She sees climate change as “actually our best opportunity to make a better world” in that the losses and injustices it’s bringing about ”are making us feel how much we care about those things.”
It is not Saltonstall’s style to march for climate action. On the occasion of today’s global climate strike, she did what she does every other day: challenging people to turn the mirror on themselves as members of communities and inhabitants of an interconnected planet and to ask themselves if they are hurting or healing those places.
To young people grappling with climate change, she quotes the same poet she cites with clients who are sick or wounded or grieving: Rumi, the Sufi mystic who wrote, “Don’t turn away. Keep your gaze on the bandaged place. That’s where the light enters you.”
— Susan Greene
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