Climate change whacking Montana hard

By George Ochenski

While Montana’s clueless politicians continue to chant “coal, coal, coal,” the harsh realities of global climate change are coming home to roost in Montana with undeniable impacts. It’s too warm, too soon, with too little snow in the mountains right now and, given that 2016 has continued the record-setting global temperature trend of 2015, it’s clearly past time for the politicians to get off their fossil fuel high horse and start doing what needs to be done to preserve a livable climate for future generations.

In a new report, renowned University of Montana economist Tom Power and his geologist son Donovan took a hard look at what the changing climate means to agriculture, one of Montana’s largest non-governmental economic sectors, estimated to be one-seventh of the state’s economy. The numbers are startling and dwarf the losses in the coal industry on which our leaders seem fixated.

Shorter winters, fewer days with cold temperatures and more summer days with temps above 95 degrees are changing precipitation from slow-melting snowpack to rain — and Montana’s winter wheat crops are feeling it. As Montana Farmers Union member Erik Somerfeld told reporter Tom Lutey, “as far as most of us are concerned, it’s already happening and we’re trying to figure out how to make money with what’s already happening and stay in business.”

Indeed, if Power’s projections are accurate, some 12,167 jobs will be lost as ag production declines. That, combined with drought-induced changes to soil conditions and vegetation, could result in losses of $364 million to the ranching industry and $372 million to farmers for a whopping $736 million loss to the state’s economy annually. To put that in perspective, it would be like draining most of Montana’s Coal Severance Tax Trust Fund in one year. It’s worth keeping in mind that it has taken more than 40 years to build up the Trust to that level and it is considered the backbone of the state’s favorable fiscal rating. To think of that loss year after year dwarfs the much-lamented woes of the fossil fuel industry.

But the pain won’t end there. As we already know, the incidence of river closures due to low flows and high temperatures are becoming the new normal for Montana’s world-famous blue ribbon trout streams. Millions of people come to Montana every year to fish for our wild trout, an exceedingly rare asset since most states in the Lower 48 that contain coldwater fisheries regularly plant hatchery trout in their rivers and manage for “put and take” angling.

Montana’s self-sustaining wild trout rivers are already changing fast. It was unthinkable only a few decades back that warmwater fish like smallmouth bass would be caught in the Yellowstone River near Livingston. Or that northern pike would find their way up the Missouri River almost to Three Forks. Or that the insect biota of the Missouri’s famed Holter Dam to Cascade stretch would see a profound on-going alteration that’s deleterious to highly prized dry fly angling due to species change.

Or how about Glacier National Park’s disappearing glaciers? If the predictions are right, and we see a 4-5 degree average temperature increase in the coming years, the rate of disappearing glaciers will only accelerate and, one might assume, the flow of tourists and their dollars will vanish with the melting icefields that gave the park its name.

Tourism is as important to Montana’s economy as agriculture — and growing. But if the natural attractions that draw 10 million visitors to our state annually fall victim to climate change impacts, the hit to the state’s economy will dwarf the losses from the coal industry.

So why do our leading politicians, Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines, Congressman Ryan Zinke and Gov. Steve Bullock, have such a tough time getting a firm grasp on the obvious? Climate change isn’t a threat that will happen sometime in the future, it’s an ongoing degradation of Montana’s economy that’s taking place right now while the losses and impacts are predicted to accelerate.

There’s not much government can do under our “free market” system when major coal companies go bankrupt. But politicians can and should be proactive on promoting policies that serve the vast majority of the people who elected them. Given the economic importance of the ag and tourism sectors now taking a hit from climate change, it seems clear these policymakers must quit whining about coal’s demise and adjust their priorities immediately — or step aside and let more clear-eyed leaders take their place.

George Ochenski writes political commentaries for the Missoulian newspaper in Montana. He resides in Helena, Montana.