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Billings, MT

December 21, 2009

Standing in the living room of my boyfriend’s apartment, I can see the burn-off flames rising from the towers of the east-side refinery.  The lights of the city spread out below the rimrocks along the valley flanking the Yellowstone River, which runs along Billings’ south side.

Billings is an ugly, sprawling city, with two refineries and a lot of strip malls, its saving grace being its charming downtown and a spectacular northern boundary comprising the “rimrocks,” or cliffs, that were once the edge of an ancient sea. 

But I like Billings; I wouldn’t want to live here because I don’t want to live in a city, but I like coming here.  I like its mostly working-class population, its contractors and power-plant operators and outlying cowboys whom I dance with at Montana Chads.  There’s something very real about the grit, something in-your-face but also humbly genuine.  This is a place that the liberals in Copenhagen would want to change, a place with which they’d find plenty of “problems” (such as the pickup truck to Prius ratio of 1000:1) and probably a lot of what they would deem ignorance.

Yet there’s ignorance on both sides of the climate/energy debate.  Those who push for immediate reduction in fossil fuels fail to recognize the dependency that so many people have upon these fuels, not just for energy but also for a living.  Take away fossil fuels and most Montanans would lose their jobs as well as their ability to get from here to there, for no public transit system could be profitable in a state more than twice the size of Pennsylvania but with a total population less than Philadelphia. 

If the only way to forestall global warming is to immediately and significantly cut CO2 emissions, our nation, and the world, will face massive economic problems.  The only possible transition is a slow transition, one in which people’s livelihoods are taken into account and for which not just job transition programs are offered, but actual jobs; if we plan to switch to wind and solar, then there better be wind and solar manufacturing facilities located in places where there are currently mines and coal-burning plants.  Otherwise, the American West will become a string of ghost towns – either that, or a string of yuppy get-aways, which is an equally unpalatable option, for the ruggedness of the West would be lost, transformed from a real, rough-and-tumble lifestyle to an L.L. Bean or REI gimmick for selling outdoor apparel.

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