WyoFile Energy Report

Earth’s climate is changing faster than Wyoming’s politics

It would be callous to begrudge anybody in Wyoming for wanting to maintain the state’s fossil fuel extraction industries for the thousands of jobs they support and for bolstering more than 60 percent of our statewide economy.

Yet it’s possible, and even wise, to advocate for something less than full-throttle development. And it’s not “anti-industry” to understand the reality of climate change and to advocate for policies and investments that cut the carbon footprint of fossil fuels. That’s the reality occupied by most Americans — and by more Wyomingites than you might think.

Dustin Bleizeffer

But sadly, the earth’s climate is changing faster than Wyoming’s politics on global warming and energy matters — despite a crippling drought that brought every county in Wyoming to federal disaster status eligibility and forced ranchers to cull their herds. Despite the wildfires that raged all summer long. Despite the devastation of Hurricane Sandy that represents exactly what we can expect from a warming atmosphere.

Last week, all but a few candidates for Wyoming’s precious two congressional seats up for grabs in the election proclaimed they are either climate change deniers outright, or that too little is known about climate change to determine man’s role in it.

“Climates do change,” incumbent U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) said in response to a question during a live debate Thursday hosted and moderated by Wyoming PBS, Wyoming Public Radio and the Wyoming Business Report. “We’re just beginning to explore what mankind’s role is in climate change, so I’d argue that the jury’s still out.”

Just an hour earlier, incumbent U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) had responded to a similar question regarding climate change; “Climates continue to change, and the role of man in that is completely unknown.”

This graph from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration shows atmospheric CO2 levels obtained from ice core samples, and shows a dramatic increase since the industrial revolution. (NASA — click to enlarge)

There is, in fact, scientific consensus that man plays a significant role in the current warming cycle — a fact that former climate change skeptic Richard A. Muller couldn’t deny.

But back to coal country politics. Third-party candidates in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate races also delivered whoppers of climate denial positions on Thursday evening.

Country Party candidate for the U.S. Senate, Joel Otto, said it’s “counterproductive and a waste to try to cut CO2 emissions.”

Constitution Party candidate for the U.S. House, Daniel Cummings, believes global warming is caused by the sun, and said, “I reject the propaganda that it’s caused by man.” Country Party candidate for the U.S. House Don Wills claimed there’s been no rise in global temperatures whatsoever during the past decade, and Libertarian candidate for the U.S. House Richard Brubaker conceded only that there are natural climate cycles.

Chris Henrichsen, Democratic candidate for the U.S. House, revealed some grasp of the reality of the situation; “I have no reason to question the experts on the science,” he said. Tim Chesnut, Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, took it a step further and said that in the next 100 years, “we may come up with fuel cells that will make fossil fuels obsolete. Right now we are a colony where these resources are being pulled out.”

Those last two candidates were the minority voice on climate and energy policy in Wyoming during the election.

So what’s wrong with denying or downplaying the seriousness of climate change and wanting to protect Wyoming’s fossil fuel industries? It placates and gives the public a set of false expectations — not the least of which is the notion that Wyoming’s unbending stance on climate and coal is somehow going to convince our fellow Americans in coastal cities and states to ignore coal’s contribution to climate change. Those citizens care very little that Wyoming is dangerously dependent on fossil fuels for its revenue, and they’ve got more power in Washington D.C.

Cynthia Lummis
Cynthia Lummis (Click to enlarge)

Even the hard-fought successes that Wyoming’s delegation had in retaining the state’s share of Abandoned Mine Land Funds ultimately ended in failure this year when the delegation’s fellow GOPers “cannibalized” the fund in the dead of night. According to Lummis’ own admission during the debate, one fellow GOP colleague wouldn’t even return her calls on the matter.

And if you’re voting for Mitt Romney as the friend-of-coal and because of his promise to squash federal regulations, be careful what you wish for. If Romney wins the White House and makes good on his promise to neuter the Environmental Protection Agency it will likely create a flood of nasty lawsuits given that, in the eyes of the U.S. Supreme Court, EPA is legally mandated to control manmade greenhouse gas emissions. Neutering EPA isn’t the type of policy that creates certainty among the investment community — which is still poised to make cleaner energy investments.

Certainty would come from a comprehensive energy policy that requires political leadership and Congressional compromise. Instead, what we have is a lot of bluster about red, white and blue energy — and by the way, let’s ship our red, white and blue coal to China.

Sen. John Barrasso
Sen. John Barrasso

In the line of climate change questioning during Thursday’s debate, Sen. Barrasso warned that even if the U.S. does cut its greenhouse gas emissions, it would place us at a disadvantage because China and India would continue to increase their greenhouse gas emissions fueling their industrial growth while ours falters. How’s that for pessimism and American-can’t-do-ism? Why would any elected leader downplay America’s role as a world leader on something as paramount as energy and climate change?

Are we to believe that America is powerless in working with China to reduce carbon emissions? That’s not what I heard from Chinese officials or young Chinese professionals when I traveled to Shanxi Province in 2009. And by the way, China is whooping our tails when it comes to building and using carbon-cutting coal refineries.

Reducing our own carbon emissions won’t be the death of coal mining in Wyoming. It would require us to broaden our portfolio of energy sources — you know, expose ourselves to less market and infrastructure risk. It’s the kind of incentive to innovate that brings about cost-saving efficiencies, an attribute that makes businesses more competitive. Of course it requires a capital investment that takes more than four years to pay off. So we’re talking about vision and leadership and investing in generations to follow.

Unfortunately, that’s not what we’re getting from our Wyoming leaders on climate and energy matters.

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. Reach him at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter @DBleizeffer.

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Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Right on, Dustin. The issue of climate change may not be front and center this election but wait two years and four years from now. Wyoming is only at the beginning of severe drought and by then the ranchers and farmers will be begging for mercy. The glaciers and snow fields will provide only a little water in the spring run-off and even city dwellers will begin to panic.
    Lets consider China. They are already worrying about their glaciers in the Himalayas, and no water, and yet horrific floods are causing tremendous loss of crops. They are buying land in Africa for crop lands. No one seems to realize, or want to, that climate change is world wide and is affecting everyone and all lands. At the same time, China gets it and is moving away from coal to renewable energy – solar and wind.
    Renewable energy is already taking up the slack in our country but our politicians, especially the Republicans, will do anything to discourage green energy. What leaders we have need to sit down and hammer out an energy policy based on reality and that reality will finally accept the fact that climate change will destroy our Planet Earth and us.
    We need to immediately put in place all means to reduce the use of carbon, including a tax of about $50 a ton (increasing year by year) on all carbon emissions. Cost and the economics of burning fossil fuels will force us to use green energy and to develop the technology (and the efficiencies) to replace the use of fossil fuels. The alternative is to see terrible, catastrophic climate events that will kill all life, including human kind. We may already have passed a tipping point. Hurricane Sandy is only a glimpse of what is coming down the road at us.

  2. I appreciate this piece but believe there are two distinct articles here.

    The first calls Wyoming’s DC delegation on their refusal to provide any coherent response to concerns about climate change or to address the election-year chimera of “regulatory uncertainty”. Bleizeffer is on the right track in pointing out that Romney’s promise to de-claw the EPA will only lead to less regulatory certainty than we have now and will likely lead to significantly more uncertainty than we have now. This is a head-in-the-sand approach to policy that ignores both what is happening and the consequences of the election sound-bites that have been put forward (and accepted) as policy proposals. Bleizeffer is right to call them out on these positions.

    The other article here is about the head-in-the-sand approach to concerns about climate change that we see not just from WY’s DC-3, but by virtually every congressperson who has accepted money from the extractive industries. Their approach might be summarized like this:

    – “I refuse to recognize the authority of science”.
    – “China and India are doing it, therefore we are helpless.”
    – “There are multiple viewpoints on the issue, so we can only conclude that we should continue doing exactly what we’ve done in the past with no changes whatsoever.”

    These aren’t really arguments, they’re sound-bites provided by the extractive industries. They’re also illogical – even if the jury is still out, even if the largely correlational argument put forward by climate scientists is not air-tight, there is no reason to conclude that we can or should do nothing.

    I can’t help but think that separating these two threads might be helpful. There are genuine points of divergence when it comes to the causal theories of climate change put forward over the past decades but taking them on or referring to them as “consensus” might not be the right angle anyway. Pushing candidates or sitting officials to be clear about the logical consequences and alternatives to what they’re already proposing seems to be the right path.

  3. “And by the way, China is whooping our tails when it comes to building and using carbon-cutting coal refineries.”

    Exactly, and they are whooping our tails in overall coal based power… ahem I mean carbon cutting coal power. Lol!

    From Wikipedia; “The People’s Republic of China is the largest consumer of coal in the world,[1] and is about to become the largest user of coal-derived electricity, generating 1.95 trillion kilowatt-hours per year, or 68.7% of its electricity from coal as of 2006 (compared to 1.99 trillion kilowatt-hours per year, or 49% for the US)….China’s coal mining industry is the largest and also deadliest in the world in terms of human safety[5] where thousands of people die every year in the coal pits, compared to 30 per year for coal power in the United States.[6] … It is believed that a continued increase in coal power in China may undermine international initiatives to decrease carbon emissions such as the Kyoto Protocol, which called for a decrease of 483 million tons by 2012. In the same time frame, it is expected that coal plants in China will have increased CO2 emissions by 1,926 million tons — over 4 times the proposed reduction.[27]””

    Yup, China is whooping our tails alright. I love it when the greenies look to their beloved China for inspiration. Lol!

  4. This really is a pretty good read Dustin, but I think you need more supporting information if you’re going to accomplish anything more than ‘preaching to your choir’ on this issue. The NASA graph accompanying this is alarming- and I’ve seen it before- but it simply demonstrates that CO2 levels in our atmosphere have spiked dramatically since the industrial revolution. To quote my children, ‘No duh?!’ Of course CO2 levels are higher as a result of increased fossil fuel use. The question for those of us who refuse to overreact to man-made climate change theories lies in our desire to see evidence that correlates just as convincingly the link between CO2 increases and climate change. You need to go further on three fronts to support your argument that we idiots need to acknowledge the obvious. First, demonstrate more clearly that the current changes in climate are a result of man’s activities on the planet. Second, more convincingly make the argument that fossil fuel use and CO2 levels are indeed the cause. You could print a graph of the Earth’s human population that would look remarkably similar to the end of the CO2 graph above, which would indicate man is causing climate change, but also raise questions about which of our activities are responsible for it. Fossil fuel consumption may just be the easy answer. Third, if everything you contend is true, show me- in light of the population trend that is NOT going to be reversed- how we can successfully stem the tide of climate change with any of the measures you propose. If this really is happening, and fossil fuel consumption really is the cause, the train may very well have already left the station, and it may be impossible to turn back. If that is the case, the most responsible thing to do may very well be to examine the law of physics that states ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction.’ In other words, for every part of the planet made inhospitable by climate change, it serves to reason that another portion of the planet will become more inviting. In that respect, we should be spending our time gauging the eventual impact of this, and encouraging our populations to shift to places that will be more suitable to supporting life.
    At the end of the day, I don’t mind you questioning the fact that I question the conclusions drawn by those who support man-made climate change theory, but if your desire is to have an honest discourse about what our leaders should do in response to the issue, I think your side has to be willing to explore options that go beyond immediately changing patterns of energy consumption that have been formed and embedded into modern society over the course of two centuries. You may be 100 percent right about climate change, but if you are, then I’m afraid the solutions you propose do little more than make us feel as if we are doing something about the problem when in fact we should be focusing our resources on a completely different set of solutions. You can’t argue that everybody except the Democrats have blinders on when their approach of ‘Go green and do it yesterday’ is just as narrow and short-sighted.

  5. This is a brave and brilliant piece, Dustin. The fact of climate change is evident to anyone who believes in evolution and science, and bears no productive discussion. But your dissertation on the arrogant, blind and dead end politics of our delegation is very insightful, and should inform anyone who lives in the real world. We should never forget the early days of CAFE standards, when US automakers hired lawyers and the Japanese hired engineers. Why is it so hard for our pols to grasp simple logic? Leading in carbon-reduction technology would serve us much better than 100 trains a day headed for China.

  6. Some people resist acknowledging that climate change is caused by man, because it upsets their world order, their expectations. Acknowledgment implies responsibility that something needs to be done, and that can be personally, professionally and politically upsetting. When Lummis and Barrasso hide behind denial or doubt, they’re simply signaling their corporate masters that they’re still on the team and please send more campaign contributions, thank you. I suspect that they do understand scientific reality, but until they announce their intention to retire from politics, they cannot turn their backs on coal, oil, gas. In that sense, they are to be pitied.

  7. The IPCC argumentum ad populum, the consensus or head-count fallacy has even been criticized by the NY Times as an example of poor scientific method.
    The fallacy of reliance upon consensus, particularly when combined with the argumentum ad verecundiam, the fallacy of appealing to the authority or reputation of presumed experts, as in “most journalists” is more likely than any other to mislead those who have not been Classically trained in mathematical or in formal logic. Yes the climates is always changing, after that, very little has been proven.

  8. Mr Lousewort,
    Like most journalists, I rely on the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (website; http://www.ipcc.ch/) as a main source on this consensus. The IPCC doesn’t conduct research itself, but analyzes and assesses research from scientists from all over the world. — Dustin Bleizeffer

  9. Excellent summary, Dustin.
    Can we print this on the placemats in the Senate and House dining rooms ? Somewhere, anywhere, that Wyoming’s three hydrocarbon industry proxies in Washington will see it ?