Notebook: Addressing climate change in Missoula presents opportunities, challenges

Depending how closely you follow the local news, you may now realize that the last two months have been something of a whirlwind on the issue of climate change, with city and county government moving swiftly toward action.

Add it up and it’s easy to suggest that those who are seeking to address the issue through policies and plans have, at least in Missoula, achieved critical mass and have moved the conversation from talk to action.

Of course, this is an oversimplification of what’s been years in the making, dating back to around 2009 when the city partnered with the University of Montana and its Environmental Studies Program to complete an emissions inventory of municipal operations.

The county followed suit in 2016 and the findings helped inform a new climate action plan. Just last week, Missoula International Airport also announced its intent to pursue a Voluntary Low Emissions grant to transition to electric ground vehicles and cut jet emissions.

While state leaders from both parties in Helena continue to ignore the issue of climate change, as if they legislate in a bubble, Missoula has stepped up to address the issue locally.

This past week, the city and county came together to pass a resolution to achieve 100 percent renewable electricity in 12 short years. As Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said, “the year 2030 isn’t that far off,” but those who support the premise of the new resolution say there’s little time to waste, and yesterday was probably a better time to start.

“Today and every day after it, we have to take concrete steps that bring us closer to meeting that goal and to creating the world we want to live in,” Skye Borden, state director of Environment Montana, said. “Climate change is an unprecedented challenge, and the solutions we create will have to be bold and innovative enough to match it.”

On Thursday, one day after joining the city in passing the resolution, Missoula County commissioners placed interim zoning regulations on new and existing cyrptocurrency operations, saying they use an egregious amount of energy.

They cited a public emergency in doing so, and the move drew praise from climate activists. But it also sent waves of concern across the business community, with some fearing the new regulations could force certain businesses to close and leave workers unemployed.

The definition of a “large energy consumer” hasn’t yet been defined.

“If you put HyperBlock out of business, I think you’re going to put us out of business,” Steve Nelson, co-owner of the Bonner Mill Site, told commissioners. “I don’t think that’s something I’m very excited about, and I think there’s some people in the community and about 400 employees working out there that wouldn’t be very excited about it either.”

Watching from the sidelines, it seems apparent that chasing a carbon-free future may have interim impacts on the business community as the transition plays out. And that begs the larger question: How do we achieve our clean-energy goals while also ensuring we don’t force businesses to close and employees to lose their jobs while they make the transition?

The impacts of that could be equally great, at least in the near term, but there’s hope in last week’s news. At the end of Thursday’s meeting, where the county passed the emergency zoning regulations, Strohmaier said businesses will have a seat at the table to help chart a path forward.

“I would fully expect that everyone in the room today and folks who feel there wasn’t adequate time to contemplate today’s action, will be at the table to talk about how we can, if necessary, fine-tune this regulation for the long haul,” Strohmaier said. “This is a means to give us some decision space, because we have committed ourselves to some ambitious and bold goals to addressing climate change, and we need to start that process today.”

Even those businesses that may be impacted most by the county’s new regulations voiced support for a clean environment and Missoula’s efforts to cut carbon emissions. And if there’s consensus in that, one would think it’s possible to achieve our goals of 100 percent clean electricity while ensuring our businesses remain open and viable – and welcome.

Add it up and it’s now clear that Missoula is in a state of transition, and last week’s actions may go down in the history books as the point at which this community stepped up to address climate change with something more than words.

It may also provide an opportunity to show we’re still open for business, something that shouldn’t be lost in the process.