On January 13, some 200 people gathered outside the state Capitol in Denver, beating drums, chanting, and waving signs. A poster declaring “Your inaction burns our state” rested on the steps; eight red-robed demonstrators with huge clocks over their faces held letters that spelled “Out Of Time”; and a 12-foot-tall canvas bore flame-colored scraps of fabric reading “We Are On Fire Polis.” Inside, Governor Jared Polis was delivering his annual State of the State address.

The environmentalists rallying at the Capitol that day, members of a now 57-group coalition called United for Colorado’s Climate, were fed up—with the state’s worsening air pollution, fracking, and environmental racism. More than anything, they were upset by what they call the Polis administration’s slow pace in addressing the climate crisis. Two weeks earlier, the Marshall fire had roared through Superior and Louisville, destroying more than 1,000 homes and putting an exclamation point on their frustration. “We need Polis to be the climate leader he thinks he is,” says Harmony Cummings, an organizer with the environmental nonprofit Colorado Rising and one of the demonstration’s main architects. “We’re just trying to get his attention.”

It’s unclear if they succeeded. A few days later, Polis told Colorado Public Radio that he didn’t hear what the protesters were saying.

Polis’ relationship with climate activists wasn’t always so toxic. In 2018, the then U.S. congressman campaigned for governor on the promise of moving Colorado’s electrical grid to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040 and won the endorsements of environmental groups, including the Colorado chapter of the Sierra Club. Cummings herself spoke to at least 1,000 people as a volunteer for Polis, sometimes loading her two small children into a wagon while knocking on doors in Denver’s Valverde neighborhood. “I was really excited about what I believed he was a champion for: education, health care, and the environment,” she says.

Polis seemed eager to repay that faith during his first year in office, issuing an executive order to promote the sale of electric vehicles as well as signing landmark pieces of emissions legislation. The aptly named Climate Action Plan—and an accompanying bill—pledged to cut emissions in Colorado by 26 percent by 2025, by 50 percent by 2030, and by at least 90 percent by 2050 (using 2005’s emissions as a baseline). “In 2019, the Legislature passed laws that really put the state in a position to be a national and global climate leader,” says Alex DeGolia, director of state and regulatory affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund.

But since then, activists’ grievances have piled up. Today, says Jan Rose, legislative analyst for Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate, “you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody in the environmental community who feels that Polis’ words have matched his deeds.”

That’s troubling not only for Colorado, but also for anyone hoping for substantive action from world leaders. In a series of dire reports over the past year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body dedicated to studying the environmental crisis, warned that humans are on track to dangerously increase the temperature of the planet over the next few decades. If temperatures continue to rise at their current rates, the Earth is hurtling toward a future of more megafires, severe storms, droughts, food shortages, and ecosystem collapses. It’s still possible to rein in warming, the IPCC says, but that would require dramatically reducing our use of fossil fuels starting right now. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have the authority to limit emissions from existing power plants, making states and their elected officials even more critical for forcing systematic change.

If Polis—a progressive governor who promised climate action and is presiding over Democratic majorities in both chambers of the Legislature—can’t get that done, well, who can?

The Climate Action Plan may have set ambitious targets, but it didn’t provide exact directions for how to get there. “The law is only as good as the regulations that put it into place,” Rose says. Activists claim the Polis administration is racking up a track record of slowing, weakening, or outright squashing the policies that would help Colorado hit its emissions marks—such as the Advanced Clean Trucks rule.

Climate advocates protested at the state Capitol after the Marshall fire. Governor Jared Polis says he didn’t hear them. Photo by Spencer Campbell

In places such as North Denver and Commerce City, where Interstates 70, 25, and 270 slice through the neighborhoods, the steady stream of heavy trucks causes more damage than just burning climate-warming diesel fuel. They also spew pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and compounds that form ozone, all of which are linked to heart disease, asthma, and premature death. The people who live closest to those highways—predominantly Latino and lower-income communities—suffer disproportionately.

Based on a law enacted by California in 2020, the Advanced Clean Trucks proposal would require automakers to sell an increasing percentage of zero-emission medium- and heavy-duty trucks. In Colorado, emissions rules are proposed by the Air Pollution Control Division (APCD), part of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). Then, it’s up to the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC), a nine-person body appointed by the governor, to adopt, amend, or reject them. The AQCC was scheduled to begin the rule-making process for the truck regulations this past February—until state administrators pushed consideration until late 2022 because, says Colorado Energy Office director Will Toor, the state needs to first focus on preliminary steps such as installing charging infrastructure. (Toor claims it was only on the February docket as a placeholder.) When environmental organizations petitioned the AQCC to accelerate consideration of the proposal, the panel said no, citing the need for a careful rule-making process.

The AQCC’s explanation rings hollow to Katara Burrola, environmental justice organizer for the Colorado chapter of Mi Familia Vota, a national Latino civic engagement nonprofit. “What we as Latino people are experiencing in these areas is far more important than a process,” she says. “I take any delays personally, because they affect our people. Black, brown, and Indigenous communities always feel the heaviest cumulative impacts of pollution.”

The truck proposal was only the latest in a string of delays and setbacks. Following passage of the Climate Action Plan, the state missed its first mandated deadline to issue new climate rules. In 2021, Polis threatened to veto a bill that would have put a hard cap on emissions across the economy, prompting lawmakers to weaken the legislation. Last year, the CDPHE dropped a plan to encourage greener commuting, because large employers opposed it, and delayed another proposed rule on industrial emissions.

“With every rule-making that slips, it gets harder and harder to achieve the 2025 and 2030 emissions goals,” says Stacy Tellinghuisen, climate policy manager for Western Resource Advocates. According to a 2022 analysis by clean-energy nonprofit RMI, Colorado is projected to reduce emissions by 33 percent by 2030, well short of the 50 percent target. (The study doesn’t include this year’s legislation or ongoing rule-makings.)

The governor’s strategy of preferring carrots over sticks has been especially galling to activists. In 2021, for example, the APCD withdrew the administration’s own proposed Employee Traffic Reduction Program, which would have required employers to make plans to reduce single-occupancy vehicle commutes among their workforces, in favor of financial enticements that would encourage the practice. “Voluntary steps, incentives, grant programs, making things easier for consumers to adopt—those are all fantastic things,” says Democratic state Senator Faith Winter, one of the Capitol’s biggest climate hawks. “But it does not replace rule-making, measurability, and enforceability, especially when we talk about near-term reductions, which are incredibly important.”

Rose, with Colorado Coalition for a Livable Climate, scoffs at incentives. “Why should a business reduce its profits in order to reduce its carbon footprint without a requirement to do so?” she asks. “If we count on business to be Robin Hood, the planet dies.”

Not surprisingly, the governor brushes off criticism from the environmental community. “We’re moving as fast as possible with the urgency of the moment,” Polis tells 5280. “Colorado is really leading the way across the states.” Multiple climate experts, such as Doug Vine of the Virginia-based Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, rank Colorado in the top 10 or so states for addressing the climate crisis. The state’s Energy Office director, Toor, would agree. “Whenever I go anywhere outside Colorado, what I hear from advocates is, ‘Oh my goodness, I wish we could be doing the things that are happening in Colorado.’ ”

That list includes making both commercial and residential buildings more eco-friendly through cleaner heating standards—gas utilities are now required to reduce carbon emissions by measurable percentages—and incentives for greener electric appliances, tightening methane emissions in the oil and gas industry, boosting electric vehicles through rules requiring automakers to sell more zero-emissions cars, and beefing up emissions-reduction goals for the oil and gas, electric, and industrial sectors. This past May, Polis signed a package of bills to reduce air pollution through steps like public transit incentives. “You wouldn’t get to do that if you didn’t have a governor who was committed to climate action,” says Elise Jones, a member of the AQCC.

Polis has accomplished this even though each measure faces opposition from industries that would suffer financially and from Republicans, who are almost universally opposed to climate policy. On top of that, as inflation forces Americans to dig deeper into their wallets, policies that could increase prices for consumers are a tough sell. Polis, who is up for re-election in November, even backed off his own scheduled gas tax increase earlier this year.

“An elected official can never please the green, progressive wing or the extreme right and stay in office,” says Auden Schendler, senior vice president of sustainability for Aspen Skiing Company, author of Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution, and a former member of the AQCC. “Environmentalists will say we have to move faster. And that’s true. But it doesn’t help if you lose the House and Senate and you’re out of office.”

If there’s one person who could serve as adjudicator between Polis and his detractors, it’s Steve Running. Professor emeritus of ecosystem and conservation sciences at the University of Montana, Running shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his work studying climate change for the IPCC.

His message? Don’t get hung up on emissions targets, because the world doesn’t end the moment we surpass them.

Global leaders are hoping to hold the Earth’s average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Colorado’s emissions goals were set with that mark in mind. But a 1.49-degree rise is not OK, and a 1.51-degree rise is not a death sentence for all humankind. “Because this whole issue of the changing climate is going to go on as far into the future as we can imagine,” Running says, “anything we do to slow down the momentum is worth doing.”

On the one hand, Running says, even the most laudable climate policies “are not enough, and not quick enough. But governors like [Polis] are at least trying to do something. And leading by example in the global arena is the best thing the United States can be doing right now.”

That sentiment is unlikely to appease Colorado’s climate activists. At one point during the environmental rally at the state Capitol this past January, Denver journalist David Sirota, who co-wrote the 2021 climate change film Don’t Look Up, took the mic: “What we all have to do, in every aspect of our lives, is try to make the people in this building, try to make the people in Washington, do what needs to be done.” The scientific reality underpinning the climate crisis won’t change, but the political culture that’s impeding action can. Perhaps the hope, then, lies not so much in governors, but in the people they govern.