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Four Journalists. Three Weeks. One Epic Road Trip Leading Up To Election Day

By Zach Toombs | October 3, 2016

We're getting #OffTheTrail and driving cross-country to explore issues that should be front and center this campaign season.

Oct. 16: 'I'm just glad you didn't mention climate change'

We had just finished an interview with a resident of Tangier, an island off the coast of Virginia sinking under rising sea levels, when she told us that. Despite scientific consensus around the issue, introducing climate change into an interview can take the discussion in a contentious direction. That seems unnecessary when I just want to ask this person about the erosion eating away at her backyard. And in the view of Tangier's residents, what does it matter? Whether this is just gradual erosion or an end result of global warming, it's still eventually going to take out the spot where this person parks her golf cart.

SEE MORE: The Words 'Climate Change' Are Tricky On Tangier Island

Across rural America, I've seen this same outlook. The mayors of Georgetown, Texas, and Greensburg, Kansas, don't sound like Leonardo DiCaprio when they talk about the environment. The cases they made to take their towns to 100 percent clean energy were local, not global. And they kept politics as far from their arguments as possible, lest they be called an "Al Gore tree-hugger," as Georgetown's city utilities manager was called during a town hall.

But they do care about the environment. They really do. Just listen to Greensburg Mayor Bob Dixson talk about "leaving it better than you found it." That's the sort of sticks-to-your-ribs common sense Mike Rowe would appreciate. It's also resulted in a sustainable wind farm pumping renewable energy onto the Southwest Power Pool that covers Kansas and parts of four other states. At the local level, this is a huge environmental leap, even if the people behind it wouldn't necessarily call themselves environmentalists.

 

My friend Ryan Schuessler has more experience reporting these stories than I do and has an interesting perspective based on time spent covering the march of a massive transmission line cutting across privately owned grasslands in the Nebraska Sandhills.

"One 'oddity' I found was that these families had aligned themselves with the local EPA guy who also opposes the transmission lines — but because it threatens an endangered beetle," Ryan told me. "These families were praying that the presence of a protected beetle stopped a 200-mile high-voltage transmission line, while the ideological camp they belong to often speaks out against endangered species getting in the way of private enterprise."

You see something similar on Tangier Island, where fishermen gripe about federal regulations on fishing and hunting wildlife. Despite that, they know they need to protect the fish and wildlife population both to continue making their living and to save their island. The environmental case for protecting Tangier's nature and wildlife might be the best argument to make in asking Congress to save the island.

"At first, I thought they were hypocrites but came to see them differently," Ryan told me about his own time on Tangier. "They have a connection to the land and environment in a way many journalists can never understand. Their lives and livelihood depend on it in ways we cannot appreciate, and they'll be among the first to face the consequences of these changes."