Sustainable Missoula: Beat the heat without compromising climate goals

Partner groups celebrated summer and shade at the July ribbon cutting for the Bitterroot Trail Shade Shelter. (Courtesy photo)

The stretch of cool, rainy weather in Missoula a few weeks ago now seems like a distant memory after several days with highs above 90 degrees and little relief in sight. Weather patterns may vary from month to month and year to year, but the climate trend is clear: Global temperatures are rising and summers are getting hotter. How do we adapt without making the climate crisis worse? 

At Climate Smart Missoula, we work on a wide range of climate and energy issues. Our primary goal is to reduce our community’s carbon emissions and do our part to solve the climate crisis, but the science confirms that we’re already experiencing the impacts of a changing climate today. 

Recognizing that Missoula was underprepared to deal with our changing summer conditions, we began developing our Summer Smart program shortly after Climate Smart formally launched in 2015, and have continued to grow it each year. We’ve created a repository of accessible and shareable information to help Missoulians weather our changing summers, and engaged partners in efforts to directly help vulnerable groups like seniors, kids and babies. 

For us, adapting to climate change and reducing our carbon footprint (sometimes called climate “mitigation”) are not two separate projects; they’re interconnected approaches that we can leverage to build the resiliency of our entire community. 

Coping with hotter summers is a perfect example of this synergy. Installing air conditioners in every home in Missoula might help us deal with the heat, but the increased energy consumption and gases from refrigerants only worsen climate pollution; plus, many households simply can’t afford a higher energy bill. While air conditioning may be a necessity for some – especially the elderly or those with health difficulties – the reality of the climate crisis requires more creative and forward-thinking solutions. 

Thankfully, those solutions exist, and many are not even high tech. Shade, both through trees and structures, is one way to weather the heat in a climate smart way. Together with Trees for Missoula, MMW Architects, Home ReSource and the city of Missoula’s Parks and Recreation Department, we’ve built two awesome shade shelters from recycled materials to help you stay cool on your outdoor adventures – and hopefully inspire you to build your own shade! You can find these creative, custom-designed shelters on the Kim Williams Trail on the east side of the Higgins Bridge and, the newest, along the Bitterroot Branch Trail at Sixth and Ronan.

Shade shelters are an easy way to beat the heat without using fossil fuels or creating greenhouse gases. (Courtesy photo)

We’ve also been working with Trees for Missoula and the Parks and Rec urban forestry team to plant more trees across our community, especially in areas that could benefit from a more robust tree canopy. And we can’t just plant a tree and forget about it. We need to water our trees and shrubs this time of year. With our healthy aquifer, we can afford to give plants the H20 they love.

Not only are trees one of the best ways to reduce the urban heat island effect, helping counteract the heat-absorbing concrete and asphalt surfaces that cover cities, they are also a powerful climate solution. Recent studies calculating the global carbon reduction potential of trees are a reminder of the potential alignment of climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. 

There’s plenty you can do at home to stay cool while saving energy, too. Planting and caring for trees, shrubs or vines, and installing awnings, blinds or sun screens can all make a tremendous difference when cooling your home. On our website, you can find planting guides and creative shade examples, plus lots more resources for coping with hot days and warm nights: 

Growing and Building Shade

Hotter Days and Warmer Nights

Hotter summers aren’t the only feature of our changing climate here in Missoula. We’re also seeing more smoke as Western wildfire seasons are longer and more intense. In partnership with the Missoula City-County Health Department, St. Patrick Hospital and Missoula Aging Services, we piloted a HEPA filter program to distribute portable air filters to homebound seniors with health issues and have since expanded the program to daycares and other vulnerable populations within our community. 

We’ve also developed a plethora of resources to help people stay healthy during smoky and hot weather. We encourage you to check out all of our resources, including some fun animated videos, online. Our Wildfire Smoke web page is a great place to start, and part two of this column series will focus more specifically on wildfire smoke.

Wildfire smoke and extreme heat aren’t healthy, but they don’t have to be cause for despair. Knowing the basics of how these challenges affect folks differently, and what we can do to reduce those impacts, empowers us to take steps to stay healthy and help those around us do the same. 

As always, it’s important to check on your neighbors and loved ones when it’s hot or smoky. Studies of the 1995 Chicago and 2003 European heat waves found that communities with strong social ties fared much better physically and emotionally. We can’t adapt our way out of the climate crisis, but these lessons remind us that we’re all in this together, and by staying connected we can build a low carbon and resilient community that works for everyone. 

Caroline Lauer is Program Director and Abby Huseth is Outreach Director for Climate Smart Missoula. This column is part of a 2019 weekly Missoula Current series, Sustainable Missoula, which highlights community sustainability efforts.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

August 7-11. Help with Sustainability & Zero Waste at the Western Montana Fair. Support the Fair’s ZERO by FIFTY initiativeSign up to be a volunteer Zero Waste Ambassador.

August 20 & 21. Wildfire Smoke Ready Businesses and Residences. Mini-workshops with Missoula Health Dept and co-sponsored by the Missoula Federal Credit Union. Details here.

August 23-24. Help “green” the annual downtown River City Roots Festival. Volunteers needed for shifts both days – email anna@climatesmartmissoula.org for more info and to sign up.

September 7. Free Cycles Climate Ride. Community cycling event to raise awareness about climate change and benefit Free Cycles’ programs. Different ride lengths available starting at 9am. 

All summer. Join the Logjam Presents Green Team. The Green Team will assist with teaching patrons how to use Zero Waste stations at events. Sign up here.

View more climate and energy events via Climate Smart Missoula’s Calendar.

There are many more conservation events for 2019 HERE.

Sustainable Missoula: Summer Smart helps residents adapt to changing climate