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The New West: Al Gore returns and some still yawn off climate change



CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Former Vice President Al Gore is back on the big screen with a follow-up to his 2006 Academy-award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” It isn’t hard to imagine every politician in Wyoming rolling their eyes again with incredulity and, in a way, strange delight.

At the same time they loathe his message, they love Gore just as they adore Nancy Pelosi being the reviled figurehead of the Democratic Party.

Even as summer wildfires grow larger and expand in the West and as severe drought conditions deepen over eastern Wyoming and Montana, denial will be the automatic response to Gore’s next installment, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.”

Reports are that in many locations it’s bombing at the box office. Why bum yourself out with facts when the Dow Jones is above 22,000?

More than a decade ago, Gore’s first film, more than any other cinematic project before it, elevated the science of climate change into public consciousness. Using the best science available at the time, it showed the clear correlation between the burning of fossil fuels and elevated carbon dioxide levels in Earth’s atmosphere, thereby creating a greenhouse effect and accelerated warming of the planet.

It cast coal, dirtiest of the carbon-based fuels, in even more negative light and it left many in coal-producing areas of Wyoming and Montana believing that anything Gore is in favor of, they must be against.

Taking such an attitude would again be folly, for just as the link between coal and a chronically hotter, drier West is undeniable, so, too, is Gore’s next message. A clean energy revolution is coming and states ignoring it will be left even further behind.

No one disputes that Gore isn’t exactly a dynamic, charismatic spokesman for the cause. He’s smart, sincere and loaded with more compelling scientific data and graphics, but let’s face it: Gore trying to persuade Wyomingites that incinerating more Powder River coal will leave their state scorched and water-challenged is like Mr. Rogers walking into Stacey’s Bar in Gallatin Gateway and convincing outfitters wolves are good for the ecosystem.

Wyoming is stuck in a rut it can’t get out of. If leaders would just come clean and be honest—people ranging from Wyoming’s entire Congressional Delegation and most of Montana’s to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and Jackson Hole’s own John Turner, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director who sat on the board of Peabody Energy—they could acknowledge coal isn’t ever coming back.

It would also mean confessing that the free market, more than any policies promulgated by Barack Obama, killed coal, namely the glut of cheap natural gas resulting in a lot of former coal-fired power plants—not including the ones being shuttered because they’re so polluting— being retrofitted to gas.

As Gore’s new film points out, the alternative energy revolution—which includes ongoing breakthroughs in solar, wind and hydropower energy as well as better efficiency in transmission lines and household appliances—is happening with or without the blessing of the GOP-controlled Congress and White House. Again, the market is speaking and so are the buying preferences of consumers.

Also not in Wyoming’s favor: Even as the state bleeds young people who are moving away to find opportunity elsewhere, it is young people who understand the science of climate change and the virtues of alternative energy.

Ever wonder why electricity consumers in Washington State and Oregon don’t want to burn Wyoming coal and definitely don’t want industrial-strength coal ports built in their backyard so that Powder River coal can be barged to China?

Wyoming’s obstinacy, its stubborn penchant for creating polemics, its willful rejection of science and belief that it will triumph by denying reality and going it “the Wyoming way,” is precisely what got the state into an epic funding crisis.

So hardheaded is the thinking in Cheyenne that some lawmakers wanted to enact higher taxes on renewables, myopically, it seems, seeking retribution for clean energy gaining traction.

History will remember in perpetuity where Wyoming’s leaders stood when they were presented with choices between doing what they knew was right versus what would win them favor from an electorate desiring courage but not getting it.

With smoke in the air now, I’ll never forget what Dr. Steve Running, a climate scientist at the University of Montana who shared in a Nobel Peace Prize with Gore, told me several years ago.

It’s not the appearance of snowpack in January that should shape how one thinks about climate change; it’s how fast we lose it in June and July, how sparse the summer rains, how fast the rivers drop and how hot the average temperatures are. That also translates into proliferation of smoke.

“We’re in the middle of a major transition, the likes of which the West is unprepared to deal with,” he told me. “We’re rapidly approaching a point, given the trends, where reliable winter snowpack may be iffy and then where does that leave you in summer?”

It leaves you burning up, he said. It will also leave climate-denying politicians in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, so hostile to the federal government now, demanding federal disaster relief later on.

Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for nearly 30 years. Living in Bozeman, he is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at His profile of Montana politician Max Baucus appears in the summer 2017 issue of Mountain Outlaw and is now on newsstands.


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