September 11, 2019

Time to Wake Up: Wyoming

As-prepared for delivery

Mr./Madam President, I have often spoken about how climate change is affecting Rhode Island: rising sea levels will remake our map; warming seas are shifting our traditional fisheries away from Rhode Island waters; a hotter climate creates public health risks for Rhode Islanders.  The list goes on.

In the Senate I’ve also tried to learn how climate change is affecting other states.  Some states are coastal, some are upland.  Some are urban, some are rural.  Some are mountainous, some are flat.  Whatever the differences, climate change affects them all. 

Last month, I visited Wyoming to hear about climate change in the Cowboy State.  This was is the seventeenth state I’ve visited on these climate trips.

A little background on Wyoming.  It’s big – a lot bigger than Rhode Island.  It’s almost 400 miles wide by almost 300 miles north to south.  And though it has some lovely lakes, Wyoming isn’t coastal.  Its lowest point is more than 3,000 feet above sea level, three times higher than Rhode Island’s highest point, Jerimoth Hill; and its highest point, Gannett Peak, is almost 14,000 feet.

Wyomingites have a reputation for being conservative skeptics about climate change.  Polling data says that, even in Wyoming, 60 percent of people think that climate change is happening; 43 percent think that humans are driving it; 69 percent say they support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant; and 68 percent think their schools should teach about global warming.

[Chart 1 – map of itinerary]

My trip began in Teton County, which, I was repeatedly told, is the liberal part of the state.  Teton County is home to Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park, as well as a large chunk of America’s legendary Yellowstone National Park.  From Jackson, I visited Yellowstone and then drove over Togwotee (Toga-tee) Pass to Dubois.  Next day, I visited Lake of the Woods in the foothills of the Wind River Range, and the Wind River Indian Reservation.  On my fourth day, I visited Lander and Pinedale.

In Teton County, I met with local elected officials — from Jackson, from the Teton County council, and from the state legislature.  I learned that roughly two-thirds of state revenues come from mineral extraction, mostly coal, oil, and natural gas.  With all this fossil fuel money flooding state coffers, Wyoming has no state income tax, sales tax of four percent, and one of the lowest effective property tax rates in the nation.  Indeed, I was told that Wyomingites get around nine dollars in services for every one dollar they pay in taxes.  Fossil fuel picks up the rest of the tab.

There are problems with this political-economic model; problems that folks in Wyoming repeatedly pointed out to me.  First, it exposes Wyoming heavily to boom/bust cycles, and to the devastating bust coming if, as predicted, fossil fuel assets crash.  Almost all of Wyoming’s eggs are in one fossil fuel basket. 

Moreover, their economic model based on fossil fuel harms Wyoming’s other economic driver, outdoor recreation – skiing and snowboarding, river rafting, backpacking, hiking, rock climbing, and fly fishing, to name a few. 

During my trip, I heard how lucky I was to enjoy clear, smokeless skies in August; that this August was like Augusts of decades past.  The new normal across the West is hotter, dryer summers driven by climate change, and that makes massive forest fires, filling the skies with smoke for weeks and months on end. 

In addition to the threat to life and property, wildfires harm Wyoming’s tourism and outdoor recreation economies.  Fewer people visit when iconic landscapes are obscured, or when places they want to explore are at risk of fires.  A representative from the Fremont County Lodging Tax Board told me that fires can shut down roads to the national parks and forests, cutting hotels and motels off from the attractions that draw people there.

At the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, I sat down with over a dozen business leaders from the outdoor recreation industry, who told me that outdoor recreation generates $5.6 billion in Wyoming and supports 50,000 jobs—more jobs than the fossil fuel industry.  For the winter sports business, climate change is an existential threat, shortening ski seasons and worsening snow cover.  For them, this is deadly serious, and they’re struggling to learn how to get the political attention the fossil fuel industry enjoys. 

In Lander, I met with leaders from the renowned National Outdoor Leadership School.  NOLS draws people from around the world to learn about the outdoors, develop leadership skills, and study mountaineering and outdoor survival.  It’s the largest non-government employer in Fremont County.  The president of NOLS told me that “without question, the number one risk the school faces is climate change.”  The risk of wildfire is up dramatically, and along with it, property insurance rates.  Climate change has disrupted NOLS’ schedule at its outdoor campuses around the world, as wildfires, melting glaciers and permafrost, and upended stream flows make it difficult, impossible, or dangerous to access course sites.  For people who love these places, this hurts the heart as much as it hurts the pocketbook. 

In Jackson, I met winter sports athletes from the group Protect Our Winters.  These amazing athletes spoke about their passion for snow sports and magnificent mountain landscapes.  They also spoke of climate change threatening the future of the sports that they love.  I listened to Lynsey Dyer deliver a wonderful presentation to a packed house in Jackson about how climate change is altering alpine environments.  She is summoning the same inner strength that allows her to ski death-defying drops to build national support for climate action.

In Pinedale, I heard how climate change threatens Wyoming’s cold water fisheries.  The upper Green River and its tributaries are some of the most storied trout streams in the world, drawing in a big fishing business.  I spent an afternoon with a fly fishing guide and a representative from Wyoming Trout Unlimited.  They told me how higher temperatures and lower water flows, both caused by climate change, harm Wyoming’s iconic trout, which need cold water with plenty of oxygen.  

I also visited local scientists who study climate change.  Dr. Michael Tercek and Dr. Andy Ray gave me a tour of Yellowstone National Park to show me how climate change is already changing the park’s ecosystem, with vaster changes ahead.  Dr. Tercek is an ecologist who has worked in Yellowstone for over two decades.  Dr. Ray’s specialty is amphibians, which may not be as iconic as Yellowstone’s bison but are on the front lines of climate change.

The scientists told me that just over the last 70 years, the average annual temperature in the greater Yellowstone area has risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit.  In parts of the region, there are now 60 fewer days a year with below-freezing temperatures than there were just 30 years ago.  Summers are drier and in winter there is less snowpack, meaning less snowmelt and less water in the spring and early summer.

You can already see changes in the park. 

[Chart 2 – cheat grass gullies]

Take cheatgrass.  It is an invasive species whose roots don’t hold the soil as well as the native sagebrush.  As temperatures warm, cheatgrass spreads to higher and higher elevations, supplanting the sagebrush.  The result is this: large gullies carved in hillsides as rain and snowmelt wash away the soil.

[Chart 3 – declining water level in ponds]

Or consider Dr. Ray’s amphibians.  We visited several small ponds and tarns that dot the Yellowstone landscape.  As temperatures warm and precipitation declines, water levels in many of these ponds fall, reducing habitat for amphibians and making them more vulnerable to predators. 

In this photo, you can see a line in the talus field above the pond.  Most of the rocks are gray, covered by a lichen that turns them that color.  But look just above the grasses.  You see rocks that are almost pink in color.  These are rocks that were submerged under water and which the lichen hasn’t yet had time to colonize — clear evidence that the water level at this pond has rapidly fallen.

[Chart 4 – bark beetle markings]

We climbed up into some dead forest to look at what bark beetles are doing to the Rocky Mountains’ conifers.  Here’s a photo I took of a branch from a tree killed by bark beetles.  The beetles bore through the bark and then their larvae eat the thin cambium layer between the bark and the wood of the tree trunk.  This ultimately girdles and kills the tree.  You can see in this photo the marks left by the bark beetles.  This J-shaped mark you see here is particularly characteristic of bark beetles.

[Chart 5 – temperature increase and beetle kill graph – get from Dr. Shuman]

This chart shows how beetle kill spread through forests once winter temperatures began warming.  As temperatures warm, and winters no longer get the very cold temperatures that used to keep bark beetle populations in check, and forests die.  What’s more, drier, hotter summers stress the trees, making them more susceptible to infestation.  And of course they become wildfire tinder.

[Chart 6 – map of beetle kill – pull from this article:]

Bark beetles might seem esoteric until you see the damage they have done throughout the Mountain West.  They have killed enough acres of Western forest to cover the entire state of Wyoming and then some.  And as you can see in this map, a lot of those dead forests are in Wyoming.

[Chart 7 – dead forest]

On the road from Yellowstone to Dubois, you cross Togwatee (Toga-tee) Pass, between the Absaroka (Ab-sorka) and Wind River mountain ranges.  You traverse miles and miles of dead trees, as far as the eye can see, killed by beetle infestations.  In the Wind River Indian Reservation, I met a man named Jim Pogue.  He said they call these gray, dead forests “doghair forests.”  Here is a landscape dramatically altered by climate change.  This forest died in less than a decade.

Before I met Dr. Tercek, I read an article in which he was quoted as saying “By the time my daughter is an old woman, the climate will be as different for her as the last ice age seems to us.”  I didn’t fully grasp what he meant until I met another scientist studying climate change in Wyoming, the University of Wyoming’s Bryan Shuman.

Dr. Shuman took me up to one of his research sites, the Lake of the Woods, high in the foothills of the Wind River Range.  At this lake and others, Dr. Shuman extracts sediment cores and conducts radar scans of the lake bottom, and then reconstructs the climate of the region 10,000 years back to the last ice age.  During the last ice age, global average temperatures were 3.5 degrees colder than our preindustrial average.

[Chart 8 – Wind River glacier map – get from Dr. Shuman]

3.5 degrees colder resulted in a radically different landscape in Wyoming.  Massive glaciers descended from the Wind River Range.  On this map, you can see just how much territory these vast glaciers covered.  3.5 degrees created a big effect.

I say that because the earth is predicted to warm at least 3.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, if we don’t cut carbon emissions.  Think about it: in a bit more than 100 years, the temperature will have changed as much as it did in the 10,000 years from the end of the last ice age.  Instead of climate change driving forward at one mile an hour, it’s driving forward now, thanks to fossil fuel emissions, at 100 miles per hour.

Shows how dishonest the smug statement is that the climate is always changing.  Not like this, it isn’t.  When you know that 3.5 degrees Celsius is the difference between being covered in ice and the forest and sagebrush steppe ecosystems there now, you see that another 3.5 degrees of warming will cause massive changes. 

Dr. Tercek wasn’t exaggerating – when his daughter is an old woman at the end of this century, the climate will have changed as much as it changed since the last ice age, and our current climate will seem as foreign to her as the ice age seems to us.

[Chart 9 – Glaciers of the Winds]

There are still glaciers in the Wind River Range.  They are tiny compared to the ice age glaciers that once dominated northwestern Wyoming, but they’re the largest glaciers in the American Rocky Mountains.  For the last several summers, a team of professors and students from Central Wyoming College has studied these glaciers.  Their work is featured in an Emmy-winning documentary produced by PBS Wyoming called “Glaciers of the Winds.”  It’s available on YouTube, and I recommend it.

I visited around their campfire the night before the Central Wyoming College team set off on a 20-plus mile expedition up to the base of Dinwoody Glacier.  The students are measuring the size of the glaciers to determine how quickly they are melting.  They’ll analyze water quality and they’ll search for archeological artifacts to better understand how native peoples lived in this alpine environment.  The archeology team told me that, based on artifacts they’ve unearthed, they believe that early native peoples worshiped the glaciers.

This spiritual reverence for the glaciers began to make more sense to me when I visited the Wind River Indian Reservation.  The land to the east of the reservation is deathly arid.  Agriculture depends on irrigation, and irrigation depends on glaciers.   Leaders of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribal councils said that after the winter snow melts away, their irrigation depends entirely on the glaciers, which hold water as ice and release it as meltwater, key after annual snows have melted away.  They told me, “once the glaciers are gone, our main resource for life will be gone.” 

I won’t pretend I met no climate skeptics in Wyoming.  An innkeeper at a motel told me that climate change was a “god-damned hoax” and for sure wasn’t happening in Wyoming.  Many of the student scientists at Central Wyoming College recounted difficulty explaining their interest in climate change to family and friends.  They called it having “the conversation.”

I also met with an employee at the Jim Bridger coal-fired power plant.  She made a strong case that climate solutions must protect workers.  I couldn’t agree more.  One of the great lies of the rotten, crooked climate denial operation is that reducing carbon emissions is bad for the economy and bad for jobs.  In fact, it’s the opposite.  Another great lie is that the industry cares about its workers.  Carbon pricing gives the economic reason for carbon removal, which in turn could keep some plants operating longer and ease the workers’ transition.   But no, like we saw when coal companies looted miners’ pensions, took care of the CEOs, and ducked into bankruptcy, the climate denial path is a dead end for workers. 

In spite of some Wyomingites’ skepticism, this trip underscored how attitudes are changing, even in the reddest parts of the country.  Over and over again, Wyomingites told me they cherish the stunning landscape around them.  They live in Wyoming to be able to hunt and fish and explore these amazing places.  As climate change bears downon Wyoming’s wild places, even current skeptics will come to accept that we must fight climate change to protect things they love.

The younger generation already gets it.  I won’t forget the firelit, passionate faces of the Central Wyoming College students.  Nor the determination and drive of Lynsey Dyer and the winter sports athletes.  Nor a young instructor at NOLS’ impassioned argument for climate action. 

With powerful voices like these speaking; with an economy so vulnerable and no Plan B; and with such risk to Wyoming’s natural wonders; I’m hopeful that voters in Wyoming and across the country will start to send a clear message.  We must take action to reduce carbon emissions and soon; it’s the smart, prudent and economically best course; and if you won’t lead, at least get out of the way.  Protect what we love while there’s still time.

I yield the floor.