The Elephant in Jackson Hole’s Room

The Elephant in Jackson Hole’s Room

The following piece was first published in Planet Jackson Hole as a guest opinion by Alliance Executive Director Craig Benjamin.

Local dialogue should be focused on the single greatest threat facing humanity: climate change.

As we pulled onto Hwy 22 in Wilson, my seven-year-old daughter Piper shifted uncomfortably. “Daddy, I’m scared. Is the fire going to burn down town?” she asked.

Massive billows of smoke from the Cliff Creek fire towered over Josie’s Ridge across the valley, obscuring the mountains beyond and engulfing town in an ominous dark cloud.

“No kiddo, town will be fine,” I said as I masked my own uncertainty.

A few days later I found myself more uncertain. Firefighters were concerned that a potential wind shift could blow the fire into the Cache Creek drainage and funnel it straight toward the town of Jackson. Fortunately, this didn’t happen, and thanks to the heroic efforts of many firefighters, the Cliff Creek fire is now contained.

A few weeks later, things are looking dismal on the fire front. The Berry Creek fire, the Tie Canyon fire, and the Henry’s Creek fire are choking the valley in smoke and putting lives, property, and our local economy at risk.

Across the West things aren’t much better. Recently, in San Bernardino County, Calif., 82,000 people were ordered to leave their homes as an explosive wildfire “hit with an intensity that we hadn’t seen before,” according to one fire official. This spring, an unprecedented wildfire that grew to more than 1 million acres forced 80,000 people to evacuate Fort McMurray, Canada, before burning thousands of homes to the ground. There are dozens of other fires blazing across the West.

Jackson Hole Fire/EMS Chief Willy Watsabaugh summed up how bad things have gotten last week when he explained, “If we can’t stop it (a new fire) at initial attack, we’re going to be in trouble because the West is stretched thin right now.” In a recent conversation with Tricia O’Connor, forest supervisor for the Bridger-Teton National Forest, she told me this is just the new normal, with fires coming earlier and with more intensity.

For decades, scientists have predicted this would happen because of climate change caused by our burning of fossil fuels.

While climate change isn’t the only culprit, the science is clear: The fingerprints of climate change are all over wildfire crime scenes. Hotter weather and heat waves, more frequent droughts, low snow-pack, and early snow melt add up to conditions that extend fire seasons and spike the risk of more frequent, larger, and more severe wildfires. We are more vulnerable to wildfires that are bigger, more dangerous, more difficult for firefighters to control, and more expensive than ever.

Then, there are floods. Earlier this month, a “no-name-storm” overwhelmed Louisiana with three times as much rain than what fell during Hurricane Katrina. While a one in 1000-year flood event in Louisiana is a little more than 20 inches, this flood brought more than 30 inches of rain to many areas, equivalent to the average annual rainfall in Minneapolis, MN. Last year, South Carolina also welcomed a one in 1000-year flood, while both Texas and Oklahoma drowned under record rains that scientists said were exacerbated by climate change. In 2013, the Front Range of Colorado was devastated by a historic 17 inches of rain in one week.

Last week, after hearing about the floods in Louisiana, Piper asked, “Daddy, could our house flood?” We live 50 yards from and only a few feet above Flat Creek. With recent flood events and not wanting to scare my daughter in mind, I responded, “Don’t worry about floods, they don’t happen here.”

Of course, there have always been and always will be fires, floods, and extreme weather, especially in the Mountain West.

Here’s the thing, we can no longer ignore our strange and increasingly severe weather. The science, facts, and data show the probability of monster wildfires, super storms, and historic droughts are only increasing with climate change. Because of climate change, events that used to be one in 1000-year occurrences have become the new normal. In the era of climate change the notion “that doesn’t happen here” no longer applies.

Jackson Hole is known as the crucible of conservation. As a community we have enshrined how much we care about the future of this special place in the vision of our Comprehensive Plan: “Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations.”

At the core of this vision is fulfilling our moral obligation to protect our children. This means preparing for and tackling climate change now. This means breaking our addiction to fossil fuels.

Given the enormity and immediacy of the threat posed by climate change, you’d think it would be the issue front and center in local elections. Yet it’s not even part of the conversation.

We’re not even talking about it.

We have no excuse. Unlike many other communities across America (and especially here in Wyoming), fossil fuel companies aren’t pouring money into our local elections.

Look, it’s great that people here passionately debates important local issues that will shape our community for decades, but we can’t just ignore an existential threat to our future. July 2016 was the hottest month ever; the 15th-straight month of record-breaking heat, and the 21st century has seen 15 of the 16 hottest years on record. Unlike snow and adolescence, climate change won’t go away if we ignore it.

Yes, no one community can solve climate change, but we can proactively respond to it and prepare for its impacts. In doing so, we can build a stronger community — one prepared for whatever the future may bring. We can show the millions of people who visit our home every year that if cold, isolated, fossil fuel dependent Jackson Hole can live in balance with nature, they can do it, too.

But this can’t happen if we’re not even talking about it.

So let’s take the critical first step and start talking about climate change. Let’s use this fall’s election to have a community conversation about how we’re going to break our addiction to fossil fuels. Let’s ask candidates running for local elected office how they think we should get it done and how they think we should prepare for the ever-increasing impacts of climate change.

Then, let’s start putting these ideas into action, and let’s get it done.

Phone: (307) 733-9417
685 S. Cache St. PO Box 2728
Jackson, Wyoming 83001