Where the national government has waffled over significant climate action, communities like Fort Collins have aimed to pave the way in their place, and the core of that is grassroots citizen involvement that is critical to the development of the City’s climate action and sustainability efforts.
Northern Colorado is home to an alphabet soup of different environmentalist organizations, including the the Northern Colorado Partners for Clean Energy and the Fort Collins Sustainability Group. The City of Fort Collins hosts several of them on their Community Advisory Committee to the Climate Action Plan and communicates with others through the many boards and commissions of the government.
“So much of what we currently have in terms of climate action policy was driven by community members coming to City Council saying, ‘We want more of this,’” said Jensen Morgan, who leads climate action and community engagement in the City of Fort Collins’ Environmental Services Department. “We need community members and grassroots energy to really help us move forward.”
As the City moves toward its first major 2020 emissions landmark, it continues to strive to engage as many residents and perspectives as possible on sustainability issues, according to Morgan.
“The reality is climate action work isn’t by any one group,” Morgan said. “There’s a role for businesses, there’s a role for nonprofit organizations, there’s a role for the individual and there’s a role for government. It needs to be something that’s happening in all these different scales for it to work.”
And the role of citizen groups has varied from providing on-the-ground perspectives, to connecting with specific groups, to simply amplifying community voices.
These are just a few of the groups that have influenced Fort Collins’ climate policy.
Informing policy: Fort Collins Sustainability Group
In 1998, the United States signed the historic Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty committing countries to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions in the face of climate change reports. Three years later, after never ratifying the treaty, the federal government walked away entirely, according to The Guardian.
The action rippled through the international community, contributing most significantly to Canada’s withdrawal from the protocol. It also stirred an awakening within the country as local communities jumped to take up the commitments the federal government had abandoned, as seen in movements like the Mayors Climate Protection Agreement.
In the spring of 2005, as Kyoto went into effect, a group of Fort Collins residents gathered to see if they could get their city to commit to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions.
From this meeting emerged the Fort Collins Sustainability Group.
Their first goal was to reinvigorate the City’s climate commitments, starting with a revision of the 1999 Local Action Plan, according to their website.
Fort Collins adopted the 1999 plan with the intent to reduce emissions 30% below predicted 2010 levels by 2010. It was among the first of such resolutions nationwide, according to the City.
By 2005, it was apparent the City was not going to meet its goal without some serious updates. Enter the FCSG.
We’re a strong and steady voice for climate protection and renewable electricity.” –Kevin Cross, a founding member of FCSG
Going to City Council, the group of less than a dozen people pushed for the establishment of the Climate Task Force, ultimately formed in 2007, according to City documents. Three members of the group ended up as participants in the task force that created the recommendations for what would become the City’s 2008 Climate Action Plan. The original 2010 goal was pushed to 2012, and the City was able to meet its reduction goals, as well as add two other benchmarks for 2020 and 2050.
Throughout the next few years, the FCSG would continue to push for greater conservation efforts. They were involved with getting the City to adopt the three-tiered seasonal residential electric rate (implemented in 2012), prohibit throwing cardboard into the landfill (ordinance passed in 2013) and reaffirm their commitment to 100% emissions reductions by 2050 (2015 Climate Action Plan).
“We’re a strong and steady voice for climate protection and renewable electricity,” said Kevin Cross, one of the founding members of FCSG. “And we have been able to influence the City government — given the day.”
Over the last 15 years, the group has evolved, Cross said. It has taken on a “steering committee” structure, where those on the open committee decide the group’s focus issues. It currently has four members and a non-advocacy science adviser.
“We’ve worked mostly by looking at City policy and advocating for what we think the City should do with City Council members and with City staff,” Cross said. “And we involve the people in our larger email list — a hundred or so folks — in trying to influence what the City does.”
The FCSG is now a recognizable presence at City Council public comments. They can also be found collaborating with the multitude of other environmental groups in the area, Cross said.
One recent example was their partnership with the local Extinction Rebellion in urging City Council to declare a Climate Emergency.
But, based on a timeline the sustainability group shared, FCSG’s most extensive effort may be getting the Platte River Power Authority to commit to generating 100% non-carbon electricity by 2030 for Colorado cities Fort Collins, Longmont, Loveland and Estes Park. The effort took roughly four years and involved over a dozen regional energy groups.
It’s a significant pledge given that electricity production makes up roughly half of the City’s carbon emissions, according to their carbon inventories.
FCSG hopes to generate continued support for the pledge at PRPA’s March 12 public focus group meeting from 6-8 p.m. at the Drake Centre.
So what happens to FCSG after the City adopts their policies as goals? They begin “working on actually getting them to start moving towards those goals,” Cross said.
For the FCSG, it’s been 15 years of local climate advocacy, and the work hasn’t stalled. But they’re far from the only sustainability group around, and others take very different approaches.
Raising awareness: Community for Sustainable Energy
Fred Kirsch worked as an environmental canvasser for six years before he came to Fort Collins in 2006. He wanted to focus on energy issues, “one of the most important issues that our generation has to deal with,” he said.
With his own experience in door knocking informing him, Kirsch began Community for Sustainable Energy or CforSE. The organization does professional, paid canvassing five days a week for regional climate issues.
Despite only having a handful of staff, they have generated thousands of letters and emails to the City and City Council members about a spectrum of issues, according to Kirsch.
Building citizen and consumer awareness is what Kirsch said is the most important part of their role.
“If sustainability isn’t something that people hold in their hearts and practice in their daily lives, (then) no amount of regulations are going to get the job done,” Kirsch said.
If sustainability isn’t something that people hold in their hearts and practice in their daily lives, and no amount of regulations are going to get the job done.” -Fred Kirsch, founder of Community for Sustainable Energy
Although they run in the same circles, their work differs from groups like FCSG in that it’s targeted primarily to obtain community “buy-in” for sustainability plans.
“We don’t do policy recommendations in the same way that they do,” Kirsch said. “And we actually take a lot of the kind of work they do and take that out to the community (and) talk to people about it.”
Their current campaign increases resident awareness about Colorado’s air quality.
The state hasn’t met federal air quality health standards since 2004 and was declared a “serious” violator of federal air quality laws by the Environmental Protection Agency in December, according to The Denver Post. Colorado has to reduce pollution levels by 2021, and they have one year to submit a plan to the EPA about it.
For this, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission is seeking public comments. Enter CforSE.
Their campaign is generating citizen comments and letters, particularly about the impact of fracking and mineral drilling on air quality, to be taken by group members to the public CAQCC meetings. They also hand out flyers about what the health impacts are of air pollution and how people can protect themselves.
“Outside of the activist community, almost nobody knows that the Air Quality Control Commission is developing regulations this year,” Kirsch said. “So we can let people know about that and engage in taking part in the democratic process.”
The group’s other campaigns run in similar ways: knocking on doors, giving residents information and asking them to contribute their voice, Kirsch said.
Over the years, CforSE’s campaigns have included supporting public transportation, fracking regulations and solar farms. They have gathered anywhere from 100 to about 1,000 letters for each campaign, according to their website.
City Councilmember Julie Pignataro said those types of letters are most impactful to her when they include personalization, such as anecdotes.
At the policymaking level, topics can be met with mixed results, sometimes seeing immediate success and other times being put in limbo, based on their past campaign listing. CforSE has pushed for putting solar panels on school rooftops without much give from the City.
But in addition to getting support for sustainable ideas, CforSE’s work is about getting people to care at the local level.
“There’s much more to your daily life than what the president does, but it’s so weird in our culture — people … care much more about what the president does, yet they don’t even know the mayor’s name,” Kirsch said.
Particularly when it comes to climate action, the local movements are the necessary origins for lasting change, Kirsch said.
“It starts with us and grows into something that becomes a community, a state, a nation and the world,” Kirsch said.
Connecting the dots: Sierra Club
At the start of 2017, Colorado State University signed a pledge committing the University to running on 100% renewable electricity by 2030.
Sarah Snead, then part of The Climate Reality Project, worked with students to advance this goal. It ultimately led to over 4,300 students, staff and faculty signing a petition to encourage the University to sign onto the pledge.
Snead now works with the regional chapter of the Sierra Club, the Poudre Canyon Group, on the Beyond Coal campaign. The goal is to organize their communities to push for clean energy and retire coal and gas plants in Colorado.
The Sierra Club is a national environmental organization and is one of the oldest and largest ones in the country, Snead said. Founded in 1892, its mission is to “explore, enjoy and protect the planet,” according to the website.
They utilize a variety of advocacy “tools” such as community education events, op-eds in newspapers and social media exposure to achieve those goals. Snead said one of her major roles is to inform people about communicating with utility services like PRPA.
“As organizers, it’s our job to connect with people in our community, identify what the challenges or problems there are and then come up together with what the solutions could be and then organize around those solutions,” Snead said.
Organizing in your community, you can really help shape the way things happen, the way decisions are made and ultimately … the impacts (of) those decisions.” -Sarah Snead, organizer for Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign
Though a savvy advocate now, Snead wasn’t always aware of the ways she could make a difference.
While she knew about policymaking before, she said it wasn’t until she started college at American University that she gained a sharper understanding of how government policy supports the extraction and development of fossil fuels.
“I started to learn a little bit more about how the world works and about climate change and the dangers to humanity and the planet,” Snead said. “And I got inspired to get involved.”
After that, Snead joined a campaign to get her university to divest its fossil fuel assets and worked on a fracking ban in her home state of Maryland.
The sort of grassroots activism that “helps connect the dots to ways that folks can take action” serves a critical role, Snead said. It’s not that people don’t think they have a voice; they simply might not know how to amplify it.
“Organizing in your community, you can really help shape the way things happen, the way decisions are made and ultimately … the impacts (of) those decisions,” Snead said.
Snead encourages student involvement, whether it’s on-campus or in the City. The new Fort Collins Energy Action Team — meeting next Wednesday, March 4 from 6-8 p.m. in Large Meeting Room Two of Old Town Library — already has a number of students participating, Snead said.
From CSU’s pledge, to renewables, to PRPA’s solicitation for public comment, Snead said she has seen some pretty powerful responses to public voice.
“It’s their job to respond to you as … members of your community,” Snead said of government officials. “The decision-makers need us to be involved because we know what’s best for our community, right?”
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