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Climate Conversation: Predictions from the 1990s are coming true

by Jeffrey J. Smith
| February 22, 2024 12:00 AM

Watching the vice-grip of climate change take hold, I’m beginning to understand how our grandparents must have felt in the 1930s as something equally horrible, fascism, took hold in Europe and Asia, and the world slowly marched to a war that would kill 38 million people.

I have kids and grandkids, and I’m increasingly afraid for their future.

I’ve been following climate issues since the mid-1990s when, as a freelance writer, I took a contract to research and write about what scientists were saying was on the horizon in Montana. One thing that jumped out was that Montana would lose its cold-water fishery. I thought, nah, that isn’t going to happen.

Around that time, I caught five different species of Salmonidae, including arctic grayling, on a small stretch of the Big Hole River right by the highway. It was hard not to breathe mayflies, there were so many in the air. How could we lose something as vital as this?

Now, 30 years later, the fish in the Big Hole are in an epic struggle with warm water and dewatering from irrigation. Some think we can mitigate the problems. Others think that, without going to the root of the problem, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, arctic grayling will blink out, then the native cutthroat and bull trout. Behind the scenes, the Big Hole’s recreation economy is poised to collapse.

The second thing that caught my eye back in the 90s was the idea that our fire season would become longer, drier, and more intense. Instead of forest fires becoming more controllable with satellite technology, smokejumpers, and well-trained fire crews, scientists were predicting fires would go the other way. Scientists were saying the warming climate would grow “megafires.” Firefighters would struggle just to save homes in the wildland-urban interface.

Again, we’re watching as this prediction comes true. Fire season is now two months longer than it was in the 1980s. Three years running we’ve seen big fires on both the east and west sides of Flathead Lake. Human costs are increasing in terms of homes and buildings burned, tax-money spent, and lost tourism due to the smoked-out mountains and valleys.

We are on the southern-most edge of an on-going drought that extends all the way through Canada to the arctic. Last summer and fall, Flathead Lake wasn’t the only place with low water. Two-thirds of British Columbia’s water basins were in extreme drought. When fire season hit up north, they destroyed hundreds of homes and buildings. Tens of thousands of Canadians evacuated their towns. The amount of forest burned – 20 million acres – was double the previous record in 2018.

What can we possibly do to slow this train before it wrecks?

I would start by reading Judge Kathy Seeley’s “findings of fact” in her decision last summer in the Held v Montana trial, a successful lawsuit filed by 16 Montana children that found Montana youth have “fundamental constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment, which includes climate.”

Judge Seeley distilled 36 expert depositions, 22 expert reports, and more than 50,000 pages of documents and testimony. Read the decision itself, especially the “findings of fact,” because they present the clearest description of what’s happening to Montana’s climate and what we can do about it.

Austin Knudsen, Montana’s climate-denying Attorney General, was at a loss to refute the facts in the case because there is no defense of climate change. One of Knudsen’s only witnesses, an economist, was lampooned by the judge.

“Dr. Anderson's testimony was not well-supported, contained errors, and was not given weight by the Court,” Judge Seeley wrote. Knudsen has appealed the decision to the Montana Supreme Court.

You can find a PDF of the “findings of fact” at the bottom of this Flathead Beacon article: mtclimatecase.flatheadbeacon.com/judge-rules-in-favor-of-youth-plaintiffs-in-montana-climate-lawsuit/.

Jeffrey J. Smith is a Polson resident and co-chair of 350 Montana, an organization that provides information about climate and climate action in and for Montana.