Wyoming tour: Connecting in coal country
By Barb Deshler and Bill Barron
In early February, when COVID-19 was still a distant concern, Bill Barron, Regional Coordinator for the Mountain West, began an 11-day climate tour, crossing seven towns and 2,400 miles. “A climate solution for Wyoming,” the tour was called, promoting it with the tagline “Learn how a bipartisan climate solution can help Wyoming.” The tour aimed to normalize climate conversations in coal country, raise awareness for the Energy Innovation Act, and build CCL community from pockets of interest across the state.
Months in the planning, the tour was organized by a small group of CCL volunteers from Laramie who found contacts in several towns; Cody, Powell, Sheridan, Gillette, Laramie, Lander and Jackson. Contacts in each town focused on filling the schedule each day, then joining Bill in doing outreach such as radio interviews, meetings with newspaper editors, and meetings with NGOs. Also, potlucks, breakfast meetings, coffee get-togethers; public, high school, college, and graduate student presentations offered many opportunities to connect with the general public.
We were all a little concerned about how we were going to be received and were excited when we saw how the tour was connecting with locals in each town. In many discussions along the way, we found people acknowledging the threat of climate change, appreciative of CCL’s bipartisan approach, and glad to see the climate conversation moving in a pragmatic direction.
You might think discussing climate solutions that impact the fossil fuel industry would be a non-starter here—after all, Wyoming provides 40% of the nation’s coal. Extractive industry severance taxes and royalties account for well over half of the state’s budget. Royalties from coal build schools, and coal mines pay decent wages. But in fact, people wanted to hear what a bipartisan solution could look like. Most acknowledged that climate change is primarily human caused and that we need to do something consequential, together across party lines, to provide a solution to match the scale of the problem.
Lynne Huskinson, from Gillette, WY, who had a 39-year career as a coal miner, commented, “We know we need to do something about climate, and putting a price on pollution makes sense.”
Another person in Gillette, with an agenda of climate denial, came to several gatherings. Seemingly surprised by the polite non-partisan discussions, he listened rather than being confrontational, although he still offered the denial brochures he’d brought with him. Many people Bill spoke with liked CCL’s values and the practicality of a carbon price. The tour exceeded expectations, as CCL deepened its roots in Wyoming and the Mountain West region.
The message of the tour also connected with townspeople about the need to work on normalizing the conversation around climate change and found them supportive of federal legislation because it incentivizes world policy. In very conservative coal communities, people liked how the border carbon adjustment creates the potential to harmonize carbon pricing around the world. They see it as fair because everyone shares the cost of carbon emissions and everyone is held accountable for a price on carbon. People know pollution knows no boundaries, so why shouldn’t everyone pay for solving a global problem?
As the climate conversation grows throughout Wyoming, CCL’s message of persistent, polite, relationship-building as a way to work with state and national leaders resonated with many. The focus of CCL to support the Energy Innovation Act, legislation that efficiently reduces emissions while protecting low- and middle-income families, made sense to those who heard Bill speak. We saw first hand that there is a strong appetite for change even in a state so dependent on extractive industries, and the tour took many Wyomingites a big step in the right direction.
Even though COVID has changed things since the tour took place, the tour built a foundation of connections statewide and helped boost existing initiatives. The city of Lander is working on a city resolution calling for a greenhouse gas reduction target, and in early March, Laramie unanimously passed a resolution establishing the intent to make the city carbon neutral by 2050. Established CCL volunteers are continuing to support new volunteers, working together to share ideas despite geographical distance and build political will. We look forward to these new members bringing valuable, across-the-state perspectives to the virtual lobby meetings in June.
Barb Deshler is a volunteer in CCL’s Laramie, Wyoming, chapter. Bill Barron is the Regional Coordinator for CCL’s Mountain West region.