What is Montana doing to address climate change: Part 1
Austin Amestoy: Welcome to the Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio where we find out what we can discover together. I'm your host, Austin Amestoy. This is a show about listener-powered reporting. We'll answer questions, big or small, about anything under the Big Sky. By Montanans for Montana, this is The Big Why.
Today we're talking climate with reporter Ellis Juhlin. Hey, Ellis.
Ellis Juhlin Hey, Austin. So today's question comes to us from Cassandra Rideg. She told me she's been following a lot of news about climate change, protests, presidential directives, all kinds of stuff, especially at the national level.
Cassandra Rideg I've heard a lot of hype, but I haven't seen a lot of action.
Ellis Juhlin But when it comes to climate action closer to home.
Cassandra Rideg Well, I actually don't know what the state is doing at all.
Ellis Juhlin So she wanted to know what are some actions the state of Montana and residents are engaged in to combat the climate crisis.
Austin Amestoy Oh, wow. That feels like a beast of a question.
Ellis Juhlin Yeah, no kidding. And for exactly that reason, I'm actually going to do something we haven't done before, and break this question down into three separate Big Why episodes that will release in the months to come. So this is episode one of three where we'll be looking into this question at the state level. In the second and third episodes, we'll zoom in to cities and counties and then focus in even more and look at what individual Montanans are doing to address climate change.
Austin Amestoy That sounds like a good plan to me. So episode one: What's the state up to when it comes to climate change?
Ellis Juhlin So, I'm going to take us to the lawn just outside of the Helena courthouse. For over a week last June, 50 to 100 people gathered here every morning to cheer on a group of kids as they walked into this looming stone building just down the road from the state Capitol. And for seven days, I sat in the courtroom watching as the state of Montana and 16 plaintiffs butted heads over more or less the exact same question Cassandra asked us. The plaintiffs, youth from across Montana, alleged that the state wasn't doing anything to combat climate change and was actively making the situation worse.
Austin Amestoy Oh, right. The Held vs. Montana trial. I remember all your coverage, Ellis, And that trial made headlines across the country.
Ellis Juhlin Exactly. Now, courtrooms aren't quite set up for radio reporters, so I squished into the jury box with my recorder in hand, capturing what I could as the packed audience watched those Montana youth take the stand to talk about how climate change is affecting their lives.
Held plaintiff I continue to struggle every day with, you know, even that my elected officials and branches of government who do have the power to make that difference haven't taken the actions necessary.
Ellis Juhlin They allege that by promoting fossil fuel friendly policies and ignoring things like greenhouse gas emissions, the state was violating their constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment.
Held plaintiff So, it's very concerning knowing that climate change is affecting our seasons, is affecting our plants, and like, things that we eat and need to survive, and ultimately will change who we are, too.
Ellis Juhlin Directly related to our listeners question, Anne Hedges with the Montana Environmental Information Center testified in the trial, alleging that state regulators have never denied permitting for a fossil fuel project on the grounds of environmental impacts like emissions.
Anne Hedges I mean, a majority of Montanans believe in climate change, but you wouldn't know it by your elected officials who are the ones who are making the decisions.
Ellis Juhlin She also told me about how the state has taken steps toward climate action in the past. Under two previous Democratic governors, Montana residents created climate solutions plans and state agencies even teamed up with scientists to create an assessment that breaks down the impacts of climate change in Montana. A couple of years ago, in 2021. All of that work has essentially been shelved at this point. It's not been used for policy change or action since any of those plans were created.
Austin Amestoy Based on the Held trial, it seems clear that a lot of folks are pretty frustrated with what they see as inaction from the state on climate change. What's the state's response to that?
Ellis Juhlin Well, the state basically said that although this is a big problem, it's not the state's fault. They asserted during the Held trial that Montana alone did not create the climate crisis. So, Montana alone can't be responsible for fixing it. They also argued that our emissions as a state aren't big enough to make a difference on a global scale.
I also reached out to the Gianforte Administration on exactly Cassandra's question. They sent me a written statement saying that the climate is indeed changing, but that, "We must focus on American innovation and ingenuity, not costly government mandates to address it." The statement also said by focusing on pro-business policies, the state had attracted a big new solar project near Dillon that will generate enough electricity to power more than 13,000 homes.
Austin Amestoy But the governor's office is just one branch of state government. Ellis You spent the first few months of the year up in Helena covering this year's legislative session. Did lawmakers take any action on climate change there?
Ellis Juhlin Well, Democratic legislators did bring some bills that would have taken steps to reduce emissions, but those all failed in committee. The bills passed by the Legislature were largely pro-fossil-fuels and anti-renewables. We saw new taxes on electric vehicle charging stations and also a slew of laws that block certain forms of climate action we've seen in other states. Things like incentivizing solar panels or banning natural gas. The Republican supermajority also passed legislation blocking state regulators from considering climate change when assessing the environmental impacts of a proposed project. Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick said if greenhouse gases had to be considered as part of the Montana Environmental Policy Act ...
Steve Fitzpatrick It threatens every individual project in the state of Montana. This could be refineries, this could be mines, this could be anybody with an air quality permit, going to go force them to go do a greenhouse gas analysis, and we all know that each individual project is never going to change the temperature of the earth.
Ellis Juhlin All the rhetoric in the Legislature this session is centered around a conflict we see time and time again in environmental issues in Montana. The push and pull between protecting the state's environment and its economy. After all, Montana is the country's fifth largest coal producer. So, many politicians see it as a priority to ensure that industry and the jobs it creates remain viable.
Austin Amestoy And I imagine those arguments played into the Held trial, too. How did the court decide that case?
Ellis Juhlin Well, in the end, the judge sided with the youth plaintiffs. She said the state's carbon emissions are significant. She agreed climate change is negatively affecting many aspects of these kids' lives, and blocked the legislation I mentioned a moment ago saying the state doesn't have to look at greenhouse gas emissions.
Austin Amestoy So when it comes to our listener's question, it sounds like the state of Montana isn't doing a lot to actively combat climate change. But does the Held decision mean the state has to take new steps to act on climate?
Ellis Juhlin Not exactly. First off, the state is appealing the judge's decision, so we'll have to wait and see what happens with that. Also, the judge's ruling was largely, in legal terms, declaratory relief. It did overrule the Montana Environmental Policy Act legislation I mentioned before, but doesn't mandate any specific changes in policy or practice. But there is new climate related stuff in the works.
Austin Amestoy What do you mean?
Ellis Juhlin Well, the Department of Environmental Quality just received a big chunk of federal funding to develop a climate action plan focused on addressing environmental pollution. So, things like greenhouse gases. And that agency also just wrapped up listening sessions on the Montana Environmental Policy Act, taking feedback from the public on the process. Although it's unknown what they're going to do with that information at this point.
All of this doesn't mean that nothing is going on in Montana when it comes to climate change. Like I mentioned earlier, I'm working on two more Big Why episodes to dive deeper into our listener's question.
Austin Amestoy Well, thanks for the deep dive, Ellis. We'll look forward to talking more climate with you in the future.
Ellis Juhlin Of course, thanks for having me.
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