Dark side of the moon and the barbed wire of climate change
by Allen Best
Like millions of other Americans, I drove hours to dawdle in the brief darkness of the solar eclipse. Spreading our blanket along a highway in the rolling prairie of Nebraska, my companion and I were surrounded by people from Texas, Iowa and Colorado.
Across the barbed-wired fence was a ranch family, three generations of Nebraska red under the blue sky, marveling to see so many people along their lonely country road. One car an hour was the norm, said the patriarch. We talked like old neighbors, us city folks drawn from across the continent’s midsection and our country cousins we had never met. We were uniformly of good cheer. Did we vote the same last November? I doubt it, but it did not come up at this convergence of harmony.
Then darkness came, cold and quiet. Crickets chirped and Angus cows and calves bawled into the twilight. We shivered in this spectacle on the dark side of the moon, halfway expecting angels to begin dancing about. Then the light returned.
Science had predicted all this with precision. None of us gathered along the barbed wire fences in Nebraska had doubted it. President Donald Trump did not dismiss it as a Chinese hoax.
But why so little faith in climate science? If the precise increase in temperatures and extent of weather extremes remains uncertain, it’s clear that our path is fraught with risk.
Three days later, Colorado’s two senators, Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, spoke at a Colorado Oil and Gas Association conference. They sit on opposite sides of the political fence, but in Denver they sat together in stuffed chairs to brag, as best they could, about their bipartisan efforts before a crowd clearly tired of the twitter storm in Washington D.C. But one looked over his shoulder when talking about climate change, and one looked straight ahead.
Bennet, a Democrat, has a deep background in fossil fuels. Early in his career, he was up to his elbows in oil and gas as a lieutenant for the billionaire Phil Anschutz. As a senator, Bennet bucked the environmental community in voting to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline. But this year he has been bearing down on climate change.
“As I travel Colorado, people are increasingly worried about climate,” he said. “The effect it is having on their farms and ranches, on their ski areas, and on the national forests.” He told the drillers that they will need to engage in a “constructive conversation” about climate change, because the reality “is just not going to go away.” Better for the United States to figure out the answers than another nation, he added in his own version of make America great.
Gardner, though, is the more important individual in this conversation. He’s a Republican from a town of 3,600 on the Great Plains. He doesn’t deny climate science. Occasionally he’s capable of backbone. After Charlottesville, he immediately issued a statement condemning the racism and white nationalism. At a town hall several days later, he even managed smiles while confronting one infuriated question after another about his effort to dismantle Obamacare. The Resistance can be as nasty as the Tea Party.
But in Denver, Gardner recited tired arguments recycled more times than Seinfeld reruns. He pointed out—accurately—that as a Colorado state legislator he had supported renewable energy that benefited his rural constituents. Then, like an ancient fearing the darkness of an eclipse, he warned of the unbearable costs of renewable energy to people of fixed incomes or on farmers irrigating corn and alfalfa fields. “You don’t have to go so far as to cause economic collapse,” he said.
The argument is absurd. Utilities have been scrambling to get their electrical wires around wind and solar. The Public Service Co. of Colorado on Tuesday announced ambitions to shut down two older coal-fired plants. It’s cheaper for consumers, explained PSCo president David Eves. Our technology has advanced.
Residential customers of Aspen Electric—yes, the ski resort favored by Trumps and other billionaires—got their electricity for 26 percent less in January than the farmers around Gardner’s home-town. Towns and cities can be serviced more cheaply than scattered farms. But Aspen now has 100 percent renewables; farmers remain heavily reliant on coal generation.
Scientists had the eclipse down pat. Unfortunately, they’re probably right about climate change. It will take somebody like Gardner, with the same backbone he did after Charlottesville, to clip that barbed wire fence that has made climate change a partisan issue.