03:23 - Source: CNN
Opinion: Common ground with climate skeptics

Story highlights

John D. Sutter visits Woodward County, Oklahoma, where an estimated 30% of residents say climate change isn't real

97% of climate scientists say climate change is real and we're to blame

Sutter: Skeptics and believers need to look for common ground

Editor’s Note: CNN columnist John D. Sutter is reporting on a tiny number – 2 degrees – that may have a huge effect on the future. He’d like your help. Subscribe to the “2 degrees” newsletter or follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. He’s jdsutter on Snapchat. You can shape this coverage.

Woodward, Oklahoma CNN —  

I was wandering around the rolling plains of northwest Oklahoma looking for one person – one person – who believes in climate change science when I met the woman dressed all in yellow.

A wide-brimmed, lemon-colored hat orbited her head. Her loafers were the color of butter. Everything in between was a jubilee of sunshine.

Could she be the one?

Please, Lord, let her be the one.

I ask.

She laughs.

It’s a sweet laugh. A knowing laugh. A yes-I-understand-everyone-out-here-thinks-climate-science-is-total-BS-but-I’m-the-one-who-gets-it laugh.

Then Yellow Hat speaks.

“I think it’s a big fat lie.”

I could recount several interactions like that from my week in Woodward County, Oklahoma, one of the most climate-skeptical counties in the United States. Thirty percent of the 21,000 people in Woodward County are estimated (using a statistical model based in national surveys) to believe that climate change isn’t happening at all, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. The county ties with six others for the highest rate of climate skepticism in the country.

A larger chunk of people in Woodward County, 42%, are estimated to say maybe climate change is happening but we aren’t causing it.

Those views, of course, aren’t supported by science. Climate change is real, and we’re contributing to it by burning gas for our cars and coal and other fossil fuels to generate electricity. Saying otherwise flies in the face of reality.

But out here, where July temperatures hit 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius) and the often-gusting wind feels like a hair dryer aimed squarely at your face, climate change is seen by some as nonexistent – a farce, a conspiracy, something that just plain doesn’t make sense. Others who might be more inclined to acknowledge climate change aren’t eager to talk about it. The subject is controversial to the point of being taboo. Several people told me they’d never had a conversation about climate change until I came around asking.

Others, like Yellow Hat, had anti-climate-science arguments locked and loaded.

“It’s propaganda,” she told me.

Like … whose propaganda?

“The presstitutes,” among others, she said, probably not forgetting she was speaking to a member of the international press, red CNN hat on head.

“They’re bought and paid for.”

I’ll keep an eye out for the check.

In Woodward, I’d learn about the art of “rollin’ coal,” which means altering and then revving up a diesel engine so it emits thicker puffs of smoke, mostly for the visual effect; I’d go mountain biking with a guy who believes elements of “The Flintstones” are historically accurate; I’d hear incorrect theories, like that hair spray, and other aerosols, cause climate change, or that wind farms pollute more than oil. And, clearly most important, a cowboy would ask me why I was wearing stretch pants to a cattle auction. (They were Levi’s 511s.)

Part of me wants to write off the skeptics in Woodward County – to think that these views, especially the pants critique, are so out of sync with the modern world, and so detrimental to efforts to cut carbon emissions enough to stop the world from warming 2 degrees Celsius, which is regarded as the threshold for dangerous climate change, that we should ignore them. That would be the easier thing to do, and it’s the approach some academics recommended to me, fearing reporting on climate skeptics would pump oxygen onto the fire of misinformation.

“It is a hopeless task to try to talk to them and change their minds,” said Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychology professor at the University of Bristol.

But I don’t want to ignore this place – and don’t think you should, either.

Partly that’s because so many readers of CNN’s Two° series on climate change asked me to look into climate skepticism in the United States. You wanted to know why such skepticism persists here, what’s really behind the sentiment – and how skeptics, hopefully, can become part of solutions to climate change.

Partly it’s because I really came to love Woodward.

A sign in front of this statue reads, "A dinosaur like this roamed the Earth 5,000 years ago."
John D. Sutter/CNN
A sign in front of this statue reads, "A dinosaur like this roamed the Earth 5,000 years ago."

This is a place that, like the rest of America, is far more messed up and wonderful and complicated than we give it credit for. The real Woodward, I found, is a place of confusion and silence – where climate change is often misunderstood, and where everyone but the most emboldened skeptics appear nonexistent. This conversation is crucial, especially after President Barack Obama’s recent announcement that the United States will cut emissions from coal-fired power plants and encourage renewable energy. And it’s important ahead of a presidential election where several frontrunners are skeptical of climate science.

This is a topic that is needlessly politicized. A narrow majority of people in Woodward County say climate change is happening. Yet, they rarely speak of it.

Plus, there’s one other issue.

It’s my name: John Sutter.

To my surprise, it became the subject of much conversation in northwest Oklahoma. Turns out, I have far more in common with this place than I could have thought.

’I look for the truth’

I was frustrated with Woodward County before I arrived – and for two reasons.

First, I grew up in Oklahoma, near Oklahoma City, about 140 miles southeast of Woodward. I thought I’d heard all of the worst-best arguments the skeptics would have to make: that we need oil and gas jobs; that weather patterns always are changing; that scientists are manipulating data to trick us. I also knew that I’d meet fans of Jim Inhofe, the U.S. senator from Oklahoma who is famous for calling climate change a “hoax.” He brought a snowball onto the Senate floor this year as if to say, OMG! Snow! Where’s your climate change now?

All of that gives me a headache. I consider climate change one of the most urgent human rights issues of our time. Earlier this year, I visited the Marshall Islands, a tiny country in the Pacific that might not exist for long if emissions aren’t cut fast. Homes already are flooding, and locals are worried about tides getting higher, as sea levels rise because of warming temperatures. None of this is their fault; it’s ours, since we keep negligently burning fossil fuels.

Second, there’s the stegosaurus.

When I Googled Woodward County, the weirdest thing came up: a Jurassic-era dinosaur, about as tall as a one-story building, with a little girl riding on its back.

Right in the heart of town.

A sign says, “A dinosaur like this roamed the Earth 5,000 years ago.”

I found that image to be so ridiculous. Five thousand years ago was the Bronze Age, roughly the time the Egyptians were building pyramids. I’m not a paleontologist, but I trust them, and their research suggests the stegosaurus wasn’t roaming the Earth with a little girl on its back. That dinosaur lived about 150 million years ago, said Brian Huber, chairman of the Paleobiology Department at the Smithsonian Institution. “We have just a really high degree of confidence of this,” he told me. Modern humans, meanwhile, didn’t evolve until 100,000 to 200,000 years ago.

But that’s not how everyone in Woodward sees it.

“I think humans once lived with dinosaurs,” said Randall Gabrel, a 53-year-old oil company owner and interim headmaster of Woodward Christian Academy, who personally paid to install the statue in the heart of town. (He declined to tell me exactly what that cost but did offer that it was “more than a brand-new pickup truck.”)

“I don’t know (that) a kid ever rode on a dinosaur,” he told me, “but I want to make this statement: that they lived at the same time.”

His sources? There are two. The Bible, which he interprets as saying God created dinosaurs and humans on the same day. And a supposed dinosaur bone sample, which he claimed to have sent to a university lab for analysis. The problem: The bone was submitted for carbon-14 dating, which, according to Jeff Speakman – director of the Center for Applied Isotope Studies at the University of Georgia, where documents indicate a sample was sent – can be used to date only material that is, at most, about 55,000 years old. “It’s absolutely impossible to radiocarbon-date something that’s 66 million years old,” Speakman told me, citing the date when scientists say the dinosaurs went extinct. That a dinosaur bone would get any results at all indicates the bone was contaminated with a more modern source of carbon, Speakman said.

Woodward County, Oklahoma, is estimated to have one of the nation's highest rates of climate skepticism.
John D. Sutter/CNN
Woodward County, Oklahoma, is estimated to have one of the nation's highest rates of climate skepticism.

Gabrel knows about those critiques but is undeterred.

“That’s what I believe,” he told me. “I put (the stegosaurus statue) up there because I think it draws attention, and I think the best evidence supports that position. I’m willing to put my money where my mouth is. I’m willing to stand by my beliefs.”

“I look for the truth,” he said. “That’s what I’m after.”

I’ll let you guess what he thinks of climate change.

’Hard-ass place to live’

In a state known for its weather – tornadoes, ice storms, hail, heat waves, floods, droughts all are normal in Oklahoma; and meteorologists are among the state’s biggest celebrities – Woodward County is a case study in extremes.

The day I drove to Woodward, the sky was spitting rain and the car thermometer showed temperatures in the upper 60s Fahrenheit (20 Celsius). A few days later, the high was 104 degrees (40 Celsius), with a heat index of 108 (42 Celsius).

“This is a hard-ass place to live. You been here?” said Rachael Van Horn, a senior reporter at the local newspaper, The Woodward News, teasing me. “This is hard country.”

This “tough little piece of land” is in far northwestern Oklahoma, where rolling prairies give way, to the west, to the board-flat infinity that is the High Plains and, eventually, the Rocky Mountains. Trees are relatively few out here, especially outside of town, so the sky in Woodward County is big – and mean.

The old-timers are best at explaining it.

Harold Wanger, a cowboy hat-wearing 81-year-old, with a faint tuft of monkey-grass hair sprouting from the tip of his nose, remembers dust storms so thick they blotted out the sun. Wanger (pronounced like “wrong-er”) was born in 1934, near the start of an epic drought now known as the Dust Bowl, when farmers overplowed the prairie, sending walls of dirt racing across the plains, choking children with “dust pneumonia,” spoiling crops and sending thousands of “Okies” west to California, a migration that John Steinbeck fictionalized in “The Grapes of Wrath.”

“The chickens went to bed in the middle of the afternoon, it was so dark” when dust storms rolled into Woodward County, Wanger told me.

He was just a kid then, but Wanger recalls sleeping under wet sheets to keep dirt out of his lungs. He’d wake up to see dust had piled up on the floor overnight.

In the 1950s, just as Wanger was finishing high school and getting married, extremely dry conditions returned. He was just starting out as a wheat farmer and cattle rancher, and Mother Nature wouldn’t allow for much of either. “I planted 1,800 acres of wheat in the fall of 1954 – and didn’t cut a bushel.”

Intense drought hit Oklahoma again in the 2010s, this time breaking records. In 2011, the state experienced “the hottest summer of any state since records began in 1895,” according to the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, and Woodward saw 61 days at or above 100 degrees Fahrenheit). The drought dried up streams, turned the short-grass prairie into straw and then helped it to light ablaze.

It’s impossible to say climate change caused these or any other particular weather events, but it is making these sorts of extremes more likely.

Climate scientists expect droughts, heat waves and extreme rain events only to get worse out here. The Southern Plains averages seven days per year above 100 degrees Fahrenheit – but that number is expected to quadruple by 2050, according to the latest U.S. National Climate Assessment. Water availability is expected to go down. Some crops probably will shift northward. Winter wheat, for example, which is grown in Woodward County, could see its yields decline by 15% if temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit). The amount of land burned by wildfires in the Western United States is expected to spike sharply – by 400% to 800% at 2 degrees Celsius of warming, according to a 2011 report from the National Research Council.

Woodward, Oklahoma, is traditionally an oil and gas kind of place, but wind farms and solar pumps are becoming common, too.
John D. Sutter/CNN
Woodward, Oklahoma, is traditionally an oil and gas kind of place, but wind farms and solar pumps are becoming common, too.

Locals just shrug at those sorts of predictions, though.

“We’re used to it,” said Sheila Gay, publisher of The Woodward News, which, for the record, she said, has not written a local story focused on climate change in the 18-some years that she’s been working there. “Welcome to Oklahoma.”

’Most ludicrous myth’

I came to Woodward to talk with skeptics. They, of course, were easy to find. What was more difficult was finding someone who actually believed in climate change.

So I made that a personal mission.

I wandered all over the county on a scavenger hunt for believers.

At the Woodward Livestock Auction, I figured I’d meet ranchers affected by the recent drought who wouldn’t want to see that kind of thing intensify and become more frequent. I met Jerry Nine, the rail-thin auction owner, who told me ranchers have called him in tears during drought years because they’ve had to sell nearly all of their cattle. There isn’t enough water for the cows to drink.

But do these cattlemen buy climate science? “I think all this global warming crap is overblown,” said Wes Sander, one of the ranchers.

At a church dinner, I met Genevieve Duncan, a soft-spoken 80-year-old who walks with a cane. She told me climate change is “the most ludicrous myth that has been forced upon the Earth since the world began.”

Well, then.

I’m paid to be persistent, so my quest for an eco-activist continued. At a French cafe downtown, I met Rita Barney, who has bleached hair, cat-eye glasses and tattoos everywhere. She looks like punk-climate-activist material. But even she doesn’t think we need to switch off of oil. “I think that, as we take the oil out of the ground,” she said, “God provided a way for that to replenish itself.” (Oil actually takes hundreds of thousands of years under pressure to form.)

I visited the High Plains Technology Center, which is one of the best schools in the country for training people who work on wind farms. The students I encountered were from California, New York, Missouri and elsewhere. In the last five years or so, dozens of wind turbines have popped up in and around Woodward, capitalizing on the wind that, true to the song from the musical “Oklahoma!” does go sweeping down the plains.

Jack Day, 44, is one of the wind tech instructors there.

Does he think humans are causing climate change?

“My instinct is no.”

Others declined to comment.

They included Alan Riffel, the city manager, and Robert Roberson, a local Prius driver and executive director of the Plains Indians & Pioneers Museum.

I get the sense that many people in Woodward are scared of what the “industry” might think of their views on climate change – and by “industry” they mean oil and natural gas.

Despite the recent boom in wind farms, which the city of Woodward features prominently on its website, fossil fuels still drive the local economy.

Most surprising, to me, however, was the sentiment of some relatives of Norman Vanderslice, who died last year from injuries sustained in a massive wildfire.

Steve and Julie Milton told me Vanderslice, who was Steve’s cousin but was more like a brother to him, died trying to help another man escape the blaze. The May 2014 fire, fueled by 50 mph winds, jumped a highway, Steve Milton said, and burned Vanderslice so badly that he died after more than two months in the hospital.

I told Steve and Julie Milton about the predictions – that wildfires in the western United States are expected to increase in size by 400% to 800%.

“They can do all the research they want, and Mother Nature’s gonna show ‘em that she can do whatever she wants,” Steve Milton said.

“If you look at history, it kinda repeats itself.”

How (not) to argue with a skeptic

I’m nonconfrontational by nature, but I found myself wanting to argue with a few of the climate skeptics in Oklahoma – or, in a couple of instances, wanting to convince them they were wrong. I heard dozens of people tell me, incorrectly, that climate change is “just a cycle,” and that it’s natural, not man-made. But this theory, which also is parroted by many Republican presidential candidates, is everywhere in Woodward. Hearing it started to feel like an ice pick on my temples.

Steve and Julie Milton lost a relative in a 2014 wildfire. Such fires are expected to become more widespread.
John D. Sutter/CNN
Steve and Julie Milton lost a relative in a 2014 wildfire. Such fires are expected to become more widespread.

I tried a number of methods.

The most tempting is this: Just the facts.

I’ve honed my climate-change-is-real-and-we’re-causing it argument down to essentially three steps. This method is based on reading reports like those by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.S. Global Change Research Program and NASA, (including a brilliant Bloomberg illustration of NASA data), as well as conversations with people like Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech. I turned to Hayhoe for help with this in part because she’s married to an evangelical minister and former skeptic. And she convinced him this is real.

I tried an abbreviated version of this approach on Mead Ferguson, 84, a former worker for an international oil company and current rancher in Woodward County.

Step one: We can see the climate is changing. Most obviously, we see this in global average surface temperatures. But glaciers also are melting, the ocean is getting warmer, plants are blooming earlier, insects are moving north, rainfall and snowfall are becoming more extreme, oceans are rising as they warm up and their molecules expand, the oceans are becoming more acidic, etc., etc. It is becoming impossible to dispute these facts, which is why you hear skeptical politicians now arguing that it’s happening, sure, but that we have nothing to do with it.

Step two: We know it’s not a natural cycle – or related to sunspots. You can make plenty of guesses about why the climate is warming, and all of them are worth investigating. Thankfully, scientists have done that. Sunspots, volcanoes, the Earth’s orbit, natural variability, ozone pollution. None of these – even combined – can explain the rapid rise in temperature the Earth is already experiencing.

Step three: More than 97% of working climate scientists agree that we are causing climate change by burning fossil fuels and chopping down forests. One factor clearly does explain why temperatures are getting warmer so quickly: When we humans drive cars and burn fossil fuels to generate electricity, we’re releasing heat-trapping gases, mostly carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. These gases act like a blanket, gradually trapping heat and causing warming.

This doesn’t mean that every summer will be sweltering, and that there won’t be any snow or ice. Far from it. Climate change is a gamble. We’re stacking the dice to make certain weather events more or less likely over time. And while there may be some benefits from average warming, the overall picture looks bleak, especially in the long term. If the climate warms 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels (in June, we’d already hit 0.88 degrees of warming), many low-lying island nations probably will vanish, some crop yields probably will go down, water probably will become much more scarce and 20% to 30% of plants and animals will be put at risk for extinction.

Ferguson, the rancher, was giving me a half-smiling death stare throughout my mini-rant. We batted ideas back and forth several times, with him pulling preclipped charts from an agricultural magazine off of his desk.

“We don’t see an honest debate going on,” he said.

One of the charts, which used data from upper troposphere, appeared to show that the climate isn’t warming as much as scientists would expect. I checked that out with Hayhoe, who told me this is a common data manipulation: The upper troposphere is above the area of the atmosphere where most carbon dioxide accumulates, meaning it’s not a representative way to measure climate change. Surface temperatures, from the lower troposphere, are what we experience. (After this article was first published, Hayhoe wrote me that, more importantly, there were errors in troposphere data, which are commonly misused by climate skeptics.)

Ferguson also pointed me to a commentary, published in The Wall Street Journal, that appeared to discount the peer-reviewed studies showing that 97% of climate scientists agree that we’re causing climate change by emitting heat-trapping gases.

The reality, Hayhoe told me, is that The Wall Street Journal’s opinion section is not peer-reviewed in the same way science is. And multiple peer-reviewed studies have shown that publishing climate scientists are in near-unanimous agreement about human-caused warming. Look at the actual peer-reviewed research and the consensus is even greater. Of 25,182 climate change studies reviewed by James Powell, director of the National Physical Science Consortium, only 26 studies, or 0.01% were found to reject the idea of human-caused climate change.

That’s 99.9% agreement.

"We as human beings have a tendency to put off what we really need to do if it has the capacity to make us uncomfortable," said Rachael Van Horn, a reporter at the Woodward News.
John D. Sutter/CNN
"We as human beings have a tendency to put off what we really need to do if it has the capacity to make us uncomfortable," said Rachael Van Horn, a reporter at the Woodward News.

But Ferguson didn’t buy it. He doesn’t trust the Obama administration and says NASA and other federal agencies cook the books to toe the party line.

“I’m in firm agreement you can’t really argue this with charts,” he said. “I think people are arguing it with their hearts. Either you believe it or you don’t. …”

I left the conversation feeling frustrated and confused.

Without agreement over these facts, how do we move forward?

’Survivors will be shot again’

My increasingly foolhardy search for a climate change believer in Woodward County got kicked into overdrive when I heard about a ranch with my name on it.

You related to the Sutter Ranch folks? a local asked me.

I stared back blankly.

West of Woodward, the person said, near Fargo.

I’d had no idea there was a Sutter Ranch near Woodward County.

But I knew I had to find it.

My motives were selfish. Secretly, I hoped these Ranching Edition Sutters might be the climate change believers I’d been trying so hard to find. I imagined them owning a wind farm. Woodward’s hidden prairie hippies – and with my last name!

How convenient.

I couldn’t wait to find them.

First step on the search: My grandma.

She’s 96. Still bright. And I remember her saying she lived somewhere in western Oklahoma during the 1930s, around the time of the Dust Bowl. She has stories about trying to outrun dust storms so she could pull laundry in off the line.

I called her up from my hotel room in Woodward.

Did she know anything about a Sutter Ranch?

“I don’t really know, John. If there is, I don’t know anything about it.”

OK, then. Step two: Hit the road.

Fargo (population: 370) is all curled metal and splintered wood. The Saturday I visited, the sun was hot enough to crinkle the horizon and the place felt like a ghost town. I scanned for any signs of a person and spotted a truck parked in front of what looked like an abandoned A-frame shed. Against my better judgment, I pulled over.

Hello! …?

Out walked a youngish guy with a gun.

“It’s just a pellet rife,” he said, smiling as he read what must have been a city boy expression on my face. “We work here. There’s a pigeon problem in the roof.”

“You heard of Sutter Ranch?”

They hadn’t, so I drove around town until I saw a house that looked welcoming enough to approach. A tall man with bird-talon toenails answered the door and told me that the ranch was down the highway, across the railroad tracks.

“I’m not sure what kind of reception you will get,” he said.

How come?

They’re pretty rich – own lots of land, he said.

Great. Now I was picturing the Sutters more like cartoonish, moneybags Monopoly Men than climate change believers. I bet they didn’t even have a wind farm.

En route, I made a wrong turn and pulled into a driveway with a sign that read, “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.”

I sped away.

’You contribute to the imbalance’

Once I got it in my head that I might be related to people in Woodward County, I started looking at the place a little differently.

What would my life be like if I had grown up on Sutter Ranch?

Would I still feel the same way about climate change, gay rights, gun control?

Would I still hate horses? (I really hate horses).

Just the idea of being from here – being of this place rather than an outsider sent here to judge it – made me realize that I was approaching my time in Woodward all wrong. I intended to come to Woodward County to listen to people. But I actually was tallying them up, putting them into categories: believer vs. skeptic; rational human vs. little-girl-on-the-back-of-a-stegosaurus statue owner. I was trying to convince them I was right, not listening to where they were coming from.

Cattle ranching and wheat farming are common in Woodward County. Winter wheat yields could drop 15% if the climate warms 2 degrees Celsius.
John D. Sutter/CNN
Cattle ranching and wheat farming are common in Woodward County. Winter wheat yields could drop 15% if the climate warms 2 degrees Celsius.

“The public in the United States doesn’t speak with a single voice. They have very different perspectives,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. “If you want to engage the public effectively, you’ve got to start where they are, not where you are.”

I hadn’t been taking that advice.

And in doing so I’d gotten a warped view of this place. It turns out people generally have a tendency to think that everyone either does – or should – believe as they do. Academics sometimes call that sentiment “pluralistic ignorance,” which is a term I learned from George Marshall, author of “Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change” and co-founder of the Oxford-based Climate Outreach and Information Network.

“Pluralistic ignorance” refers to the idea that, when no one talks about an issue – or really listens – it’s easy to get a skewed view of reality. So, let’s say people in Woodward County express some degree of climate skepticism because they assume that’s how everyone else in the area feels. In reality, no one’s talking about the topic, so people tend to overestimate how prevalent climate skepticism might be.

“If you’re a Republican in Oklahoma who accepts the science (of climate change), you’re likely to think everybody else out there disagrees with it,” Marshall told me. “And so you keep quiet. And when you keep quiet, you contribute to the imbalance.”

At Marshall’s urging, I started asking Woodward County residents what percentage of their neighbors would say climate change is bunk.

Often, they’d guess 70% to 90%.

Based on my initial conversations, I would have said so, too.

The skeptics are the loudest. They stick in your head. Get the attention.

The reality in Woodward County, however, according to the Yale research, which used a national survey to estimate county-level data, with an 8% margin of error, is that only 30% of people here think climate change is fake.

Which isn’t really that high when you think about it.

That’s something I didn’t realize at first.

All I heard were the highly skeptical arguments.

That’s what I was primed to hear.

But nationally, according to the Yale data, only 18% of people think climate change isn’t real. And only 9% of the national population feels either “extremely” or “very” sure that climate change is not happening. What that tells me is that the vocal, angry, conspiracy-theory-type skeptics are a very small minority in this country.

Nine percent of people are sure global warming is fake. The same percentage of Americans also believe vaccines are more dangerous than disease.

In other words: It’s a fringe view.

Many more people, a more levelheaded read of the data reveals, are confused by climate science, and with good reason. We in the news media do a poor job of explaining it. And many of us who believe in climate change get defensive and angry when we talk about it with skeptics. Meanwhile, only one in 10 Americans know that nearly all climate scientists agree that climate change is real and we’re causing it by burning fossil fuels. (One in 10!) And others aren’t talking about this stuff at all. Three-quarters of Americans say they “rarely” or “never” discuss climate change with their family and friends – and those are the people who, statistically, are most likely to gain their trust when it comes to this topic, after climate scientists.

In Woodward, I found that for every person who vehemently denies climate change is real – the woman at the church dinner, for instance, who called it a “ludicrous myth” – there were several who felt genuinely confused about the topic, or who had very rational and honest reasons to avoid climate science.

Take Rita Barney, the tattooed 58-year-old with the French restaurant downtown. She thought hair spray caused climate change – probably because she used to be a hairdresser and heard, in the 1990s, that aerosol spray was carving a hole in the ozone layer. Hair spray doesn’t cause climate change, but I understand her confusion. Both are issues dealing with the atmosphere, and neither is talked about much here. (The ozone hole is almost gone, by the way, thanks to international efforts to curb the use of aerosols and certain refrigerants that were creating it.)

I told her that burning fossil fuels and deforestation are the main drivers of climate change – and that’s what scientists are concerned about now.

“I’m not sure exactly what I believe,” she told me in response. “But I can tell you that just being a part of this (interview) has made me more curious to study more and find out. You know, if there’s something that I can do personally (to help).”

Jack Day, the wind farm technician trainer, had a similar reaction.

Two years ago, he would have said climate change is “malarkey,” he told me.

But now he’s in a gradual process of reconsidering.

“I think it’s foolish to dismiss it completely,” he said.

“It comes down to trust, and I haven’t found a good resource for myself. … I’m pretty much a see-it-believe-it kind of guy. And I’m sure by that time, it’s too late.”

’We aren’t home at all’

The sign was just beyond the railroad tracks: “Sutter Ranch.”

White letters on black paint.

Locusts buzzed and grasshoppers shot from the ground like fireworks as the belly of my tiny rental car dragged along the weed hump in the center of the ranch’s dirt road. I wasn’t sure where I was going, but figured this road had to lead somewhere. I crested a tiny hill and saw it: a white ranch house and stable.

Two horses, one black, one brown, were in the pen.

Someone has to live here, I thought.

I rang the doorbell and took note of my surroundings. The white house was fairly nondescript except for one strange feature: the fence. Or, rather, the lack of a fence. There was a tall metal gate, with a swinging door, in front of the walkway that leads to the house. But no fence on either side of it. Like the place is trying to give off the air of being sectioned off from the rest of the world, but couldn’t commit.

I rang the doorbell again. No answer.

I didn’t see a soul, so I put a note on the door.

John D. Sutter/CNN

That afternoon, I left quickly, worried someone would see me lurking around the house and think I was some sort of city-hipster robber baron.

But when I returned a second time, I got a little gutsier. I decided to walk a loop around the house and spotted a second white building labeled “Office.” I knocked. Nothing. So I peeked into the window.

The interior was hunting-lodge-meets-doublewide. I saw a horseshoe on the wall. A cowboy hat. Plush furniture. And, most interestingly for my purposes, a sign.