Sustainable Missoula: Climate Ready plan just the beginning of needed changes

On May 18, the Missoula Board of County Commissioners and the Missoula City Council held a joint meeting to adopt the Climate Ready Missoula plan as a formal addition to the county and city growth policies.

Climate Ready Missoula’s adoption was the culmination of nearly two years of work by a dedicated steering committee with input from hundreds of Missoula County residents, businesses and organizations. The joint leadership from Missoula County, the City of Missoula and Climate Smart Missoula is a stellar example of public-private partnerships and their ability to tackle difficult problems. The climate crisis is daunting, but if this planning process is any indication, our community has the commitment, expertise, and creativity to take it on.

Climate Ready Missoula was developed to build our resiliency in the face of climate change, but the need for community resiliency has come into even sharper focus with the arrival of the public health crisis we are currently facing: COVID-19. As we write this, we are focused on protecting all citizens, especially the most vulnerable among us, from the health and economic impacts related to the virus. But this doesn’t mean we have lost sight of the urgency of addressing the climate crisis. Moreover, the two crises are likely to intersect in complex ways.

For example, Missoula County’s health and emergency response systems are currently working at full capacity to respond to COVID-19 and are doing an incredible job. As the Climate Ready Missoula plan describes, we can expect increasing pressure on our emergency responders, public health professionals, and healthcare providers in the coming years due to more frequent flooding and longer wildfire (and wildfire smoke) seasons associated with climate change. In the very near term, we may face these crises while COVID-19 continues to loom large.

The combination of the virus and wildfire smoke is a particularly worrying possibility. Climate Ready Missoula details the range of negative health outcomes associated with wildfire smoke, including respiratory and cardiovascular disease, the presence of which complicates recovery from COVID-19. Recent studies have shown that COVID-19 patients who live in regions with poor air quality have higher death rates. The Climate Ready Missoula plan includes strategies to provide clean indoor air during periods of wildfire smoke; these strategies will be prioritized and accelerated in the context of COVID-19.

These are dark days, but there are also reasons for hope. For example, economic stimulus programs will be necessary to restart the economy following COVID-19, and there are tremendous opportunities for such programs to help build local resiliency through job-creating investments in energy efficiency retrofits, green infrastructure, public transit, clean energy, and other strategies identified in the Climate Ready Missoula plan. Such investments would rebuild our economy from the ravages of the current crisis while building our resiliency for the future.

The long-term implications of the current crisis are still unknown. However, several lessons are beginning to emerge that can inform the implementation of the Climate Ready Missoula plan.

1) Social Solidarity. COVID-19 shines a bright light on our interconnectedness. The only way to slow the virus’s spread is for all of us to do our part to comply with social distancing guidelines (or, as it’s sometimes termed, “physical distancing for social solidarity”). We depend on one another. That’s true within our community, and it’s also true at a global scale. And it applies equally to the climate crisis.

2) Equity. Both COVID-19 and climate change disproportionately impact the most vulnerable among us. In the immediate term, we have an obligation to help those who need it most. In the longer-term, the more equitable our community, the more resilient we will be.

3) Science. COVID-19 is a stark reminder that when scientists warn of an impending crisis, we should take heed. As the first sentence of the Climate Ready Missoula plan states, “There is overwhelming scientific consensus that our climate is changing, and that urgent action is required to avert a potentially catastrophic outcome.” Denying science is a poor survival strategy.

4) Resolve. A few months ago, the concept of closing all schools and nonessential businesses would have been unthinkable, but the actions taken to address COVID-19 have shown us that we have the ability as a society to step up when a crisis demands it. We must bring this level of resolve to addressing the climate crisis as well.

5) Urgency. In the case of COVID-19, it appears that the earlier social distancing measures are enacted in a community, the more lives can be saved. Wait too long to act, and the crisis spirals out of control. The same is true of climate change. The longer we wait, the more overwhelming the problem becomes and the more difficult and expensive it will be to address it.

When we started the Climate Ready Missoula planning process, we could not have imagined the current circumstances. But we’re under no illusion that COVID-19 will be the last unexpected crisis we will face as a community. That’s why one of the guiding principles of the Climate Ready Missoula plan is “innovate and adapt,” including “build capacity to respond to the unexpected.” In the end, perhaps, there’s never been a better time to adopt and implement Climate Ready Missoula. The need to build our resiliency has never been clearer. Together, we can do this.

Josh Slotnick, David Strohmaier, and Juanita Vero are Missoula County Commissioners, John Engen is Missoula’s Mayor, and Bryan von Lossberg and Heather Harp are Missoula City Council members. This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every week by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Sustainability Happenings

As COVID-19 has postponed or cancelled many community events, some have moved on-line or found creative outlets. Here we offer ideas about sustainable ways to stay involved in our community and a handful of compelling readings. If you like these offerings, consider signing up for Climate Smart’s eNewsletter here. And sign up for Home ReSource’s eNews via their homepage here.

May is still Bicycle Month. Choose sustainable transportation!

May 23. Start of farmer’s market season! The markets will look different this year to protect public health, but both the Missoula Farmer’s Market (at the XXXXs) and the Clark Fork Market will have online ordering for pickup at the market available throughout the season. Check their websites for more details. CFAC also has a great list of local food resources for consumers.

Through May 27. Share your ideas for Downtown Missoula – comment on North Riverside Parks & Trails Master Plan. The City recently released the latest Master Plan for parks and trails on the north side of downtown, and they’ve got a super user-friendly new platform that makes it easy to share your feedback. View short videos illustrating the new plans, then take two quick 3 minute surveys. Covid-19 has demonstrated how investing in a more robust, accessible park and trail system is more important than ever as our outdoor spaces are essential for mental and physical health! You can review the plan and take the short survey here.

Missoulaevents.net has many virtual activities listed – they’re stepping up to help us all stay engaged.

What we’re reading (and listening to) this week: