Life

How Climate Change Skeptics Are Dealing With the California Wildfires

One longtime Republican rancher now understands climate change is happening. But her neighbors aren’t quite on board—yet.

A home is seen burning as black smoke drifts toward the sky.
A home burns as the sun sets behind smoke and flames during the Bobcat Fire on Friday in Juniper Hills, California. Mario Tama/Getty Images

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Megan Brown is a rancher and blogger in Northern California who raises cattle and hogs at her family’s longtime property in Butte County. She grew up on this farm, on land her family has worked for 170 years. She knows the place so well that she can tell what season it is by smell. Right now, it’s fire season. Brown’s ranch is just a few miles from the North Complex Fires, which were touched off by a lightning storm back in August. Even though what’s happening now is scary, Brown knows the fires have always been there; it’s the scale that’s changed. Trying to understand this, and trying to save her ranch and her animals, has meant rethinking some pretty basic assumptions she’d made—about climate change, for one. Now she’s trying to convince her neighbors of the dangers in store. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Brown about her experiences with the fires, her own reckoning on global warming, and how she’s trying to sound the alarms for her community. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: It sounds like the first time you really evacuated was a couple of years ago. And I’m wondering, when was it that you realized, I’ve lived with fire for years now, but I think I have to leave?

Megan Brown: When the Camp Fire hit Paradise. When I was sitting here in my backyard looking at the smoke and it suddenly turned black, and I knew that was the town of Paradise and this was not normal, this is not how it’s supposed to be here. We don’t have fires that last for months and burn this much.

One thing that really, really freaks me are the grasshoppers—they’re like biblical grasshoppers. Over the past two years it’s been so bad that we’ve had to sell cattle that we’d normally keep. I usually keep about 60 head of heifers, cows that haven’t given birth yet. That’s how keep my herd growing and replace old cows. But because of the grasshoppers, I’ve had to sell them.

Why?

Well, 5 pounds of grasshoppers can eat the same amount of grass as a 600-pound animal.

How do you connect what’s happening with the grasshoppers to what’s happening with the fire?

Well, in our long history of running the ranch, this has never, ever happened before. And in addition to the grasshoppers, we’ve had a flood and a drought all in five years. Again, that’s never happened.

These all point in one cataclysmic direction: climate change. And your views on global warming have evolved over the years, which is rare in your farming community.

What’s weird is that the scientists who aren’t in agriculture say, This is climate change, this is happening, but the groups within agriculture don’t seem to be talking about it as much. A lot of them don’t even believe it’s real. And it’s incredibly frustrating for me because I feel like I’m in ground zero and sending up the alarm, like, you guys, this is serious. Your lives are going to be affected. Let’s effect some change. Come on. And they’re quoted in articles even with me, saying, Well, we just don’t believe it’s a thing. It’s kind of a slap in the face.

Have you been in meetings or gatherings with neighbors or Farm Bureau folks where you’ve tried to say, hey, let’s talk about climate change and how that’s affecting what we do and what happens?

I talk about it a lot on social media because I’ve stopped going to Farm Bureau meetings in my area.

What would happen when you’d go?

It’s really uncomfortable for me. I got pulled into a cattlemen’s meeting a couple years ago because I was talking about the fires and it ended up with me in tears. It’s just not something I want to put myself back into.

It sounds like that meeting was really intense. Did climate change end up coming into it?

No, that was back when I still was a climate change denier myself.

Whoa. What changed your mind?

Living what I’ve lived through.

When you were a climate change denier, how did you see what was happening in the world? I’m curious about your path, because I don’t know that I’ve ever talked to anyone who’s changed their mind about climate change.

I assumed the Earth is probably always changing and heating up and cooling and that’s normal. And then, more science was presented. The fires happened. I had to take a moment, take a deep breath, go to people that were smarter than me and listen to the science and listen to them. I’m a firm believer now.

You’ve lived in this community your whole life. You must talk to neighbors about what you see. And I’m sure you have credibility with them—you are someone who may have shared perspectives with them on a number of subjects before this. So I’m curious how those conversations go.

I try to have these conversations, and a lot of the times I get just dismissed. I haven’t really used the words climate change around them, I don’t know—

You can’t even use the words?

You know, just by who I am—being so political and so loud—I make the industry uncomfortable. I’m trying a new a new way of not being quite so loud but acknowledging what’s happening, and not using the right words, because if that’s how I have to act to get change to happen, I will not use the words. If that makes it more palatable for my neighbors or for my industry, I guess that’s what I have to do.

So what do you say instead of climate change?

You just blame it on each thing. It’s like, oh, the fires, oh, the grasshoppers. I’m hoping they’re going to start connecting the dots in their own head and then, in a year or two, I can use the term climate change. But we’ll see.

You sound politically active.

Yes. I’m actually still a registered Republican. In ag, that’s what we are. But I’m not really anymore. Like, I want people to be taken care of. I want climate change addressed. And my Republican leaders are not doing that.

When you call the people who represent you, either at your state Capitol or in Washington, to talk about what you’re dealing with, what do you tell them, and what do they say to you?

Well, they no longer answer my phone calls or call me back. So I now mainly stick to Twitter and Facebook to communicate with them. It’s so frustrating; all I can do is scream into the social media abyss. But fortunately, I’ve done that and gotten some opportunities. I got to write for the Washington Post. I got to talk to you. I got to write for Modern Farmer. So even though some might not be listening, other people are. And I’m slowly seeing people who have been through fires and floods, they’re coming to my side and starting to pay attention to what I’m saying. When I first started talking to my politicians on social media threads, it was just kind of me dissenting. And now there’s more of us.

What would success look like when talking to these politicians, and what are you hoping they’ll propose?

I’m not really asking for much right now. I’m just asking them to acknowledge it’s a thing that’s happening. If I could get that, I think that’d be just a great starting point: Man-made climate change exists. And then let’s drag in some scientists, let’s drag in some Indigenous people, let’s drag in some ranchers and farmers and let us sit at a table together. We’re not fighting when we are aiming for this common goal. And let’s write some legislation, if we could get Farm Bureau and all these ag groups together and said, OK, what’s some policy that we can craft? Other countries have done it. We know there’s the science out there. Let’s just start. That’s the thing: We haven’t even started. It’s still like, I don’t know, it doesn’t exist, oh, this is just an abnormal year. It’s so frustrating. It’s just so frustrating.

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