Tuesday, October 03, 2023
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Climate Conversation: Take a Drive to Buffalo Bridge

by Jeff Smith and Hannah Hernandez
| September 7, 2023 12:00 AM

If you drive Irvine Flats Road down to Buffalo Bridge, you can see where wildland firefighters stopped the 20,000-acre Niarada fire earlier this month within half-mile of the Flathead River. They stopped another fire, the 13,000-acre Middle Ridge fire, just south of the bridge. Only a strip of irrigated fields separated the two.

Polson lies about three miles upstream in the direction of the prevailing winds. “We were watching them pretty closely,” said a spokesman for Polson Rural Fire. That may be the understatement of the year.

We turned a corner this summer. Climate change is not an eggheads’ theory that might come true someday in the future. It’s here. It’s dangerous. From now on, it’s a question of what ifs. What if there had been a 40-mile-an-hour prevailing wind pushing these two fires? What if they had merged? What if Polson had experienced something like Lahaina, Hawaii, or Denton, Montana?

We bring this up not to induce fear but to acknowledge our new reality, to get us out of our easy chairs to do the right thing for our children and grandchildren. In Montana the children just succeeded in court to prove the link between the burning of coal, oil and gas, our warming temperatures, and the megafires, dying rivers, drought, and extreme weather brought by climate change. It’s time to return the favor and support policies that transition us to clean energy.

Decided on Aug. 14, the Held v Montana decision was the first successful constitutional challenge to the fossil fuels economy that causes climate change. Montana’s Attorney General learned what climate scientists have known for decades: there is no defense for policies that encourage the burning of fossil fuels. We would urge every Montanan to read Judge Kathy Seeley’s findings of fact and conclusions of law, downloadable here: https://www.350montana.org/2023/08/18/judge-seeleys-decision-is-worth-reading/.

Montana youth demonstrated remarkable leadership, insight and bravery, not only in bringing forth this lawsuit but also providing incredibly powerful testimony during a week in court. The plaintiffs presented internationally recognized experts who documented the 166 million tons of CO2 Montana disgorges each year by digging, processing and burning dirty fuels. They used science to link this pollution to its consequences, the hazards that will get worse if we don’t turn off the fossil fuel spigot.

Not only that. Montana youth also cast a bold vision for our locally made clean energy future. They relied on Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University engineering professor, who testified, “The current barriers to implementing renewable energy systems are not technical or economic, but social and political.”

Without rebuttal by Montana’s Attorney General, Jacobson said that it is technically and economically feasible for Montana to replace 80 percent of existing fossil fuel energy by 2030 and 100 percent no later than 2050, but as early as 2035. Doing so not only saves money, some $21 billion, it also creates more jobs.

These children provided a roadmap for the transition of Montana's energy systems. It’s time for us to embrace the responsibility to hold our government accountable to ensuring our youth, our children, our grandchildren, and all children of the future have a “clean and healthy environment.”

The burden is on us, as responsible citizens, to demand legislation, policies, and programs that transition our systems of electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, and industry to non-fossil fuel-based energy. We must seize this incredible opportunity to leave a livable future for our children.

Hannah Hernandez, a recent AmeriCorps volunteer with the Flathead Lakers, is an advocate for the more-than-human world. Jeff Smith is co-chair of 350 Montana.

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