There was little disagreement among candidates at a Senate forum on climate change in Colorado Springs Sunday night. That's likely because the two leading candidates weren't there.
A coalition of progressive and environmental groups organized the Planet in Peril forum to test the candidates' commitment to combat climate change. Former Gov. John Hickenlooper declined due to an unspecified scheduling conflict. Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, who Hickenlooper is vying to replace, didn’t respond to an invitation.
While neither absence went unnoticed, the candidates and the audience saved most of their attacks for Hickenlooper.
Members of the Sunrise Movement kicked off the event by reading a statement aimed at the former governor. The youth organization supports a Green New Deal. The statement took Hickenlooper to task for criticizing parts of the plan proposed by some congressional Democrats. One member even wore a yellow “Chickenlooper” costume.
“Hickenlooper, hear us,” said Ellory Boyd of Boulder High School’s Sunrise Movement chapter. “The Green New Deal is not an unachievable goal. It is the survival plan for our generation!”
At one point, the crowd also broke out in chants of “Where is Hick?”
Eight Democrats attended, including Andrew Romanoff, Alice Madden, Angela Williams, Trish Zornio, Stephany Rose Spaulding, Diana Bray, Lorena Garcia, and Michelle Ferrigno Warren. Unity Party candidates Joshua Rodriguez and Gary Swing also participated.
Organizers estimated about 250 people attended the event at the Ent Center for the Performing Arts.
An August poll by Public Policy Polling showed Hickenlooper may have little incentive to jump into the fray of the Democratic primary. In head-to-head matchups, no Democrat got within 39 points of Hickenlooper.
But that won’t stop the candidates from trying, and Sunday’s climate forum was a clear place to start: To knock Hickenlooper off his pedestal, many of his competitors hope to highlight his record on oil and gas issues. The geologist-turned-brewer-turned-politician faced fierce criticism as governor for supporting lawsuits against local communities that passed hydraulic fracking bans. He also fought state-wide ballot initiatives to limit fracking.
At the forum, many of Hickenlooper’s competitors argued he’s too cozy with the oil and gas industry to be trusted on climate change. The Democrats in attendance tended to agree on how to approach climate change. Most support some form of a Green New Deal, including a job guarantee to support workers displaced by a transition away from fossil fuels.
The candidates also discussed plans to slow mass extinction and help people displaced by natural disasters exacerbated by climate change.
Lorena Garcia, a longtime women’s rights activist and nonprofit administrator, used the topic to connect climate change to a call for immigrant rights.
“If we’re going to help climate refugees ... we need to make sure they have an actual, permanent home,” she said. “And in order to do that, we need to abolish ICE.”
Trish Zornio, a 33-year-old neuroscience instructor, told the audience she’d bring a crucial perspective on climate change as a millennial scientist.
“As the youngest candidate on this stage, I am literally fighting for my future, as are many of the young adults in this room,” she said.
Former Democratic state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who led one of the few polls that didn’t include Hickenlooper, attacked at both Gardner and Hickenlooper for taking money from the fossil fuel industry.
He also lambasted the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which backed Hickenlooper the day he entered the Senate race. An endorsement from the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm can offer candidates critical party support and a fundraising boost.
“The DSCC has made their choice clear. I suggest you reject their preference and pick one of us,” Romanoff said to wide applause.
In an interview last week, Hickenlooper told CPR climate change amounted to “the greatest threat to humanity in the history of the world.” Besides missing the climate forum, Hickenlooper also didn’t attend youth led-climate strikes last month. He said neither absence indicates the topic isn’t a top priority for his campaign.
“I think that’s ridiculous. My commitment to climate change has been unwavering,” he said. “I would hold (that) amount of time and work that we put into really creating a climate change plan in Colorado demonstrates the real commitment.”