For the past few weeks, reporters from Montana Public Radio and Montana PBS, along with students in the journalism school at the University of Montana, have been talking to Montanans about climate change. The interviews – and a lot of research – culminated this past week in a “Climate Week” series of programs that aired on public radio and television, and were posted online.
We talked to farmers and foresters, scientists and anglers, teachers and tradespeople. The conversations were enlightening, frightening – and hopeful.
The fact is, our climate is changing. University of Montana Regents Professor of Ecology Dr. Steve Running has the specifics from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report.
“The global air temperature of the last decade is the highest on record,” said Running. “Arctic sea ice… in 2012 was an all-time record low. Carbon emissions are still accelerating. All the regular measures are continuing on the same trajectory we’ve seen for the last decade.”
That’s globally. The evidence of our warming climate in Montana is also clearly measurable.
“Our winter is getting milder and shorter,” said Running. “It’s getting rare for Missoula to have a winter night below 0. … Our snowpack is melting about two weeks earlier than 50 years ago, and that then stretches out the summer season, the wildfire season … and our August streamflows are 20 to 30 percent lower than they were 50 years ago.”
These are problematic changes for people who make their living off the land, and for land managers. Laurie Yung is an associate professor of natural resource social science at UM. She says public land managers are struggling to keep up.
“A lot of our environmental policy is based on the assumption that our ecosystems are fairly stable and predictable,” said Yung. “But with climate change, we know that our ecosystems are changing … and that means our public land management agencies have to become more adaptable and flexible. They have to be nimble in ways that are challenging for big bureaucracies.”
And then there’s the general public response – which could be described, at best, as lethargic. Dr. Steven Schwarze is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Communications Studies at UM. He says public discussion of climate change has stalled.
“I think that reflects partly some of the difficulties of addressing an issue that can be hard for people to grasp,” said Schwarze. “It also reflects the difficulty of addressing an issue that’s become very polarized. ... If you have a political system that’s not engaging these issues, you have people saying ‘Why should I?’ ”
Here’s why. The next generation of Montanans, and especially their children, will face a much more challenging world if this generation does nothing. Professor Running says if we continue on the emissions path the world is on right now, by the end of the century Montana will be a significantly different place.
“We will have only a month or two of mountain snowpack, probably almost no snowpack in the valleys,” Running said. “We will have milder temperatures and longer summers. Since we’re also not seeing any increase in precipitation, those facts result also in a more arid landscape, kind of a Utah-sort of landscape.”
Other states could be even worse off, prompting what professor Jung calls “climate refugees” who may seek relief in Montana.
“That will obviously strain infrastructure and provide its own set of challenges,” said Yung. “Socially we’ll be challenged by the strains on our communities.”
Professor Schwarze says the effects of the environmental changes could alter Montana’s very culture and identity.
“These kind of natural threats also pose threats to some of our cherished traditions, habits, ways of life – whether that’s with work or recreation,” said Schwarze. “And so I think it could potentially force us to really think what it means to be a Montanan and to live a Montana life.”
But what if we do respond to the challenges of climate change? Professor Yung argues the changes could become opportunities.
“If we do respond to climate change … we end up with a landscape that is producing renewable energy,” said Yung. “We end up with a place where you can hop on a train in Bozeman or Helena or Missoula, and head down to Denver or Seattle. … We have farmers and ranchers that have efficient water systems… [and] enough water in our streams for trout and outfitters and anglers, energy efficient homes and lower energy bills – and a lot of benefits.”
But first we have to have the serious, ongoing conversation. That’s what we hope our Climate Week series sparked.
Because much as we like Utah, we like Montana best.
Sally Mauk is news director at KUFM, Montana Public Radio, at the University of Montana in Missoula. She writes a biweekly column for the Missoulian.