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An easy way to do something big about climate change
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Missoulian editorial

An easy way to do something big about climate change

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It’s easier than remembering to bring reusable bags to the grocery store.

Less time-consuming than spending an hour outside protesting fossil fuels.

And a heck of a lot less expensive than installing solar panels. In fact, it’s free.

But when it comes to combating climate change, it may be the most meaningful thing Montanans can do to make a difference this year. The Montana Climate Solutions Council has released a relatively concise, easily digestible plan aimed at guiding the state’s strategy into the foreseeable future, and it’s time for the public to weigh in.

So we all should set aside some time between now and the end of March, when the public comment period will close, to peruse the 37-page document and offer some constructive feedback. It is abundantly evident that the global climate is changing, and that this change affects all of us in Montana. The decisions we make now, together as a state, will determine how well we weather the rising challenges.

As the Montana Climate Solutions Plan notes, Montana’s average temperatures are already 3 degrees warmer than they were a just few decades ago. Many farmers are adjusting to a hotter, drier climate by planting different crops. The state is budgeting for longer, more intense wildfire seasons as well as increased flooding due to early spring runoffs. Anyone who has lost a home to floods or fire, or struggled to breathe through a smoke-clogged summer, understands that the costs are more than financial.

And it’s expected to get worse. The Montana Climate Assessment estimates an increase in average temperatures of between 3 and 7 degrees within the next few decades.

Those who want to maintain the status quo will point out that no climate model, based on atmospheric measurements and temperature trends, can predict the future with 100% accuracy. Much hay was made by these folks out of Glacier National Park’s recent removal of signs warning visitors that its famed glaciers would have melted away by 2020. Clearly, that projection proved inaccurate.

But it’s equally clear that the park’s glaciers have in fact shrunk dramatically. It would be foolish to dismiss the abundant and compelling evidence of climate change in Montana just because the direst predictions have not yet come to pass. The Climate Solutions Plan quotes George Box, who said “all models are wrong, but some models are useful.”

Perhaps a bit belatedly recognizing Montana’s need to plan ahead, Gov. Steve Bullock created the Climate Solutions Council last July to study the threats and offer recommendations to mitigate them, from forming new policies to encouraging stronger partnerships across the private, public and nonprofit sectors. The plan released by the council notes that various agencies and communities in the state have launched their own efforts to plan for climate impacts, and that much of this work draws on similar initiatives at the national level.

The preliminary recommendations forwarded by the council include:

• Supporting climate science and sharing information to create a common framework.

• Establishing a climate advisory council that makes use of the expertise within the Montana University System.

• Backing climate-smart land management strategies across ownership boundaries.

• Establishing energy efficiency standards and modernizing building codes.

• Reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

That last point is granted its own dedicated section within the plan, which goes into further detail about the statewide goal of achieving net greenhouse gas neutrality for average annual electric loads by no later than 2035, as well as a goal of eventually achieving net greenhouse gas neutrality economy-wide.

That’s a tough sell in a state still heavily dependent on fossil fuels and locked in debate about moving toward more sustainable energy. In Missoula and Helena, dozens of protesters have made regular appearances outside government offices and NorthWestern Energy buildings, calling for a shift in energy strategy to reduce reliance on CO2-producing sources. However, NorthWestern is instead trying to increase its stake in the coal facilities at Colstrip and encouraging the construction of new natural gas plants. And the all-Republican Montana Public Service Commission, which oversees the state’s largest energy utility, does not seem motivated to force NorthWestern to address what one commissioner called “the so-called ‘climate crisis.’”

Missoula’s city and county government wisely didn’t wait to get the ball rolling on policies to conserve energy, reduce carbon emissions and put together local climate action plans in partnership with the University of Montana and the nonprofit Climate Smart Missoula.

Yet even as communities like Missoula lead the way forward, others in the state are digging in their heels, refusing to plan for a changing climate and preferring instead to deal with emergencies as they arise.

Montana cannot go in different directions on this. The Climate Solutions Council will present a final plan by June. That plan should reflect Montanans’ awareness of climate change and the urgent need to take steps that effectively address it.

Exactly which steps? Answering that is the hard part. Be sure to send your answers by email to ClimateCouncil@mt.gov or regular mail to Montana DEQ c/o Rebecca Harbage/Director's Office, P.O. Box 200901, Helena, MT 59620-0901 by March 31. But first, read through the draft Montana Climate Solutions Plan, available online at deq.mt.gov/Climate.

This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian Editorial Board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Editor Gwen Florio and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen. 

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