By Julia Williams
Today I found myself walking west on a crisp fall day outside of Denver. As each foot surpassed the other in a quiet stroll, I couldn’t help but revel in the feeling of being outside. I love the warmth of the sun hitting my face, the gentle breeze whistling through my ears, and of course, the stunning views that take my breath away.
As I continued on, one foot after the other, my journey took me up a hill. Starting to sweat, something unusual happened, my lungs suddenly felt empty and began working on overdrive. Eventually my body forced me to stop and as I pulled out my inhaler, I remembered that other thing that has quietly been taking my breath away: air pollution. Something that isn’t always visible to the naked eye but follows me anywhere I go.
I sat down to catch my breath and turned to the east. Overlooking the city, a different narrative developed in front of me—it was a beautiful, expansive metropolis. Its complexity is entrancing in its own way and I can’t help but marvel at the engineering of the roads, buildings and neighborhoods that sprawl out in front of me.
There is a frequent argument about whether humans should be considered a part of nature. Many operate with the belief that “nature” is separate from human development. Others have the opposite opinion, that humans are an integral part of nature, so everything we do is natural; even if it is destructive to the rest of the world. Frequently, natural barriers like rivers, mountains or canyons create strict boundaries between the developed world and our earth in its most naked form, but what happens when the two collide? What happens when humans and nature collide?
On days like today, I can see the collision in action. Hanging over the city sits a brown suspicious looking haze, halting the otherwise uninterrupted blue sky and blurring the majestic views in every direction. It is not every day I can so clearly visualize the sneaky and elusive pollution that pervades across our state. Most pollutants remain invisible to the naked eye, secretly traveling across the world through jet streams and seeping into our open windows. It makes me wonder, what is blowing in my wind?
Today, fresh air is a limited resource. Looking up gives us the deceiving illusion that the sky goes on forever. In reality, our atmosphere is about as thick as a layer of Saran wrap covering our entire planet. Even more importantly, air pollution has no boundaries. Once a pollutant has entered into the depth of our atmosphere, there is little to no way to control it. We can’t easily filter it out, we can’t restrict where it goes, and we can’t control what it does to our climate. What we pollute impacts not only us, but also people across the world.
Although our state is characterized and celebrated for its vast natural beauty, Colorado is not at all innocent. Even if we can’t see it, we are feeling the consequences every day. Did you know that 12 Colorado counties received a grade of D or F for the number of high ozone days this year?
The good news is that mitigating air pollution has a fairly simple solution. If we stop emissions, we can halt pollution in its tracks. Depending on the pollutant, after hundreds to thousands of years, it will return back through its natural lifecycle and our climate can be restored. This problem has a relatively simple solution, but requires a complete shift in industry and an overhaul of our current energy production.
The good news is that it is already underway.
It is no secret, however, that a large percentage of our pollution problems are a result of our addiction to fossil fuels. When we burn them, we get byproducts like carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and ozone. Even the extraction of fossil fuels can result in the emission of things like methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). All of these pollutants have severe impacts on human health and our climate.
Over the last decade we have made incredible strides and clean, renewable energy sources are now cost-competitive with many traditional energy sources. Local nonprofits, municipalities and individuals are taking bold steps to motivate a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Unfortunately, Colorado is way behind where it could be in wind and solar development. As many of our elected representatives continue to hold on ever so tightly to the piles of cash fossil fuel interests bring them with, they continue to prioritize the development of oil through fracking rather than wind or solar.
So what can we do? We have all heard the things you can do at home: use your heat and air conditioning less, turn off the lights, drive less, change your light bulbs, etc. Those are all-important, but if we are going to transition as fast as we need to save our species, the best thing we can do is be an active citizen in our communities.
What I have realized is that our elected leaders are really our elected followers and that grassroots people-power is the only way we can counter the influence of the fossil fuel industry in our state. Therefore, I urge you to go to your city council meetings and advocate for clean energy solutions instead of disaster. Write or call your governor, commissioners, bosses, friends, and everyone in between. Join a local group or nonprofit in your area that is working to promote a future that prioritizes the values you align with. Most importantly, talk about these issues with everyone you know, even when it is awkward.
Issues like climate change can feel impossible to solve — like they are too big of an issue and you will always be fighting an uphill battle. We need to collectively ditch that perspective immediately because I can assure you that yes, one person can make a difference and even the little things can make a big impact.
As people are coming together across the globe to stand up for our climate, amazing things are happening. Cities and counties are making commitments to go to 100 percent renewable electricity. Businesses, universities and banks are divesting from unethical projects like tar sand pipelines. Communities are prioritizing their health and safety and investing in a future for the next generation.
So, if you want a future where the only thing that takes your breath away are scenic vistas, the next time you are outside, take a moment to ask yourself, what is blowing in my wind, and how can I help keep it clean?
While living in California, Julia, an outdoor enthusiast, began organizing environmental stewardship programs for Orange County Coastkeeper. Now a 350 Colorado’s Volunteer Coordinator and a trained Climate Reality Leader, Julia hopes to unite individuals, businesses, nonprofits and municipalities in the movement towards a climate secure future. If you are interested in getting involved with 350 Colorado, please email her: firstname.lastname@example.org.