DENVER | Liberal moneyman Tom Steyer has spent more than $100 million to push climate change to the political forefront, but a down-ballot race in Colorado illustrates how the issue can create headaches for Democrats.
Democrat Alice Madden, a candidate for the at-large seat on the University of Colorado Board of Regents, has made no secret of her climate change advocacy even as the state’s flagship university system wrestles with flaps involving dissenting views on global warming.
A WikiLeaks email released two weeks ago showed ThinkProgress editor Judd Legum bragging to Mr. Steyer about an effort to thwart University of Colorado Boulder environmental studies professor Roger Pielke Jr., a well-known thorn in the side of the climate change movement.
The previous month, three University of Colorado Colorado Springs professors came under fire for warning their students that there would be no debate on human-caused climate change, and that anyone who disagreed should drop the class.
The result has been a campaign prompting questions over where to strike the balance between advocacy and academic freedom.
Republican Heidi Ganahl has made it clear that she wants to keep politics out of the classroom and scientists in charge of research topics, not the board.
“I’m more about supporting research in general and letting the leaders of the university decide, based on funding and grants and what the areas of interest are with the students and the faculty,” said Ms. Ganahl, founder of the pet care company Camp Bow Wow and a CU Foundation board member.
She added, “My daughter’s a senior at the University of Oregon, and I sent her to college to learn how to think, not what to think.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Madden, the former Colorado House Majority Leader, has argued that the nine-member board controlled by Republicans needs to spend more time on climate change.
“Question of the day: Do you think that all nine of the elected CU Regents should believe in man-made climate change?” asked Ms. Madden in a Facebook post reprinted on Complete Colorado. “Seems like a basic premise for a premier research and teaching institution with 12 Nobel Laureates.”
She later dinged the board for failing to discuss global warming, saying such topics are “verboten.”
“Which is ridiculous,” Ms. Madden told The Colorado Independent. “So it’s kind of a slap in the face to the amazing people we have here. Their work is not only dismissed but ridiculed.”
The candidates are vying to succeed term-limited GOP board member Steve Bosley in a race expected to decide control of a board long held by Republicans. The board now has a 5-4 GOP majority.
The outcome could also have an impact on the divestment issue. The board voted 7-2 last year in support of its current policy keeping fossil fuel politics out of investment decisions, but the board under a Democratic majority could revisit the issue.
“I think the whole dynamic will change,” said Republican regent John Carson. “There’s going to be a lot of pressure from these outside groups to have the Board of Regents direct divestment from fossil fuel companies.”
Ms. Madden has said she does not support divestment but instead favors using “environmental, social, governance,” or ESG, criteria to measure the sustainability and ethical impact of investments.
Not buying it is Ms. Ganahl. “I know what she’s saying publicly now, but I think her track record supports the fact that she would probably be a big supporter if it did come to a vote,” she said.
Republican legislators met in September with the UCCS administration after three professors told students, “We will not, at any time, debate the science of climate change, nor will the ‘other side’ of the climate change debate be taught or discussed in this course.”
In late October WikiLeaks released emails taken from the computer of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta that included an email sent by Mr. Legum about Mr. Pielke’s short-lived writing gig with FiveThirtyEight.
After a March 2014 article debunked a link between global warming and extreme weather events like hurricanes, Mr. Pielke never wrote for FiveThirtyEight again, for which Mr. Legum took credit.
“I think it’s fair say that, without Climate Progress, Pielke would still be writing on climate change for 538,” said the Legum email. “He would be providing important cover for climate deniers backed by Silver’s very respected brand. But because of our work, he is not.”
Last week Mr. Pielke accused ThinkProgress of an “organized, politically motivated campaign to damage my career and reputation,” while Mr. Legum insisted there was “no organized campaign,” according to the Boulder Daily Camera.
Mr. Steyer jumped into Democratic politics during the 2014 campaign and spent $67 million, the single largest amount by any individual donor on either side. He also leads the list of individual contributors in 2016 so far with $66 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.