The People’s Climate March is steering clear of Denver’s biggest local environmental justice issue this weekend

This march wasn’t originally conceived as a response to the election of Donald Trump.

Activists hold up a puppet of Governor John Hickenlooper after interrupting his speech at the March for Science, April 22, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)march for science; civic center park; protest; denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty;
Activists hold up a puppet of Governor John Hickenlooper after interrupting his speech at the March for Science, April 22, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite) march for science; civic center park; protest; denver; colorado; denverite; kevinjbeaty;
Activists hold up a puppet of Gov. John Hickenlooper after interrupting his speech at the March for Science, April 22, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

This weekend’s protest is the People’s Climate March.

This is different than last weekend’s March for Science. Among many messages, the March for Science asserted that climate change is real because there is overwhelming scientific evidence that it is real. The People’s Climate March starts from the premise that climate change is real and demands that we see and respond to the vulnerable communities who are most affected by it.

Intersectionality is the word of the day — the Service Employees International Union will be there alongside 350 Colorado and Protégete, a project of Conservation Colorado that highlights Latino voices on environmental issues — but there are no plans, organizers said, to discuss what’s been a very contentious debate locally about the intersection of racism and the environment, the widening of I-70 through predominantly Latino neighborhoods in north Denver.

Neighborhood activist Candi CdeBaca was disappointed but not surprised.

“Typical,” she said, when I asked her for a response.

Hilda Nucete, program director for Protégete, one of the organizers of the local march, said that whether it’s lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, or the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline across lands valued by native communities, it’s people of color and lower-income people who are often on the front lines of environmental issues. The predominantly Latino neighborhoods of Globeville, Elyria and Swansea in north Denver lie in the most polluted zip code in the United States, and they have the asthma rates to prove it.

There will be lots of tables at the march where people can learn about the work done by local organizations and how they can get involved.

“We really want to make sure this is not a one-off event,” she said. “We want to make sure that after the march, people are connecting with local groups.”

But Nucete said the march is not taking a position on the I-70 widening.

CDOT says putting the highway below ground level and capping a portion of the widened highway with a park will keep air pollution within acceptable levels even as the highway carries much more traffic. Opponents say even CDOT’s own modeling raises questions about air quality and the totality of the project’s impact, including the condemnation of 56 homes, amounts to a civil rights violation. (The federal government recently announced it disagreed.)

“It will be one of the most devastating environmental impacts for a generation,” CdeBaca said of the I-70 project. “… If you are going to be putting on an event to mobilize people, it doesn’t speak well to them ignoring difficult political issues. Players like this mass mobilization for climate stabilization could really help us move the needle if they were willing to engage in difficult political conversations.”

This is part of the difficult dance between Democratic politicians, major advocacy groups and community organizers. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has promised that the state will keep working on its own climate goals, regardless of what happens in Washington, but he’s also protected the oil and gas industry that’s a key part of the state’s economy from local regulations. Anti-fracking activists frequently disrupt his public appearances, including last weekend at the March for Science.

This march wasn’t originally conceived as a response to the election of Donald Trump.

It’s been in the works for a long time, and if Hillary Clinton had been elected, the march would have been framed as a call for “bold action” on environmental issues, organizers said.

“The People’s Climate March is not just an event — it’s a step on the way to a sustainable world,” organizers wrote on Facebook. “It takes all of us to fight climate change, from non-profits to businesses to elected officials. But most of all, it takes YOU. Change doesn’t start at the top, it starts with our communities — and that’s why it’s up to us.”

The election of Trump, who appointed people with close ties to oil and gas to key positions, who authorized the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, who put an opponent of much of the EPA’s recent agenda in charge of the EPA, who may try to undo national monument designations across the West, makes the march that much more important, organizers said.

“This time it is even more necessary for our communities to be engaged when we have someone who thinks climate change is a Chinese hoax in the presidency,” Nucete said. “With his federal budget, (Trump) is defunding environmental protections. When he has Scott Pruitt, who has used his entire career to put down the EPA, at the head of the EPA, it is so important that we are elevating our voices.”

Not everyone sees Trump as a disaster for the environment. Amy Oliver Cooke, who runs the Energy Policy Center at the libertarian Independence Institute and worked on Trump’s transition team, thinks free market solutions will emerge to deal with climate concerns (if you have them) and that Trump will do a better job balancing economic opportunity with protecting natural resources.

“Decisions about economic, energy, and environmental policy should be driven by the decisions of millions of individuals in a free market, not by the political whims of government, lobbyists, special interest groups or industry that pick their own winners and losers,” she said in an email, after declining to discuss her own views on climate change because they are “irrelevant.” “Energy, economy and environment aren’t either or choices. We can have it all. Free markets lead to innovation lead to efficiency lead to clean air, clean water, affordable power and thriving economies. However, if man-made climate change is your thing, free markets should be the preferred policy because of the reasons stated above.”

But march organizers don’t see a lot of evidence that the free market has protected vulnerable communities.

“Latino children are three times as likely to have asthma as any other community,” Nucete said. “Our communities are pushed to live in certain areas, where the schools, the streets, the parks, everything is worse. … (The march) is highlighting our people, our jobs and justice.”

Going to the march? Here’s what you need to know:

The event starts at 10 a.m. with a benediction. You can visit different organizations at their tables and learn about their work and how to get involved.

The march kicks off at 11 a.m. from the Greek Amphitheater.

Speakers and entertainment start at noon.

The event concludes at 2 p.m.

The forecast calls for snow, so be prepared.

(We don’t have comments, so let me take care of this part for you: “Snow in April? What global warming?” “That’s not how global warming works!”)

There won’t be food vendors on site, so bring snacks and lunch. There will be stations to refill your reusable water bottle.

The usual recommendations about taking RTD, carpooling or biking to the march apply. There will be bike storage, but bring your own lock.

Erica Meltzer

Author: Erica Meltzer

Erica Meltzer covers government and politics. She's worked for newspapers in Colorado, Arizona and Illinois and once won a First Amendment Award by showing up in the wrong place at the wrong time. She served in the Peace Corps in Paraguay and can swear fluently in Guarani. She gets emotional about public libraries. Contact Erica Meltzer at 303-502-2802, emeltzer@denverite.com or @meltzere.