For local reporters, climate change means covering an ‘existential threat’

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In June 2015, I traveled to Gillette, Wyoming—a gleaming town off Interstate 90 in northeast Wyoming, and the heart of America’s coal country. I was living and teaching in Laramie, the university town in the southeast part of the state. At the time, the school and state faced large budget cuts on account of the energy industry’s downturn, and it was little secret that the Obama administration planned to release its Clean Power Plan to further reduce carbon emissions.

I had an idea of writing a magazine piece about the flailing boomtown, so I drove north and got a haircut and went for pizza and beer. (Barbers and bartenders tend to be good first sources.) I ate with two men employed by local coal mines—they said they had administrative roles—and heard from them the sorts of grievances that have since echoed in news coverage. One man, who was bald and bearded, talked about the need for a reliable energy base and said that humans’ effect on the climate couldn’t be that much. He singled out a widely beloved local power plant, called Dry Fork, that does a good job of scrubbing pollutants like mercury and ash, if not carbon. He felt that most of the country was simply misinformed. His dining partner asked if I was here to help or to hurt, and then told me he would be showing up at my house should I cost him his job.

ICYMI: The story behind “one of the best reported pieces of the year”

I pitched a profile of Gillette to my editor at The California Sunday Magazine, Kit Rachlis, who took a risk in commissioning a nebulous and unformed piece. His advice was to develop a full and unflinching portrait of a town on the brink, and he gave me the necessary time to do so.

I returned to Gillette a few times over several months to try and better understand its residents’ rage and their sense of victimization. I didn’t feel much compassion while scrolling through vitriolic social media posts, or when residents called President Obama “the Antichrist” or “that black sonuvabitch in Washington.” But my perspective shifted when I came to realize that this was literally a survival story.

Before typing up my story, I tried to imagine how I’d feel if people said journalism was destroying the world, that reporters should all be put out of business or worse. That scenario is no longer hypothetical, thanks in part to a president who has made unfulfillable promises to coal country.

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I set much of my story during one week in August, just after the official announcement of the Clean Power Plan. (The plan never went into effect; it was challenged in court by a number of states, including Wyoming, before Scott Pruitt, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Trump, repealed the measure.) On the Friday I arrived, two young men committed suicide. They weren’t coal miners, but the dark events made it clear that the town had a significant problem. I started spending a lot of time with local prevention advocates, relatives of those who had committed suicide, and the Campbell County coroner, a tough and proud woman named Laura Sundstrom who anticipated a rash of deaths with further job loss at the coal mines.

For many of the residents of Gillette, climate change was—and remains—an existential threat. I tried to convey as much while still reporting the facts of climate change, the global damage that coal consumption does, and the spin of the coal executives who hold outsize sway over Wyoming’s politics.

Toward the end of my reporting, in September 2015, I attended a meeting of mental health advocates and prominent locals, including employees of Cloud Peak Energy, one of the companies I was covering. Everyone was anticipating job losses and trying to think up strategies to help locals cope. One of the attendees—who wasn’t a Cloud Peak employee—suggested that mental health advocates travel to the Pacific Northwest, to advocate for controversial coal export terminals by telling locals about the urgency of Gillette’s situation.. The darkness of that thought briefly hung over the room, until one of the prevention advocates steered the conversation elsewhere.

Before typing up my story, I tried to imagine how I’d feel if people said journalism was destroying the world, that reporters should all be put out of business or worse. That scenario is no longer hypothetical, thanks in part to a president who has made unfulfillable promises to coal country. Unsurprisingly, people in Gillette celebrated Trump’s victory, hoping for a long-term resurrection that seems unlikely. PacificCorp, the Oregon-based utility, recently announced a $3.5 billion investment in Wyoming energy—not in coal, but in wind. Moving forward, coal country must look facts squarely in the eye. Its residents need reporters who will do so in a humane manner. More than that, they need political leaders who will offer more than snake oil.

Survival Stories is a series of local climate change dispatches.

ICYMI: “She identified herself as a reporter. He then walked behind her and punched her”

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Abe Streep is a contributing editor at Outside and a contributing writer at The California Sunday Magazine. His journalism has appeared in Wired, Haper’s, The Atavist, The New York Times Magazine, Men’s Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, NewYorker.com, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.