“The control of nature is won; not given.”
That inscription guards the doors to the University of Wyoming’s Engineering building. It reflects the dams, canals, and pipelines that made possible a comfortable life in the dry, cold West. As students put our heads down and cross the ice to class, those words are glaring over our shoulders, admonishing us not to be complacent. They tell us to keep striving to shelter ourselves from chaos. The building came up in the eighteen nineties, and now many people roll their eyes at its thunderous claim that we should “control nature” at all. I can’t help but be in awe of what we humans are ready to construct to make ourselves feel secure.
Last week, walking home, I turned onto my street just as a long-expected blizzard was breaking over town. Within fifteen minutes, the temperature had plunged below zero, but I was already inside, facing the furnace as if its rattling could tell me something.
I am lucky to live in a place where winter has a bite, but I only have to feel it if I want to. Weather in Laramie is a controlled adventure, like a horror movie or an amusement park ride. Except when it is beyond the scope of what people can control – when it reminds us that nature is uncontainable.
Thanks to Wyoming’s energy industry, I do not have to work very hard to be comfortable during all twelve months of the year. After millions of years of carbon cooking underground, I am well provided for. Oil, gas, and coal companies have also paid for most of my education, from second grade through college, due to the mineral taxes the state collects and then channels into schools. This system has cushioned me and many others from economic and environmental vulnerability, and now we are reaching its limits.
Now that oil prices are low and the coal industry is hurting, Wyoming has no choice but to cut millions of dollars from its education budget. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs in the energy sector, and many are looking at regulations as the cause. The Wyoming Mining Association, along with our national senators and representative, are calling for the next administration to shed new the rules immediately. But where was the outcry when companies like Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal gave their CEOs maximum bonuses as they filed for bankruptcy, laying off hundreds? What about when Alpha asked to back out of labor agreements and drop retirement benefits just weeks after their executives got 12 million? Despite these wrongs and a flurry of reports that have shown it was natural gas, not the federal government that pulled the belt around the coal industry, our state has decided that the answer to our problems is to shut out any policies that would limit extraction.
What is most confusing about this is that there are regulations we can all agree on – rules that were once controversial are now celebrated. Most people are okay with asking a company to fill in a mine, to treat its effluents so that contaminants don’t crawl into our drinking water, or to plant native seeds so that the land is not degraded to dust and cheat grass. Most industry people seem okay with these requirements, too. Last week, the U.S. Forest Service withdrew forty thousand acres of mineral leases in the Wyoming range, with overwhelming public support. The group that spoke out in favor of preserving the area included people who had spent their entire lives working in the energy industry, who believe that some limits on extraction are necessary and that some places should be protected for future generations.
Climate change warrants action, because it will threaten many of the places and creatures people value. Beyond that, it is already peeling off our guise of security, changing storm patterns and sending agricultural regions into a new era of uncertainty. It is not just scientists seeing these things happen. The crisis is not contained within models on computer screens. Farmers are looking into desiccated fields and remembering the Dust Bowl; families are standing outside collapsed houses and wondering how they’ll build a future. Floridians are seeing increasing salt levels in their drinking water, and people in Louisiana have already had to move as rising seas encroached on their homes.
So far I have only been talking about the United States. The impact on global agriculture and infrastructure will only be more severe, with the heaviest blows on some of the world’s most populated, least developed areas. Those communities will have less capital to make up for a wounded economy, scarce food and water, and health problems. Low standing water and the decline of predators that would kill disease-carrying insects are likely to cause spikes in human illness.
Even the business sector is tuned into what emissions mean for the future - Exxon Mobil has been considering climate change in its business decisions since 1981. Now, they and other companies would benefit from an economic system that set the industry on a course they can predict.
We don’t have the option to treat climate change as we have other global tragedies. We can tut at infomercials and gasp, “how terrible”. We can leave it to charity to absorb the pain of the millions of people displaced by storms, famine, and sea-level rise. We can watch it gain traction and die as a celebrity cause. We can point fingers. That would be a failure to draw from the situation its essential lesson – that the air and the oceans connect us all. Every action – especially no action – will yield results that are far-reaching and personal. The United States will never be a vacuum, and if the war in Syria and the latest refugee crisis have not been enough to teach us that, then maybe we will never learn. Global problems are our problems, especially when we have power to mitigate the cause. We owe it to the rest of the world to recognize that we can only win together, and to lead in that effort.
It would be different if there was already nothing we can do. But climate projects have shown enormous differences between the worst and best case scenarios, between business-as-usual and profound emissions reduction. What we decide right now matters. We should be doing everything we can to find a policy that could transition our energy markets in ways that will not rupture the economy, while easing the burden on low-income and unemployed people. This is not a partisan mission. Lawmakers and activists from both parties are interested in creating a system that would recognize the true cost of emissions, and cities around the world have successfully developed their own carbon pricing schemes. This is an opportunity to work together to prove that we have values that are greater than comfort and convenience. I do not want to look my grandchildren in the eye and tell them that I saw one last chance to give them a better future, but chose to do nothing.
In Wyoming, people raise up qualities like honesty, stamina, and resilience. But instead of taking action when it matters most, we are wasting time with blame and denial. I want to believe that we are better than that. It’s time to show some grit and move into the space of possibilities that will define our ability to adapt. The safety of our children, our grandchildren, and our fellow humans depends on what we do today. Shifting course on climate change will hurt – it will cost money, time, and emotional energy. The only thing more draining would be continuing to pretend this isn’t happening. As some of the world’s most prolific emitters of greenhouse gases, we have enormous power to determine how many communities bounce back, and how many lives are destroyed. I refuse to tunnel my way into the future without facing the truth. And I am begging my state and national representatives, as well as the private industry leaders who supply the energy I use - to look at it with me. Let’s be courageous and show that we value life over the status quo. I believe in the best case scenario, but it can only happen if we put a price on greenhouse gas pollution.