Sen. Hickenlooper hopes to drive solutions to climate change as summer heat, drought and fires fry the West

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Sen. John Hickenlooper, right, walks with Tim Risser, founder and CEO of Lightning eMotors of Loveland, during a tour of the facility. Hickenlooper was in Colorado last week to promote the President Joe Biden’s infrastructure legislation, which includes billions for electric car chargers nationwide. Photo by Dan England of Empowering Colorado.

Near the end of his tour of Lightning eMotors in Loveland on July 8, Sen. John Hickenlooper slipped behind the wheel of an electric delivery truck and grinned as he prepared to drive it around the parking lot.

It was exactly the kind of stunt you might expect from a politician. But after he stepped down from the seat, Hickenlooper saw a much greater purpose than publicity.

“I cannot overemphasize how important it is for me to actually get a chance to be in the vehicle, to drive the truck, to ride in the shuttle,” he said. “When you go back and there’s 100 senators…and you’re debating how much of an allocation goes to e-vehicles and trucks, what will you get for that investment? Once you actually touch and experience it, you’re a much more successful advocate.”

Hickenlooper visited the facility as part of a tour of the state designed to promote President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan and to highlight the challenges facing lawmakers as they work to curb climate change.

Sen. Hickenlooper prepares to talk to the media outside the Lighting eMotors complex in Loveland during a 100-degree day last week. Photo by Dan England/Empowering Colorado.

While Hickenlooper suggested the President considers equality to be his number-one goal, he also believes the climate is Biden’s number two, he said in an interview with Empowering Colorado. He said he would consider health care the only issue he’d rank higher on his own agenda, although he also has a place in his heart for small businesses, considering that he made his fortune from his Wynkoop restaurant and brewery.

Hickenlooper is part of a bipartisan group writing the legislation for the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, which includes $7.5 billion to build a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle chargers. Hickenlooper believes so strongly in the need to clean up the climate — he called it “the country’s agenda” — that he expressed frustration with the Senate even as he also stated a need, several times, to work together. The Senate, he said, works incrementally, and it’s always been that way, even before this era, when bipartisanship became “a muscle that atrophied.” The climate, he said, may not allow for methodical steps.

“There’s no time,” he said while baking in the 100-degree heat that accompanied his Loveland tour. “We have to recognize that climate change is real, and we have to address it immediately.”

The political potholes that prevent real actioninclude people who refuse to recognize climate change, even this summer, when an unprecedented heat wave, drought and wildfires fry much of the country. Hickenlooper tries to understand their hesitation.

“You have to accept people where they are and recognize that for years, large oil companies spent billions of dollars convincing the American people that climate change was a hoax,” he said. “Right? It’s not true.”

Hickenlooper didn’t say he’s glad for the increases in extreme weather, such as the heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, which scientists believe would not have been possible without climate change. But he also doesn’t mind using it as a tool in the same way he drives the truck: The truck gave a fungible example of what cleaner energy can accomplish, and the weather is a clear indicator of what could happen if our energy continues to come primarily from fossil fuels. “Now we see all around us, whether it’s wildfires, heat waves, giant cataclysmic tropical storms, the extreme weather consequences, and not to mention the ocean warning and all these things coming down the pike,” he said.

Aaron Raines, fabrication and welding area lead for Lightning eMotors, had Sen. Hickenlooper assist with the laser cutting process of manufacturing electric vehicles and showed the Senator the end product. Photo by Dan England/Empowering Colorado.

Images in the media of the destruction caused by those weather events have already encouraged others to reach out to him. Three weeks ago, the chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobile told Hickenlooper in a private meeting that he was ready to put a price on carbon emissions. Then Hickenlooper paused while recalling the meeting, as if he was still stunned.

“That’s a culmination of different images that people have seen again and again and again,” he said.

Hickenlooper said other lawmakers, even conservative ones, have told him they’ve had the same experiences. Businesses, all of a sudden, feel the urge to address the climate.

Hickenlooper said finding a way to put a price on carbon emissions would be a good next step. He didn’t say specifically what he would endorse, but he also said there was live legislation in Congress that calls for a tax per metric ton of carbon emissions. He also said he’s all for “finding different ways to go fast” on the climate in a governing body that prefers to go slow. Electrification, he said, was another way. His visit to Lighting eMotors was as much about promoting them as himself.

“It’s hard to do a systemic change,” Hickenlooper said of the Senate. “What the Senate’s been doing are these little incremental pieces of ways to address climate change, and, you know, sometimes the frustrations are of taking the bigger bites out of the problem.”

Rather than be discouraged by the enormity of the problem and the snail’s pace atwhich some want to tackle it, he prefers to look at moments when possible solutions are right in front of him: All he has to do is put both hands on the wheel.

“We are in the process of changing our culture,” Hickenlooper said while envisioning a future of whisper-quiet city streets full of electric vehicles. “This is the first time you feel like we’ve got a fighting chance.”

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