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The town that stood up to coal
03:53 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: CNN columnist John D. Sutter is reporting from the COP21 climate talks in Paris. What do you want to know? Send him a message on Snapchat (add jdsutter), Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. And subscribe to the Two° newsletter to follow along.

Lame Deer, Montana CNN  — 

Kenneth Medicine Bull remembers the warning.

Don’t dig up the coal “even if we become the poorest of the poor,” the 59-year-old elder on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation recalls his grandfather saying.

Leave the coal beneath our feet and in the ground.

Fast-forward nearly 50 years: The Powder River Basin, an oval-shaped area of Montana and Wyoming that includes the Northern Cheyenne’s land, has become the most productive coal-mining zone in the country. Forty percent of U.S. coal is mined here.

Yet, none of that coal is from the reservation.

Some of the world's largeset coal mines are in the Powder River Basin, which spans parts of Wyoming and Montana.

It remains an island of intact prairie in a sea of coal development.

I think much of the reason that’s true is stories like the one Medicine Bull remembers. Similar anti-coal edicts date back to at least the 1800s. These stories – like the mirrored creeks you find here in Montana – flow swiftly and surely, from one generation to the next.

I recently visited the tribe’s reservation in that “big sky” part of the Western United States, where fences don’t obscure the horizon, hawk calls echo between sandstone ridges, the air smells of sage, and where clouds move so fast their shadows look like blue whales swimming across valleys of native prairie grass. I hoped to learn how this American Indian nation has succeeded at ditching coal where so many others have failed.

As world leaders grapple with how to put the brakes on dangerous climate change, I figured the story of this invisible community could offer the rest of us some advice.

But I was surprised by what I found.

This place is full of inspiration, to be sure – home to wonderful, brave people.

Yet it’s also a cautionary tale.

Turns out, you can oppose coal all you want.

But, even in 2015, when the market for coal is crashing and concerns about public health and climate change are on high, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to stop burning it.

Or keep it from burning you.

Carbon budgets

Before I introduce you to some people I met on the reservation, I need to make something clear: The Northern Cheyenne’s war against coal isn’t a local story.

It’s one of global importance.

We have to decide to recognize that.

World leaders are gathering in Paris on November 30 for perhaps the most important climate change negotiations in history. The goal: Stop warming short of 2 degrees Celsius, measured as a temperature increase since the industrial revolution. That’s the danger zone for global warming – when droughts are expected to get even more supercharged, many species are put at increased risk for extinction and low-lying island nations drown beneath rising seas.

Nearly every country has agreed 2 degrees is too much.

But few seem to realize the scale of change required to meet that target.

One way to make sense of it is to look at the “carbon budget,” which refers to the idea that there’s only so much carbon pollution we can put in the atmosphere and still hope to stop warming short of 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

The carbon budget is somewhere around 2,900 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide pollution, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Between the industrial revolution and 2011, we burned about 1,900 billion tonnes – or about two-thirds of the budget, said Kelly Levin, a senior associate at the World Resources Institute.

Her group estimates we could blow the target as soon as 2033.

In other words: We’re frighteningly close to the danger zone.

The scale of action required to avoid disastrous warming is incredible.

In a letter published this year in the journal Nature, Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins devised what they consider to be the most economical way to tighten our purse strings and stay within the carbon budget. Their striking suggestion: The world should leave 88% of its coal, 52% of its natural gas and 35% of its oil unburned.

That’s means most fossil fuel reserves must stay underground.

In the United States, the picture is even starker. McGlade and Ekins say it would be prudent and economically efficient to keep our hands off of 95% of all coal reserves. (That leaves greater latitude to burn natural gas from the United States, which pollutes about half as much as coal. The model only puts 6% of U.S. natural gas off limits, for example. It’s also worth noting that this scenario does not assume widespread use of carbon capture and storage technology. If that technology improves, it could be used to reduce carbon emissions somewhat, but that technology wouldn’t shift these numbers significantly; 92% of U.S. coal still would need to remain unburned).

Take a look at that coal number again.

Ninety-five percent of all U.S. reserves.

Left alone, unburned.

Think about the scale of change required to make that happen.

The coal industry, of course, argues we’re not up to the task.

“Discussions about leaving coal in the ground are, quite simply, not grounded in reality or reason,” Betsy Monseu, CEO of the American Coal Council, wrote in an e-mail. “They effectively ignore the plight of the 1.3 billion people on earth who do not have access to electricity, and nearly double that number who have inadequate access to electricity.”

In the context of what it would take to meet the 2-degree target, the story of the Northern Cheyenne could seem either hopelessly small – or hugely symbolic, and I’m leaning toward the latter. The reservation sits on an estimated 23 billion tons of coal, of which perhaps 5 billion to 6 billion is mineable from the surface, said Alexis Bonogofsky, a 35-year-old climate change activist and goat farmer who lives near Billings, Montana.

The tribe’s land neighbors a proposed coal mine, called Otter Creek, which is projected to hold an additional 1.5 billion tons. Under the analysis published by McGlade and Ekins, the most economical and, in their view, fairest way to meet the 2 degrees target is to leave 245 billion tonnes of U.S. coal unburned. Globally, it’s 887 billion tonnes of the stuff.

So will the tribe move the global needle?

Maybe not.

Is their struggle significant?

Absolutely.

“I look at southeast Montana as sort of the epicenter of energy issues in the country,” said Bonogofsky, the climate activist. “It is a place that holds billions of tons of coal, the most of any place in the country. Twenty-five percent of the United States’ resources are in Montana.

“It is a place that coal companies are looking to, to expand their reserves. And it is a place where people have fought for over 30 years to keep that coal in the ground.”

In other words, it’s a place the rest of us should get to know.

‘Worth fighting for’

Forgive the Trump-ism, but the Northern Cheyenne reservation isn’t exactly the kind of place that’s used to winning. That doesn’t mean they’re losers, of course. (They helped defeat U.S. Lt. Col. George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn, for example). But glance at some of the local nomenclature and you get a sense of the tribe’s underdog psyche.

Main town: Lame Deer, Montana.

Top school: Chief Dull Knife College.

Revered leader: Chief Little Wolf.

Lame Deer, Montana, is home to 2,000 of the Northern Cheyenne Reservation's 4,900 residents.

The names hint at the arc of the tribe’s history, too.

The Northern Cheyenne creation story, for example, as told to me by locals, involves a series of beautiful birds diving to the bottom of the ocean before there was land on Earth.