Ozone Alert. Stay Indoors.

Polis: Center for Politics
4 min readMay 20, 2024

Karina Marinovich (PPS ‘24)

Karina Marinovich (PPS ‘24)

The Denver Brown Cloud is a spectacle of my hometown, earning itself the same level of notoriety as the Molly Brown House. However, this landmark looms over the entire city, an inescapable and ominous reminder of Denver’s increasingly dismal air quality. Denverites must unite and support policies and politicians that tackle our massive transportation emissions.

My AP Environmental Science teacher once assigned us to hike to the top of a hill in Roxborough Park, where there is a perfect vantage point– not of the beautiful Rocky Mountain horizon– but of an unsightly brown body of smoke hanging over distant skyscrapers. As I stood atop the overlook, I faced a dystopian scene. I was surrounded by majestic red rocks and

wildflowers, but they were contrasted by the dirty industrial haze polluting Colorado’s blue skies.

A body of brown smog hangs over Downtown Denver.

Denver is uniquely vulnerable to air pollution because it lies near the foothills, where cold, dense air blown from the Rocky Mountains traps the warm air underneath it. Under normal conditions, this warm city air should rise since it is less dense. However, due to atmospheric inversion, the cold sheet of mountain air lying atop Denver prevents the warm surface air and the pollutants it contains from rising and dispersing into the atmosphere. Denver is left with highly polluted surface air, distinguished by an unsightly brown color.

Last summer, I noticed an unusual warning on the highway. Signs like the image below are now commonplace on I-70, advising Denverites to stay inside due to dangerous ozone pollution levels. Stay inside? This instruction contradicts the very foundation of Denver culture. As Coloradans, we pride ourselves on our superior skiing mountains, unbeatable hiking destinations, and 300 reliable days of sunny blue skies per year.

A traffic sign alerts motorists of dangerous air conditions in Denver.

During the summer before leaving for college, I could not ignore the suffocating smog as I attempted to continue exercising outdoors. Even my brothers’ baseball practices were getting canceled due to the imminent air quality. This is no surprise considering that in August 2021, Denver earned itself the title of worst air quality in the world, with a day of breathing outdoors equivalent to smoking 1.5 cigarettes per day.

Regardless of political affiliation, we all share a fear of losing parts of our outdoorsy culture, like teaching our future children how to ski. If you asked a Coloradan what people should do to save the environment, they would probably suggest composting, turning off lights, and all the other behaviors that were drilled into our heads in school. Lots of Coloradans commit to these green behaviors, and the ones who don’t often feel guilty. If you identify with the latter, I am here to reassure your morality. These actions certainly aren’t bad ideas, but their impact is relatively trivial.

Massive corporations distort the public perception of their incredulous emissions by painting a narrative that the typical consumer is responsible for climate change. Exxon and Shell propagandize that if we do not let the shower run, we can save the planet, while they emit millions of tons of carbon dioxide yearly. In fact, British Petroleum invented the carbon footprint concept and even published an online calculator for individuals’ carbon emissions in their daily lives. Only 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for about 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Policy is the surest way to necessitate systemic change, and the good news is that we, as consumers and voters, have a voice. I encourage my fellow Coloradans to demand policy changes. According to urban planning expert Jill Locantore, we must start with expanding public transit options to reduce citywide gasoline consumption and emissions. Transportation currently is the leading source of carbon emissions in Colorado, so it is critical that we support politicians and legislation that steer us away from oil and gas reliance.

For example, the Denver City Council should follow Boulder’s lead and purchase a greater variety of routes and more consistent service from RTD buses. Furthermore, Colorado committed $65 million last year for transitioning from diesel to electric school buses. We should take this initiative to the next level and invest in the electrification of city buses.

This is all possible if we demand it. City council and mayor elections occur on June 6th. When voting, read the candidates’ energy and environment platforms. The website Open Secrets lists how much politicians receive in lobbying from Big Oil. If we unite in our opposition to big polluters, we can one day look up at a purely blue Coloradan sky.

Karina Marinovich is from Denver, CO and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.