This summer I cycled from British Columbia to New Mexico documenting climate change along the Continental Divide. It was my second long-distance bike ride as part of the Tales of Change project. I completed the first one last November when I crossed the Alps East to West.
My motivation to do these rides is to share observations of climate change in mountain landscapes. Indeed, the Alps and the Rocky Mountains are iconic national panoramas. Many Swiss and Americans are proud of those stunning places, be it the majestic glaciers in the Alps, or the wilderness and vast open spaces in the Western U.S. These settings are part of national identities, history and myths. And they are heavily impacted by climate change.
Communicating the impacts of climate change is more effective when it establishes a link to “place” and “identity”. Yes, the polar bear is in trouble. And yes, scenarios that look decades into the future are critical tools for governments and companies. But the truth is, many people struggle to relate to what lies far away in the future, or is far away geographically. We struggle to process this information and translate it into empathy for nature and behavioural change.
On my recent ride along the Continental Divide, I cycled through pristine areas such as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in Montana, the Divide Basin in Wyoming, and the Colorado River high in the Rockies. I spoke to climate scientists, conservationists, foresters, indigenous leaders, writers, artists and intellectuals, mountain guides and athletes, fire-fighters, National Park employees, farmers and ranchers, innovators and entrepreneurs in the private and public sector. They all told me how climate change is impacting the landscapes that surround them, and to some extent their livelihoods. Here are the five points I am taking away from this experience.
The obvious: The impacts of climate change are already far-reaching
Cycling the Continental Divide means spending days in the forest. I often thought of how nice it must have been to cycle through those forest ten years ago – before the whitebark pine beetle epidemic broke out. You have to get to higher elevations to see it, but today, many of those forests look ominously desolate. It is a direct cause of the warmer and drier climate in the Rockies, which has tipped the ecosystem in favor of the beetle. With the pine trees gone, an important food source for grizzlies has disappeared. The consequence: grizzlies now look for food elsewhere, including where we are not used to seeing them. It means that your live as a hiker, hunter, or farmer in grizzly-bear country is potentially becoming more hazardous.
Other visible consequences of climate change in the Rockies include a thinning snowpack, rapidly disappearing glaciers in Glacier National Park, a more intense and longer wildfire season, as well as native species at risk of extinction. The latter makes conservation more complex and has direct impacts on the local tourism sector. For example, to reduce stress on native fish that struggle with warmer waters and reduced streamflow, rivers are occasionally closed now. Fishing is one of American’s favorite past-time activities, and millions of people come to the waters of Montana and Wyoming. It’s a driving force for the economies in the Western U.S. In Montana alone, 71’000 people are employed in the recreational industry, that’s more than the 50’000 people employed in the coal industry across the entire US. When rivers are shut down, a sector of the local economy is also closed for business.
In sum, change is needed and fast. Local adaptation can go a long way, but without the needed reduction in GHG emission, the Rockies will look very different very soon. Living or visiting those landscapes will not be the same if action is not taken immediately.
Second: Look beyond Silicon Valley for climate innovations that make a difference
With a population of just over 1 million and a land area of 147’000 square kilometers, Montana is the third least densely populated state in the US. Agriculture is the main source of income. In Montana, I spent a few days in a stunningly beautiful place called Paradise Valley. It is in rural areas like these where I expected to meet more climate sceptics than anywhere else on my trip. To my surprise, my actual experience was quite the opposite. Not only did many people appreciate the value of telling the stories of how climate change is impacting nature and livelihoods, I also had the opportunity to meet local ranchers and entrepreneurs developing nature-based climate solutions for a more productive, resilient and climate-positive agriculture sector. They develop solutions to improve soil health, apply rotational grazing and carbon farming, and develop conservation-friendly approaches for ranching in grizzly bear country. Their drive and passion to realise economically attractive ranching in harmony with nature stands to build opportunities for the next generation of ranchers and farmers. These examples were both inspiring and encouraging.
Third: Education becomes more important
Climate change often acts as a risk multiplier, but it is arguably not the only factor that transforms Rocky Mountain landscapes. Another important element is the increasing number of people either visiting this part of the US or choosing to live here - maybe in an attempt to get away from places that get too hot, or in search of a life in proximity to nature. Don’t get me wrong: it is good news in many ways. But the increasing number of people contributes to the spreading of invasive species, puts more pressure on natural resources such as lakes and rivers, and has led to more private property at risk of wildfires, for example. To mitigate those risks, educating people is essential. People need to understand what it means to live in a fire ecology and why it can harm the ecosystem to stop your car on the roadside of a National Park. For institutions such as the National Park Service, the increase in visitation is a huge opportunity to educate millions of yearly visitors on how climate change is transforming the landscape they admire and how they can help maintain the pristine ecosystem.
Fourth: Find common ground instead of arguing about climate change
When you travel by bike, you meet all kinds of people. From the ghost-writer of a New York Times bestseller on climate change, to the ultra-libertarian carrying seven guns on his passenger seat and loves solar power because it gives him independence. Doing what I was doing, I sought conversations. Anecdotally, I was surprised by how many people in principle supported action on climate change. I have to admit that it is not what I expected of rural America. At the same time, the Republican-Democrat identity chasm was a barrier. In my experience, once a conversation turned to partisan identities, it became more difficult to talk about climate change. When the conversation was grounded in how the landscapes we are enjoying as cyclists, hunters or campers are changing so rapidly and sometimes profoundly, it was much easier to agree on the seriousness of the issue and the importance of acting upon it. So instead of starting by arguing about it, find common ground and build trust from there.
Last but not least: The privilege of travelling slowly and simply
One of the fascinating aspects of long-distance bike-packing is that expanses which appear unsurmountable on a map suddenly seem doable. It is what Paolo Rumiz called a “stunning compression of space.” Travelling at slow speed, progressing pass-by-pass, day-by-day, unmotorised and with total devotion given to living on a bicycle, enduring wind and weather, and the many unforgettable encounters along the way all contribute to this experience. More so, I now have the feeling that the simplicity of travelling by bike seems to match our mind’s ability to absorb and process our surroundings so deeply that no other way of moving can. Long-distance cycling allows us to grasp changing landscapes for what they eventually are – one connected piece of land.
I would not call it an adventure, a term that has become overused and watered-down in its meaning. But spending so much time outside and engaging on an issue I care about was an incredibly enriching experience. And I had a blast bike-packing through these remote areas on my MTB Cycletech RAW GP Offroad, which never failed me. I understand that not everybody likes long-distance cycling, nor has the opportunity to spend several months pedalling in remote areas. But if you have not yet, I would encourage you to try to find your personal way to connect with nature. It might strengthen your commitment to protecting it.