Focus on climate change: Missoula leaders back the science, push for change

Platforms of broken ice reveal the dark blue waters between Hudson Bay and the Labrador Sea in November. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

This is the first in a four-day series on climate change in Montana, and what state, local and private officials are doing to address it. The Missoula Current will focus on climate change throughout 2019.

It wasn’t long ago that Missoula Mayor John Engen heard a news report on global warming, and it offered “very little good news.” Last year was the planet’s fourth-hottest year on record, with the four hottest years taking place each year since 2015.

If any good news could be found in the report, it came from the efforts underway in hundreds of cities across the U.S. Unlike the federal government, the cities take climate change seriously and are adopting steps to address it.

Count Missoula as one of them, though Engen believes more can be done.

“A big piece of it today is really about capacity,” Engen said. “Our climate team is swimming as fast as it can, but we have some really good foundational work done, not only in terms of our inventory, but our action plan around climate. We’re trying to be opportunistic as well.”

Those opportunistic steps to cut carbon emissions and capture greenhouse gases can be readily found at the city’s wastewater treatment plant, where nutrient-rich water is diverted from the river to grow 160 acres of hybrid poplar trees for wood production.

Biosolids and green waste collected from across the city are composted and resold on the commercial market. The treatment plant itself captures biogas to generate 25 percent of its own electricity, a renewable source that lessens the city’s dependence on fossil fuels.

“About (25) percent of our power comes from the renewable that is the methane that’s a product of treating the water, and that’s a big deal,” Engen said. “We think there’s an opportunity for solar out there as well, and we’ve been having conversations with some vendors about that and what that looks like.”

After President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, mayors, governors and business leaders across the country joined the “We Are Still In” declaration, promising that America would not abandon the global effort to reduce emissions and address climate change.

To date, 281 cities and counties have made the commitment, along with 2,100 businesses and investor groups, nine tribes, 10 states ad 41 faith groups. The Missoula City Council signed the pledge in 2017, citing the “scientific consensus regarding the reality of climate change.”

“There’s nothing about our community that doesn’t depend upon the essential elements of life,” Engen said. “Climate change is about clean water, it’s about clean air, and it’s about the landscape, our ability to support wildlife and our ability to recreate. All of it ties to the condition of the planet. As the condition of the planet deteriorates, we follow closely behind.”

Despite Missoula’s progress, the City Council didn’t fund several requests aimed at climate change when writing its 2019 fiscal year budget. The unfilled requests included an energy conservation program specialist at $52,000, and a climate action development and implementation strategy at $35,000.

But Chase Jones, the city’s energy conservation coordinator, wasn’t deterred by the unfunded requests. Six months removed from the budgeting session, he said the city remains committed to the Paris Accord and the goals outlined in Missoula’s own Energy Conservation and Climate Action Plan.

“One thing we do really well in the city is collaborate with our partners,” said Jones. “When we reach one barrier or dead end, we don’t sit around and be sad about. We roll up our sleeves and find other ways to get it done.”

“The science tells us it’s happening, humans are part of the reason it’s happening, and it poses some real threats to our quality of life and perhaps, our entire existence,” Chase Jones said of climate change. “I feel it’s one of the most important issues to address.”

The city formed a partnership in 2009 with the University of Montana and its Environmental Studies Program to complete an emissions inventory of municipal operations. The results, gathered from data in 2008, were eye opening: The city emitted more than 8,600 metric tons of CO2 equivalents per year – and that was a decade ago.

An emissions inventory followed in 2014 and found Missoula had cut its CO2 output 0.2 percent below the 2008 figures. But the more the city grows, the harder it will be to get below that old baseline.

“We’re making progress in energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy,” Jones said. “Those are where we can really make an impact. The third is our transportation fleet for the services we provide. We’re working on all those fronts.”

In that 2009 study, researchers found the city’s fleet of vehicles accounted for 15 percent of the city’s total carbon emissions. In 2014, the fleet consumed nearly 109,000 gallons of gasoline and recorded 1.7 million road miles.

That same year, the city used more than 2 million kilowatt hours of electricity to power its street lights and traffic signals.

More recent figures suggest the city has reduced emissions by limiting the number of employees who commute by car, and by upgrading to more efficient lighting.

Jones said an energy performance contract is forthcoming and will offer energy-saving recommendations the city could choose to deploy. The cost of the chosen tools would be recaptured through future energy savings.

“It will audit the buildings and fleet and operations, and it will determine a savings, and the savings is guaranteed,” Jones said. “It really mitigates risk and it allows us to invest in these greenhouse gas-reducing methods and save money.”

Jones said he believes in the science behind climate change, and believes Missoula has a responsibility to do its part.

“The science tells us it’s happening, humans are part of the reason it’s happening, and it poses some real threats to our quality of life and perhaps, our entire existence,” he said. “I feel it’s one of the most important issues to address.”

The city isn’t alone in fighting climate change. Missoula County also has ramped up its efforts by working with Energy Corps volunteers and hiring an energy conservation and sustainability coordinator.

An inventory of emissions generated by county government was conducted by Energy Corps volunteers in 2016, and the findings will inform a climate action plan at Missoula County. While the county is slightly behind efforts at the city, Commissioner Dave Strohmaier believes it is taking the appropriate steps to address climate change.

“In contrast with some of my other local government colleagues across the state or others in higher office, I believe climate change is real and happening right now and of urgent necessity to address,” Strohmaier said. “We’re poised to take the next step, which is something the city has already done.”

Strohmaier, an ardent believer in the science behind climate change, doesn’t dispute the facts. Last year’s average planetary temperature of 58.93 degrees Fahrenheit made it the fourth warmest year since accurate record keeping began in 1850. Three hotter years have taken place, those being 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Along with Climate Smart Missoula, the city and county have joined forces to write a climate resiliency plan, something of a guard against what’s coming. While it remains a work in progress, it will look at both the risks posed by climate change, such as longer fire seasons and spring flooding, and propose tools that could mitigate those risks.

“Whether we like it or not, we’ve screwed things up enough with our atmosphere on this planet that climate change is happening, and even if we do our best to curb our carbon footprint locally, we’re still going to see degradation likely in terms of increasing global temperatures,” he said. “There will be changes we see locally that will impact us.”

While the wastewater treatment plant may serve as a large consumer of energy in the city, the cryptocurrency facility in Bonner may stand among the largest in the county.

Recently, the county declined to adopt an emergency ordinance capping any future expansion of the facility. Rather, it’s now spreading the net a little wider by considering tools to address energy consumption in general across Missoula County, public or private.

“These cryptocurrency mining operations use an obscene amount of energy,” Strohmaier said. “We’re looking at what tools are available from a regulatory standpoint, including zoning, to address energy consumption in Missoula County and address energy conservation. I think we’re on the cutting edge in the state of Montana at the local government level in looking at that.”

Look for these stories in the days ahead and follow any hyperlinks to stories you may have missed:

Monday: City and county leaders in Missoula firmly believe in the science behind climate change but admit there are financial restrictions on what can be done to address it. What are they doing now? What’s planned?

Tuesday: Although cities like Missoula are doing what they can to fight climate change, it’s not enough to keep the climate from warming past a critical point. That requires a massive worldwide effort, according to two University of Montana teachers.

Wednesday: Montana state employees can be hesitant to mention climate change in a state where some still brand it a liberal myth. But the Fire and Aviation Bureau at the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is now planning for climate change.

Thursday: Does the University of Montana’s new president believe in climate change? Many of the students on campus do, and they’re busy doing what they can to make small changes as they consider one of the biggest threats to their generation.

Planet Earth: Last four years hottest on record