Letter from America: how cowboys cope with climate change

Alastair Harper is head of politics at Green Alliance. He’s currently participating in the US State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Programme on climate change. This is his third report on his experiences.

As we make our journey over the shale wells and wind farms of the Great Plains to Colorado, we are joined by the pope. On the airport TV screens, on the front covers of the newspapers and in the conversations overheard in the terminal shuttle, his encyclical on climate change dominates our journey. As we are now in the early stages of the presidential nominations, His Holiness has also featured as a political debate starter on talk shows.

Unusually, at present, there are seven potential Republican candidates who are Catholic, the big three being Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Rick Santorum. And a Catholic candidate for the presidency cannot be beholden to the Vatican. Foreshadowing Obama’s Pastor Wright speech, John F Kennedy had to reassure Protestants about what his Irish Catholic heritage meant for him while running for president, saying: “When any man stands on the steps of the Capitol and takes the oath of office of president, he is swearing to support the separation of church and state… And if he breaks his oath, he is not only committing a crime against the constitution, for which the Congress can impeach him – and should impeach him – but he is committing a sin against God.” The candidate must show that he or she knows who the boss is – not the pope, but the American public.

Jeb and the sceptics
With this in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that Jeb Bush, a practising Catholic for 20 years, said, ahead of the encyclical, “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope. I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

It is very easy for Bush to say this,  it allows him to both reaffirm the separation of church and state and dog-whistle the climate sceptics. As I wrote earlier, going all out against action on climate offers the Republicans very little. Polling shows that the American people are not climate sceptics. American Catholics are not climate sceptics. Even a large base of Republican voters are not climate sceptics. However, the base that will select and advocate for a Republican president are climate sceptics, in far greater numbers.

Jury’s still out – but funny things are happening to the weather
In Colorado, I meet one of these. Don Brown has grown wealthy from farming. He also has oil and gas interests. He is the commissioner of Colorado Agriculture. And he is a Republican willingly serving a Democratic governor. He tells us he does so because he hates partisan games, so I ask him how he can surmount the partisan debate over climate change? He looks at me, a little painedly, and tells me “Well, the jury looks to be still out on whether it is a problem.” But he concedes that funny things have been happening with the weather and it is affecting his farming community; it’s just that who knows how much it has to do with us? This is the same cautious, toe-dipping line currently being used by the Republican candidates.

Incidentally, the next day, just a few miles from the Agriculture Commission, we meet some of the scientists at the federally funded National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). We see their samples of air, FedExed in daily from sampling sites around the world (my companions nostalgically stroke the canisters containing the air of their home countries) which show them exactly what is in our atmosphere. They are not debating the issue of climate change; they’ve already delivered an emphatic verdict.

Back to Don, as he drops the climate conversation and starts to talk about local conservation efforts, and how much he loves the mountains. He talks about the water shortages, and how water is worth more than gold to his people. He explains that pressure and infighting over who gets that water is a major political problem, with battles being fought between frackers, towns and beef farmers. Surely, then, this is the ideal place to devise an alternative climate solution to those of the liberal Californians and Vermontians?

Don shrugs. He agrees that he doesn’t like the answers being sent down from federal level: “Look, my trucks have got to get their engines refitted now so that the air they put out is cleaner than the air that goes in. That cost me $140,000 – and for what?”

What if cowboys became climate advocates?
The Coloradan cowboys aren’t the dairy farmers of Vermont, willing to experiment with renewables and extracting energy from poo. If they invest in power, like Don, they put their money into oil and gas. Don and his fellow farmers, at present, see only pain in dealing with climate change. It seems all cost and no benefit: expensive changes to their tools and methods for no visible outcome except a miniscule contribution to a global, invisible problem.

Many of those facing the reality of extreme weather here feel disengaged in the processes of solving it. But, if the cowboys were to become climate advocates – if they swapped fossil fuel for renewables and had some fun conquering the new technology frontier – things could get a lot more interesting.

On my last day in Denver, I meet a geologist who has done exactly that. Following a career in oil and gas, he now works for a renewable energy company with a presence in the UK. He relishes the new world and advises young people going into geology to back future technologies and not let their career burst with the carbon bubble. He grinned at me over a candied bacon brunch: “My colleagues in the UK were over the other week, all worked up over the fact they will have to compete a bit now. I’m out here competing every day with coal and oil and gas and,” he raises a finger and tips an invisible cowboy hat, “I can beat them.”

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