Somewhere in Colorado Springs, in the not-so-distant future, a hazmat-suited parent tries desperately to mend a tear in the foil roof of a makeshift shelter. A voice crackles on a shortwave radio, warning whomever is out there that another colossal storm is headed that way. A little girl narrates the dismal scene, wondering whether she will ever see the sunlight again.
This isn’t the plot of Hollywood’s latest sci-fi thriller. It’s the first 90 seconds of a new campaign ad for Andrew Romanoff, the progressive underdog in the Colorado Senate primary.
“This climate crisis is here now,” Romanoff told HuffPost in a phone interview last week. “People can turn away. But that’s not going to make the problem disappear. There are folks on Earth today who are living through this kind of hellscape.”
The video, set to be released online Monday, marks an escalation in a primary race that’s shaping up to be a showdown over how the Democratic Party plans to tackle the climate crisis. Yet, it has raised eyebrows from some climate experts who say the apocalyptic imagery may paint a misleading picture of what’s already a terrifying crisis, but may also prove effective.
Romanoff, a Green New Deal backer who refused to take money from the state’s powerful oil and gas industry, is up against former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a loyal fossil fuel ally who parlayed his failed bid for the 2020 presidential nomination into a front-running Senate campaign this summer.
Hickenlooper swiftly picked up endorsements from Senate Democrats’ campaign arm as party officials in Washington looked to rubber-stamp the sort of moderate they see as most likely to beat Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), an unpopular incumbent whose seat is critical in flipping the Senate.
But in November, Romanoff, 53, got a boost from the Sunrise Movement, the group of youth-led climate campaigners behind the Green New Deal, which made the former state House speaker one of the group’s first endorsements of the 2020 election.
Climate change emerged as a top issue for Colorado voters this year. In January, 77% of registered voters called it a “serious concern,” up 14 percentage points since 2016, according to Colorado College’s annual conservation survey. Of those voters, 62% declared the crisis “extremely or very serious,” up 23 percentage points from three years ago. Both percentages topped the six other Western states polled in the survey.
There’s ample reason for the growing worries. Colorado’s average temperatures increased 2.9 degrees Fahrenheit between 1970 and 2018, Climate Central data shows. Three of the state’s largest wildfires in history occurred last year. Reservoirs fed by the Colorado River fell to a near-record low last year.
“Our aim is not simply to alarm Americans. Plenty of people are alarmed already,” Romanoff said. “It’s to prompt the kind of climate action we need.”
The kind of expansive Green New Deal policy Romanoff supports is the first proposal scientists say matches the scale of the crisis at hand. The United Nations said last month that countries need to cut emissions by an unprecedented 7.6% per year to keep warming from exceeding the point beyond which the effects are projected to be catastrophic.
But the doomsday depicted in the four-minute video, which the Romanoff campaign has no current plans to run on TV, doesn’t necessarily track what scientists predict of near-term climate change in North America.
Projections vary based on a number of factors, including how fast the Arctic ice caps melt, how much methane from thawing permafrost accelerates warming from human emissions, and whether substantive policies to curb emissions or adapt to warming are quick enough to make a difference. And forecasts generally grow more dire by the year as refined measurements show even more rapid warming.
“What we’ve been doing on climate messaging hasn’t been working, so if others want to try a different tactic, who am I to say it’s a bad idea?”
The outcome of the changes, at least in the near future, is expected to mean greater disruptions and social upheaval. But few projections, if any, suggest the kind of dramatic civilizational breakdown shown in the ad, at least not in the United States.
“It’s great if candidates want to communicate the dangers of climate change, but apocalyptic narratives are extreme,” said Joseph Majkut, a climate scientist and policy expert at the think tank Niskanen Center. “Reality is already cause for concern. I don’t think it is helpful to write science fiction.”
Climate messaging that appeals to fear can backfire and cause people to disengage, according to Carbon Tracker research. Yet, there’s growing debate over “whether that finding is overstated in the literature,” said Leah Stokes, a climate policy researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“I tend to think that politicians, given their role in society, should probably lean toward hope and solutions, because they’re the ones cast with trying to solve the problem,” Stokes said. “But a lot of what we’ve been doing on climate messaging hasn’t been working, so if others want to try a different tactic, who am I to say it’s a bad idea?”
Candidates such as Jay Inslee, the Washington governor who ran for the 2020 presidential nomination on a positive message of fighting climate change, failed to gain traction with voters. Front-runners for the Democratic nomination who have proposed ambitious plans to curb emissions, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), focus their campaigns largely on other progressive issues, such as universal health care.
Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University, said he generally feels that “these kinds of apocalyptic predictions are not effective.”
“On the other hand, what we’ve been doing is not working either, so maybe conventional wisdom is wrong,” Dessler said in an email to HuffPost. “As a scientist, I believe that if your current approach is not working, then try something new.”
The advice applies to Romanoff in more ways than one. Since Hickenlooper entered the race with the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the former governor leapfrogged Romanoff in polls. In September, a Public Policy Polling survey found that 60% of Democratic voters supported Hickenlooper, compared to Romanoff’s 9%. No other candidates in the race scored above 3%, and 16% of respondents said they were undecided.
In some ways, the video offers a darker spin on a genre of climate storytelling that’s blossomed since the Green New Deal, a sweeping framework for an industrial policy that both rapidly cuts emissions and provides millions of high-paying jobs repairing and fortifying infrastructure for a warmer world. In April, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the Green New Deal movement’s most visible champion in Congress, released a video imagining the life of a young woman growing up under such a federal policy that provides her with a free education and a decent first job restoring wetlands through a program based on the 1930s-era Civilian Conservation Corps.
If elected, Romanoff would likely become one of the Senate’s leading voices pushing for legislation to enact such a policy. Hickenlooper, by contrast, would be among the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, having repeatedly railed against the Green New Deal.
As he barnstorms the state, Romanoff said voters raise the climate crisis as a frequent concern.
“This is the first election I can remember when voters are attaching to this issue the urgency that it demands,” he said. “So our video obviously dramatizes the stakes, but it doesn’t exaggerate the problem by any stretch.”