Back Home for a Virtual COP26
I have concluded the riding part of the Climate Courage Tour, at least for now. This Saturday I got off the train from Seattle in Whitefish, MT and had a joyful reunion with Amy and Moki. In the previous week I had ridden to Klamath Falls, OR and boarded the Amtrak train to Seattle. That got me to important family visits on the coast - and in the process avoided riding in the dreaded “Bomb Cyclone” that drenched the region!
It was bittersweet to stop my ride but the changing weather made it clear that riding time was limited. I had also decided a while back hat I would not fly across the ocean to attend the crucial COP26 meetings in person. This was a difficult decision, but frequent feedback from people I met about the essential oddity of flying to a climate conference made it clear that the air travel significantly muddled the message. (The dire COVID situations in both Montana and Britain played a role in scrubbing the trip.)
I will instead participate virtually in COP26 as much as possible and provide relevant summaries via blog entries and instagram posts. The money I would have spent on the flights and on the local offsetting program I helped create will go toward my fundraising from the ride. I have not emphasized the fundraising aspect of this project so far but I hope you will consider making a donation if you have not.
There are many more stories and ideas that I want to share with you all, and I will continue to blog them in the coming weeks. I am also seeking to publish some stories in regional outlets. Next week I’ll have a column in the Missoula Current. The draft text is below, and I would love to have any comments or edits you’d suggest before it goes to print.
Outside a middle-of-nowhere gas station, a construction manager from Eastern Colorado pointed at my chest and said, “Climate change is real and we have to get serious about it.” I thanked him for his thoughts as he climbed into his SUV. “We gotta stop messing around with these little solar panels and windmills - we need nuclear power,” he pronounced before speeding off toward Laramie.
I met that guy a few weeks into a climate-themed bike tour through the West. I left Missoula on September 1st and rode my loaded mountain bike over Yellowstone, past the Wind River Range in Wyoming, through the high peaks of Colorado, and down to Santa Fe. After a train trip to California’s Central Valley, I pedaled through Yosemite, up to Lake Tahoe, and then to Mt. Shasta and ended it in Southern Oregon due to a “Bomb Cyclone”.
I timed this ride ahead of the UN COP26 meetings in Scotland, which may be the best chance the world will ever have at effective international action for a livable climate. The regional effects of climate change are already difficult to say the least and look to get harder. I wanted to get out and see firsthand how the West is responding.
On the road I talked about climate change with all manner of people. This often felt like a risk, because climate change is pretty much a taboo subject in polite conversation among strangers. This reticence halts any useful airing-out of this critical topic, and allows political polarization machines to fill the conversational void with angry half-truths. My ride, which in a slightly grandiose moment I dubbed the “Climate Courage Tour,” was a small effort to pry the lid off those conversations.
Why ride a bike thousands of miles just to have random climate conversations? Well, compared to motorized travelers cyclists are not threatening. We are incredibly slow, highly identifiable, and unable to carry off much of anything. We can appear hapless and maybe daft as we labor through mountains, storms, and winds that most Americans can breeze through with only a toe on the gas pedal. Motorists and townspeople often approach cyclists with a mix of pity, awe, and cautious offers of assistance.
So, as I biked through the grand landscapes of our region I was able to eavesdrop on the climate conversations people are having with each other and their places. Everyone I spoke to agreed that many climate-related things are changing fast - but had diverse opinions about why, and what if anything to do about it.
There are far too many stories to share here, but here are some vignettes (and with links to fuller stories):
On the first night of my ride, I stayed on the beautiful Mannix ranch in the upper Blackfoot. Along with many ranchers, they are striving to maintain their heritage on the land with a set of new (and renewed) ideas called “regenerative agriculture” The goals are to support water and nutrient flows and to keep biodiversity intact while dealing with climate-influenced stresses like droughts and weeds.
Also early on, I met Wilmot Collins, a Liberian refugee and the Mayor of Helena, randomly on my way back to my in-town campsite. Collins has advanced strong climate policies for Helena as he runs for re-election. He agreed to sign a letter I had drafted supporting the goals of the UN COP26 meetings in Scotland this November.
One afternoon in Yellowstone, a Buddhist campground host woke me in my hammock after hearing that my ride was focused on climate. He laid into society for not getting on board with ammonia as a transportation fuel that allows renewable energy to be used in existing vehicles. This was somehow a new idea to me, despite studying energy issues for a decade.
Fritz, my host in Leadville, CO founded a clothing company there 25 years ago. It has recently exploded in popularity - which was not entirely welcome for this low-key entrepreneur who lives quietly with two retired sled dogs. But Fritz feels a deep responsibility to his employees and the town. He’s working to build affordable and energy-efficient housing so his workers don’t have to pump pay into insane mortgages, or propane heat into leaky trailers. That helps his business, local families, and the climate.
People often directed to me meet the hardy climate activists in their towns. In Lander, WY I ate lunch with the Lander Climate Action Network. In Crested Butte I marched with the Gunnison Valley Climate Crisis Coalition. These small-town activists are often swimming against the tide politically but find common ground with their conservative neighbors on the practical climate issues of water, weeds, storms, and fire.
Speaking of fire, I saw recent burn scars in every state I visited, especially California. For two days I rode through areas scorched by the enormous Dixie Fire, including the destroyed town of Greenville. I met a firefighter who told me, “I was in Greenville the day before it got nuked. Hell of a fire-fight but we were able to hold it. The fire retreated, realigned, and then came down Main Street like a burning bowling ball.” I also talked with some of the workers loging vast roadside areas of burned hazard trees. All were dumbfounded by the severity of fires lately.
Water issues were another constant subject. I talked with a longtime Hispanic farmer in New Mexico about the mountain snowpacks he sees declining decade by decade. A bike shop owner in Gunnison lamented the amazingly low level of the nearby Blue Mesa Reservoir - which has been tapped to keep the air conditioners humming in Phoenix. A water manager for the Southern Ute Tribe struggled to advance the idea of restoring beavers to keep water on the landscape longer in an extreme and ongoing drought. I could go on...
The West I saw on this ride is on the edge of that kind of climate action in more ways than I had imagined. I ended the ride sobered about the difficulties we face, but also encouraged by a variety of inspirational people and projects.
The real reason for calling this ride the Climate Courage Tour comes from climate scientist Kate Marvel, who says “We need courage, not hope, to face climate change.” This means acting without any assurance of the outcome: acting because work is necessary to have a chance at a livable future.
To move toward that future we need to have more conversations about the climate challenges we face, and to celebrate the courageous people who are working on them in surprising ways and in surprising places. We need push our leaders to take strong international action on climate change right now in Scotland, AND to support this work in the long-term right here in the West.
A fine Halloween ride with friends on my first day back. Thanks Erik and Phil!
Seattle pumpkin carving with my brother and niece.