It’s hard to ignore the realities of climate change, even in a state poetically called the Last Best Place.
While much attention to climate change is directed at the Arctic and rising seas, what is happening in Montana and the interior West, including the vast Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is also troubling. Indeed, more and more the alarm about climate change is being voiced across the country, including in the heartland.
Yet, despite new leadership and initiatives at the national level, state-level action on climate change seems doubtful, especially where politics lean conservative. Montana, for example, recently elected Republicans to control both houses of the legislature and the executive branch. Climate change is not on the state’s legislative agenda.
While the political landscape suggests that not much will get done in the next four years, we have considerable optimism for the future and our ability to effect change.
Soon to be not a glacier in sight? Under climate change glaciers may disappear from Glacier National Park, as described in the Montana Climate Assessment. Here, backcountry in the Belly River drainage in Glacier Park’s northeastern corner. Photo courtesy Scott Bischke
This optimism comes from our experience first with the Montana Climate Assessment (to read it, click here) and now with a suite of climate-related efforts underway in the region. To make progress in red states requires steady pressure on a number of fronts. Here’s some lessons that we’ve learned in advancing climate change efforts in Montana:
Focus on the local
Involve stakeholders from the outset
People are not as skeptical or as indifferent about climate change as one might think, even in red states. Our understanding of this issue in Montana started with a series of listening sessions in advance of the MCA. We asked different groups how they used climate information, what information would they like, and how would they like the information delivered. Their interest in getting information on particular topics helped determined the report’s coverage of water, agriculture, and forests. The listening sessions also revealed a desire for a web-based resource (“something I can get on my phone when I’m out working”). The investment in listening ahead of the assessment and engaging with communities afterwards has helped find common ground on the topic of climate change.
The Climate Change Human Health in Montana report, which came out earlier this year, describes the health hazards—both physical and mental—of smoke and particulate matter to Montanans. Here, the 2020 Bridger Foothills Fire that erupted Labor Day weekend near Bozeman. The blaze faced across the Bridgers and burned 68 structures, 30 of which were homes. Climate change already is increasing wildfire risk for people living in forested exurban areas also known as the wildland-urban interface across the West. Photo courtesy Bruce Maxwell.
Tailor the message to the audience
The roll-out of the Montana Climate Assessment included lively discussions across the state about the impacts of climate change on water, fires, agriculture, health, and wildlife. At each public event, we tailored the climate change information to best address the concerns of the audience. Something as simple as talking about Montana’s changing climate is more palatable than talking about climate change in Montana.
We started conversations by discussing the changes in our lifetimes—that fact that Montana has gotten warmer is something that most natives affirm even if they don’t “believe” in climate change. Areas of simple agreement and shared stories, concerns, and successes have been starting points for discussion.
Eerie traipse through the ghostly remnant of a once-healthy whitebark pine forest in the Mission Mountain Range. The whitebark pine was recently deemed worthy of special protection under the Endangered Species Act as a number of climate-change impacts (extended drought, wildfires, insect and pathogen outbreaks) have converged. This species of pine produces tiny seeds in its cones that are highly nutritious foods for grizzly bears, Clark’s Nutcrackers, red squirrels and other animals. Studies have shown that availability of such seeds has been linked to grizzly bear recovery, Mother bears able to eat a lot of whitebark seeds have been better nourished at a crucial time of year, allowing them to be physically fitter, have successful pregnancies and emerge after long winter dormancy in better condition. Photo courtesy Nick Zeiberg-Kichas
Use information to motivate action
The communities of Missoula, Bozeman, Whitefish, and Helena as well as several of the region’s indigenous tribal communities have independently developed climate action plans that include both adaptation and mitigation. Institutions, like universities and businesses, are developing carbon-free sustainability plans, and NGOs are filling gaps in places where local governments struggle and people live far from services. Climate Smart Montana, a non-partisan non-profit network, shares information and resources to better coordinate community-based climate solutions and resiliency efforts.
The Montana Climate Solutions Plan details actions Montanans can take to fight climate change, including increasing the state’s sources of renewable energy. Here, wind turbines spin near Fairfield. Photo courtesy Scott Bischke
Finally, seize opportunity now
Not every climate change decision is in the hands of state lawmakers. In western states, the federal government has considerable authority in deciding alternative energy sources, funding emergency response, managing river flows, and fighting wildfires. While federal actions incentivize, their ultimate success lies in the hands of local communities. New public-private partnerships in Montana are leading to efforts to improve the quality and quantity of water, improve rangeland conditions, and protect communities from wildfire, all with limited state support. And collaborations with groups in other states expand the possibilities for action.
Right now, for example, we are finishing one of the country’s first regional climate assessments, working with universities, NGOs, and federal and state agencies in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. This collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries would have been unthinkable a few years ago but now seems like the only possible strategy to address climate change in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Four years is a long time to wait for red-state lawmakers to come to grips with the impending threat of climate change, especially when reducing global warming requires immediate action. To reach carbon neutrality by 2050 means that we must explore new technologies and new ways of living, that we have scientific information readily available, that we support action heroes in all sectors of society, and that we seize every opportunity to inform the public and plan for a resilient future. These steps are underway in Montana, as they can and should be in other red states, and they give us hope for the future.
Top: As part of the ongoing, non-partisan Montana Climate Assessment initiative, reports on various aspects of climate change impact have been assembled based on the best available research and documented evidence, interviews with experts and discussions with a wide array of citizens, both rural and urban. The latest report, focussed on the ecological impacts of climate change to Greater Yellowstone, will be released this summer. Photo just above: Cathy Whitlock and Scott Bischke, co-authors of the essay here and key members of a team that has assembled the reports. Photo courtesy Bob Gresswell
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