Documenting Our Wild Climate: On the Road with Peter Sargent '03
Documenting Our Wild Climate: On the Road with Peter Sargent '03

By Wendy Carlson

In March, Peter Sargent and his wife, Virginia, packed their belongings and two dogs into a cargo van they dubbed "Buffalo Betty" and left Denver on a six-month road trip. All of this might make them sound like another millennial couple riding the Bohemian "van life" wave, except they are on an environmental mission that will take them as far west as Washington and as far north as Montana. Along the way, they're interviewing farmers, ranchers, hunters, fishermen, and firefighters whose livelihoods are being threatened by severe weather events.

More than seven million people in the West live in small communities that are economically dependent on the land, says Sargent, who has been involved in the environmental justice movement since graduating from Johns Hopkins in 2008. Despite scientific evidence that climate change is affecting weather patterns in these regions, he feels that elected officials aren't doing enough to address it.

A veteran environmental organizer, Sargent has run more than 75 local and international campaigns. Most recently, he was campaign director for Al Gore's Climate Reality Project. His wife, Virginia, spent her childhood in the mountains of New Hampshire; her passion for the outdoors led her to study conservation biology at Middlebury College. The two met at Green Corps, a one-year fellowship program in which they learned how to run environmental campaigns. But while they both found working for national environmental organizations rewarding, they felt they were not connecting with small communities on a grassroots level. So, last spring, he and his wife left their jobs and hit the road to launch Wild Climate, a nonprofit storytelling project focused on the rural west.

Their goal is to find those impacted by changing weather patterns, listen to their stories, and encourage them to speak up. Since they left Denver on March 24, they have been posting stories and photos on their website, WildClimate.org, and using social media to generate interest from local and national news outlets. Their effort has caught the attention of local NPR affiliates, which aired a podcast about the project produced by Yale Environmental Connections. But it hasn't been an easy road.

"One of the great problems is that climate change is a partisan issue. If you believe in it, you are labelled as a liberal, and some people aren't willing to talk about it. They're not at the point of saying: 'yes, it's happening here, and here's what it's doing to us,'" says Sargent. "So instead, we go into the communities and talk about 'extreme weather events,' not climate change." The Sargents often embed themselves in a community for a week or more, getting to know people by eating in diners, buying groceries, and reaching out to local and regional environmental groups.


Peter Sargent '03 and his wife, Virginia, with their two dogs, Summit and Trout

Their first interviewee was Becca Verm, a young farmer in Wallace, TX, who didn't need to be convinced of climate change. She'd started her farm on a little over an acre and had 40 people in her Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Then, she got hit by back-to-back floods in 2015 and 2016 and lost almost everything. What troubles Becca is that climate change is making farming harder. "The severity of everything is what's becoming the issue," she told them.

After Texas, they headed north into New Mexico, driving for hundreds of miles along pancake-flat highways. The views from the van windows looked like a scene from the trailer of an old Western movie. Jack rabbits darted through prickly pear bushes and tumbleweed. Masses of sticky thorns from a weed called goat head blew loose and latched onto the fur of their two dogs, Summit and Trout.

While hot, dry weather is typical in the southwest, Sargent says, climate change is altering fundamental weather patterns, affecting temperatures and precipitation. This means the already parched region is expected to get hotter and drier, and heavy rainfall can result in massive flooding.

A warming climate is also making fires more frequent and worse, he notes. Since 2000, Western states have seen an average of 250 large fires a year — up from 160 in the 1990s. In Gold Hill, CO, about 10 miles south of Boulder, the damage wrought by fires is visually striking.

A former mining town with a population of just over 200, Gold Hill is still recovering from the Four Mile Canyon wildfire that destroyed 170 homes back in 2010. In 2013, the town was hit again, this time by a major rainstorm that caused unprecedented flooding. What remains is flat sagebrush-dotted landscape landscape that gives way to scorched mountainsides. Sargent and his wife had reached what should have been the lushest country so far on their trip, yet much of what they saw surrounding them was barren. In the distance, they could see snow-capped peaks to the west and plains to the east, but directly in front them stretched a two-mile swath of fire-scarred earth.

In Lincoln County, NM, where the majority of ranchers raise beef cattle, a wild fire ripped through the timbered mountains and burned more than 40,000 acres in 2012. Joe Kenmore, director of emergency services for the county, told Sargent he's ready to take steps to protect the area, but he needs the rest of the community and its leaders behind him. Sargent wants to empower people like Kenmore to be more vocal and to speak directly to their elected officials — and to embolden those leaders to prioritize the issue.

"That's why we want to hear their stories," Sargent says. "We want to know where they're from, their family history, the details of their business, the history of their land, the impacts they're seeing, and how that makes them feel before we even bring climate change into the conversation."

But politicians aren't the only ones who need convincing. "I've also been told that many communities, particularly Native American communities, see environmentalists and coal companies as exactly the same. Both come in and tell people what to think about an issue for the sake of their own cause, but do nothing for the community."

One thing the Sargents have learned on their journey is that the west is an incredibly diverse region, with wildly different perspectives. Native Americans, he says, have a spiritual connection to the land; for them, climate change is threatening a part of their culture, which is very different from the perspective of the farmers who want to adapt to extreme weather to preserve crops and livestock. And they've encountered many people whose livelihoods have been affected by extreme weather events, but who flat-out don't believe climate change has anything to do with it.

"That's why we want to hear their stories," Sargent says. "We want to know where they're from, their family history, the details of their business, the history of their land, the impacts they're seeing, and how that makes them feel before we even bring climate change into the conversation."

Sargent points to New Mexican dairy farmer Albin Smith as an example. Smith lost $1.5 million in revenue following a 2015 blizzard that killed hundreds of his cows and stymied his milking operation for weeks. "When we asked him how the climate movement can include more people like him, he said simply, 'conversation is good, confrontation is bad.'" That's a mantra the Sargents will carry with them on their trek across the rural west.

To find common ground with people like Albin, Sargent draws on his rural upbringing and background as a hunting guide. He grew up in a small farming community in Pennsylvania. His family later moved to a ranch in Wyoming, where they still raise Black Angus cattle. But it was while he was a student at Hotchkiss that his interest in the environment took hold. He recalls waking up at 6 a.m. to paddle on the lake for a limnology class, taking inventory of the School's rare trees, and spending a semester on the Maine seacoast as an upper mid. Those experiences of studying the natural world steered him toward a major in environmental policy at Johns Hopkins.

Since then, he hasn't veered off the environmental justice path, despite the many roadblocks he has encountered along the way. Under the Trump administration, Sargent says, almost every single environmental initiative he's been involved with over the past eight years is in the process of being dismantled. "It's been such a kick in the gut," he says. Still, he's optimistic.

"I've found on this trip that reaching people on very human level and finding common ground has been crucial in rebuilding momentum."

This story appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Hotchkiss Magazine.