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
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“Open most days about 9 or 10,” the sign read.
Then where the hell are you?
“Occasionally as early as 7,” the sign continued. “But sometimes as late as 11 or 12. Some days or afternoons we aren’t home at all, and lately I’ve been here just about all the time, except when I’m someplace else, but I should be here then, too.”
A Sutter Ranch riddle.
I called the ranch number I’d found online and heard the office phone ring – the bleating rattle of a receiver that sounded like it was from the 1970s or ‘80s.
My hopes were fading fast.
’I’m not Mr. Green’
The more time I spent in Woodward the more the place surprised me.
Take Randall Gabrel, the guy who paid for the dinosaur statue.
Despite the fact that he owns an oil company and doesn’t think humans are causing climate change, he’s spending more than $30,000, he told me, to install 38 solar panels at his house, just west of Woodward (I almost didn’t believe this, but he showed me the panels and the frame, which was under construction).
“If everyone goes to solar, and that works, and that shuts down the oil and gas industry, I’m good with it,” he said. “If that works, then fine.”
He and other Woodward residents, in a strange way, are almost too humble to believe man can contribute to climate change. Either they see the weather as so big, so unpredictable, that they have to cow to Mother Nature’s whims. Or they believe that God is in control – and that to say we can shape the weather is almost like bragging, like making humans seem far more significant than we actually are.
“That’s man saying, ‘We’re God, now.’ That we’re controlling the sun and the Earth’s environment,” he said. “I don’t know what the weather is going to be like.”
But he does care about pollution – as well as saving money.
He wishes liberal politicians took this stuff seriously, too.
“I don’t think people are serious when they say stuff and they’re not willing to do it themselves,” he said, referencing the fact that Barack Obama and Al Gore continue to fly frequently and drive despite being advocates for action on climate change.
Out here, this is just common sense.
If you say you believe something, you stand by it.
Eventually, as I started listening harder, I also encountered a number of people who believe climate change is a major issue for Woodward County and the rest of the world.
One was a 12-year-old girl who I found spinning with her sister on a merry-go-round on a sweltering afternoon. The girl, who I’m not identifying because she’s a minor, told me that climate change was a no-duh sort of thing for her. She learned about it in science class, and immediately told a bunch of her friends.
“They said, ‘We don’t have anything to do with that.’ “
“They didn’t make fun of me,” she said. “They just didn’t talk to me for a while.”
“Nobody talks about it here,” said the girl’s sister, age 14.
Another was Harold Wanger, the rancher who was born at the start of that drought and who married his high school sweetheart during the next drought cycle. He realizes that people can devastate the natural environment – he saw that happen when his family contributed to overplowing the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl.
He doesn’t want to see that happen again.
That’s part of the reason he’s leasing land to wind farms.
They’re clean. No pollution.
“These turbines are better than an oil well,” he told me, standing beneath one of the mammoth machines, which are nearly 300 feet tall and have blades as long as blue whales. “An oil well will pump dry up on ya. And these turbines will keep runnin’.”
The other reason?
They pay him.
’W of City’
I decided to visit Sutter Ranch a third and final time.
On the way, I stopped in Fargo, thinking maybe I’d find someone with a clue about whether anyone actually lived on the Sutter land, or where they might be. It seemed to me that they weren’t living at the ranch anymore.
I saw a few cars parked in front of a community building in Fargo so I went in. That’s where I ran into Yellow Hat, the climate skeptic who insinuated I’m a “presstitute,” pimping out my opinions on climate change for a few bucks from Al Gore, George Soros, or whomever. She wasn’t so helpful, but some of her retired, card-playing buddies were. They dug through a pile of local phonebooks with me to find one of the Sutter relatives whose name had changed because of marriage.
Their address, off the ranch, was listed. It said, “W of City Fargo.”
As in “West of Fargo.”
But the card players knew the house.
Down the road, they said. Can’t miss it.
I wouldn’t have the chance to. As I was driving out of town, I saw a black truck pulling into Sutter Ranch. The black truck stopped in front of a stable and next to a white truck with its hood popped up. I followed at some distance and then parked my non-truck, roller-skate-shaped rental car around the curve, facing the ranch exit. Remembering the “survivors will be shot again” sign down the road, I recalled the first rule of conflict-zone reporting: Know your exit strategy.
I saw the man and watched him go into the horse barn. I stood back some distance, hoping not to startle him, and waited for him to come back outside.
“Well, hi! Come in!” he said, smiling.
All the anxiety washed away.
My people, I thought.
“Sit down if you don’t mind getting dirty!”
I hopped on the gate of his pick-up and scanned for similarities.
Did this guy look like me?
Could we be related?
He was wearing an Oklahoma State hat, which is the school both of my parents attended. His mustache was kind of the same shape as mine, minus my beard.
Both of those are pro-Sutter points, I guess.
“We’ve been blessed with rain this year,” the man at Sutter Ranch said. “Makes a world of difference.” The ranch was starting to look like Oz to me – emerald fields of short grass prairie, sunflowers sprouting along the roads.
I told the man why I was here – that my name was John Sutter, that my grandma lived nearby, somewhere, during the 1930s, and that I was out here doing a story for CNN on extreme weather and climate change, weirdly enough.
I didn’t tell him I was pinning all my hopes on this ranch’s story – that I somehow needed him to make sense of this science-skeptical place for me.
Because that would have sounded bonkers.
He smiled and agreed to tell me the ranch’s story.
His name was Ken Merrill, married to Karen Merrill, formerly Sutter. So forget what I said about our mustaches looking the same. Ken is married into the Sutter clan.
The Sutter family has been out here, just beyond the border of Woodward County, since the early 1920s, he told me. The original Sutter – O.E. Sutter – took a train ride across the prairie here, fell in love with the land, and with the quail hunting opportunities, and bought the ranch. The family was living in Wichita, Kansas, before that, where they worked in the oil business. I remember my grandma talking about another branch of our family that settled in that city while our Sutters stayed behind and largely farmed.
I’m not certain, but it’s likely we’re distantly related.
Both families trace their roots to Pennsylvania.
I was nervous to ask Ken – and later Karen, his wife, who answered the door wearing a golf visor, a wave of hair cresting over the brim – about climate change. I started to think about my family – many of whom are deeply conservative and probably don’t believe in climate change either. They’re good people. I love them dearly, but I’m sure we don’t see eye to eye on this or many other politicized issues.
Earlier, I’d asked my 96-year-old grandma what she thought of climate change. “Oh, I’m not smart enough to have an opinion on that,” she’d told me.
That Oklahoma modesty.
I finally got up the courage to ask.
I felt like there was so much riding on the answer.
But once I heard it, I realized I’d been asking the wrong question.
“I think it’s baloney,” Karen Merrill told me.
It didn’t matter to me anymore that Karen Merrill – or 30% of Woodward and 18% of the United States – didn’t believe in climate change.
I believe it. I know why. And I can explain my views.
That’s important. Being willing to honestly, calmly explain the science to skeptics, too, is crucial as well, since so much silence surrounds climate change.
I wish people in Woodward felt more able to speak up. And that politicians – including most Republicans who are parroting the line that they are “not scientists,” and global warming isn’t our fault – would realize the damage they’re causing.
This is an urgent crisis, and this country must be well-informed.
“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain,” Pope Francis wrote in his landmark encyclical on climate change, released earlier this summer.
We already have a mandate to move forward. The United States, long a laggard in international climate negotiations, is pushing for action. President Obama, for example, announced on Monday a plan to reduce emissions from power plants 32% below 2005 levels by 2030. That’s not going to fix everything. But it’s a big start. And it will give the United States some moral ground to stand on when the world meets in Paris in December to try to hammer out an international treaty.
Obama’s plan is described as controversial, but there’s actually pretty broad agreement that we need to be doing something – even here in skeptical Woodward. Seventy percent of people in Woodward (and 79% of Americans, according to a 2015 poll by the Yale group) are estimated to support funding for renewable energy research; 65% (75% of Americans) are estimated to say we should regulate carbon as a pollutant; and a narrow majority, 51%, (66% nationally) are estimated to say utilities should be required to produce 20% of electricity from renewable sources.
If Woodward is the most skeptical place in America, we’re doing well.
These points of agreement should be our focus, not “belief” in climate science. The United States needs to do a far better job about educating the public about how and why climate change is happening, as well as the very real dangers associated with it.
But solutions are what really matter.
Those of us who think climate change is a problem should be open about our beliefs and motives – but we also must search for common ground with unlikely allies.
“Oklahoma, and this region of the country in particular, are pretty skeptical of things like that,” Ken Merrill told me. “I guess, mostly, it shows we’ve been through it so many times, and it’s just a cycle. You have your hot, you have your cold.
“You have your wet times and your dry times.”
That’s a skeptical view, sure. One that doesn’t make clear humans are causing climate change. But a moderate one, a reasonable one – one based on his personal experience of the uber-extreme weather people here always have had to live with. It’s especially reasonable given all of the incentives for a person in Woodward County not to believe. Those incentives are political, because conservative thought leaders insist on denying climate change; economic, because oil and gas are still king in Woodward, despite the wind boom; and religious, because not many conservative Christian pastors are saying climate change is a moral issue – that the world’s poor will be most affected, and that we have an obligation to help.
But I have much more in common with Ken Merrill than our disagreement over whether humans are causing climate change.
It took far too long for me to realize that.
“I’m a steward of the land out here,” he told me. “It’s my responsibility to see that even in drought times, the land is taken care of and the land is respected. We learned a lot from the Dust Bowl days, in terms of farming practices. Nobody wants to go through that again. … When you grow up out here, that’s just the mindset you learn. It becomes a way of life. You take care of (the land) and it takes care of you.
“Generations of our family survived out here just on what they had and what they grew. If you didn’t ever give back, the well is going to run dry someday, so to speak.”
I couldn’t put it better myself.
This story has been updated to reflect more-detailed information about carbon 14 dating and contamination of supposed dinosaur bone samples.