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Scientists and lawmakers respond to climate deniers at the state capitol

A fiery sunset during the 2018 Roosevelt Fire in Sublette County, Wyoming
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
A fiery sunset during 2018’s Roosevelt Fire in Sublette County – it destroyed dozens of homes and tens of thousands of acres. Climate scientists say global warming has caused water shortages and bigger and longer fire seasons.

The earth isn’t getting warmer. Photos of melting glaciers and dying polar bears are scare tactics. Climate change is a “cult.” These are claims made by the ‘CO2 Coalition’ – a national nonprofit dedicated to disputing climate change.

“We love a big carbon footprint,” said the group’s Gregory Wrightstone who spoke at a Senate Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Committee meeting held at the state capitol this month. “There is no climate crisis in Wyoming. There is no climate crisis globally.”

The CO2 Coalition was given an almost two-hour platform to speak during the legislative session, creating division within the state Republican party and spreading misinformation. The lead-up to it was contentious – with Committee Chair Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle) saying it was an official legislative event, but leadership in the Senate and House saying it wasn’t. Ultimately, it was labeled as an official legislative event, but President of the Senate Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) still denounced it.

The Coalition argued before the committee that global warming data is misleading and that we need to be adding more carbon to the air, not less – essentially, burning more fossil fuels.

Wrightstone added that even if the globe is warming – it’s a good thing.

“It means an increase in growing season, killing frost earlier in the spring and arriving later in fall. That's a good thing,” Wrightstone said. “That's a really good thing for agriculture.”

These are actually pretty common climate denying talking points that have been around for at least 35 years. But, they’re disputed by a vast majority of climate scientists. The data is resounding – just in Wyoming, human-caused climate change has caused the annual mean temperature to rise by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The climate is absolutely changing,” said Bryan Shuman, who is a professor in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Geology and Geophysics and has researched climate science for 30 years. “I know warmer can be good for agriculture. But, you know, a lot of intense heat waves and droughts is not necessarily good for agriculture.”

Shuman pointed to the far reaching effects of global warming that we’re already seeing – namely, lack of snowfall, water shortages and extreme wildfires, which have been well documented.

“For the Yellowstone region, especially back in the mid-20th century and 1950s, we used to receive, on average across that whole region, about 100 inches of snow every winter,” Shuman said. “And now we receive about 24 inches less than that.”

A snowy mountaintop looking down into a snowy valley
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
The Wind River Range has seen glaciers receding due to climate change.

Western states are facing a water system that’s drying up. Fire seasons are getting longer and longer, and data shows that parts of the Rocky Mountains are burning more than ever in the past 2,000 years.

Like the 2020 Mullen Fire in southeast Wyoming that burnt down66 buildings and homes. Or Colorado’s Marshall Fire in late 2021 that’s considered the state’s most destructive fire in history.

“If this was just a political debate, where both sides could credibly have reasonable arguments to be made, I would applaud that,” Shuman said. “But the issue here is that this is something that's really impacting people – really affecting their lives.”

If things stay on track as-is and our carbon footprint isn’t reduced, Shuman said by the end of the century the Jackson area could see two months of days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit – which is virtually unheard of right now.

Shuman said this climate denying rhetoric, which he’s noticed resurface in the last few years, cherry-picks data and presents misleading conclusions.

“They are trying to create the perception that there's a debate among scientists and that certain scientists are being silenced,” he said. “And that is absolutely not what's going on here.”

A woman's headshot
Wyoming Legislature
Cheri Steinmetz

But, the five Wyoming senators in attendance listened intently to the CO2 Coalition’s presentation – this included Senators Bob Ide (R-Casper), John Kolb (R-Rock Springs), Tim French (R-Powell), Dan Laursen (R-Powell) and Chair Cheri Steinmetz (R-Lingle).

They all cast their own doubt on climate science. Ide said believing in climate change is an attempt to “beat down human flourishing and enslave the people.”

Amidst applause for the Coalition’s presentation from the senators and public in attendance, Steinmetz closed out the hearing with a nod to the future.

“Well, thank you so much for educating us tonight,” she said. “I know I’ve learned a lot and it will help me as we craft policy for the state of Wyoming.”

Now, many politicians in Wyoming don’t feel this way and didn’t attend. But, President of the Senate Ogden Driskill (R-Devils Tower) said the consequences of this rhetoric are very real. He was displeased by the hearing.

“It was a pretty blatant attack on the governor and his policies,” Driskill said.

The Coalition and lawmakers in attendance pointed blame at Wyoming’s ‘all of the above’ energy strategy – Governor Gordon’s approach to climate change, which he acknowledges is real. Gordon’s approach uses renewables, explores other industries, like nuclear, and finds “cleaner” ways to produce coal.

Ogden Driskill's headshot
Wyoming Legislature
Ogden Driskill

“Wyoming has more carbon sequestration projects than any state in the nation. And we're a huge leader on it,” Driskill pointed out.

There are also efforts with other fossil fuels. In fact, most oil companies acknowledge that climate change is real.

Jonah Energy has one of the largest natural gas fields in the country, based in southwest Wyoming. Vice President Paul Ulrich said they’re reducing their emissions.

“It's good for Jonah, it's good for Wyoming, in the fact that we can continue to produce for a very long time a very clean source of energy the country desperately needs,” Ulrich said.

And Senator Driskill agreed.

“Virtually every large company is invested in some way in clean energy and climate change policy,” Driskill said.

Driskill added that he’s not going to argue whether climate change is happening – he doesn’t need to. The majority of Americans do believe in it and the market is following suit.

“And to ignore that or to discriminate against them is very detrimental to Wyoming's economy,” he said.

Driskill said he fears this divide within the state’s republican party could affect future lawmaking.

But so far this session, it hasn’t slowed much down.

Several bills that support the Governor’s approach to addressing climate change are moving through the lawmaking process. This includes SF 42, which provides some amendments to Wyoming’s law that requires public utilities to explore using carbon capture technology on coal power plants. That bill is moving through the Senate. Also, HB 32 which clarifies the legal framework around permitting and landowner’s rights with the carbon capture and sequestration industry. That bill has passed the House and is now in the Senate.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.

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