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NASA writer Karin Kirk unpacks MT's youth climate case, Held v. Montana
Plus: DJ Gabba drops a hot disco house set.
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For the past two weeks, climate change has been on trial in the case Held v Montana. The 16 plaintiffs range in age from 5 to 22; they’re suing the state on the grounds that perpetuating fossil-fuel extraction violates their right to a clean and healthful environment as enshrined in the Montana constitution.
As both the trial itself and the conversation around it have demonstrated, Held v. Montana either represents a potential turning point in the global fight against climate change, or nothing more than a stunt.
The first week of the trial largely focused on the plaintiffs’s claims. District Judge Kathy Seeley heard testimony from experts like the internationally recognized scientist Cathy Whitlock, who attested to the compounding effects of climate change. Plaintiffs—represented by the non-profit Oregon-based firm Our Children’s Trust—highlighted the personal and harmful impacts of a changing climate on their lives, from shrinking snowpack to longer and more intense fire seasons and droughts.
On the other hand, the state’s attorneys sought to make the case that climate change is a “global issue” and the state’s emissions, a relatively small piece of that larger problem, are thus inconsequential.
The trial wrapped yesterday, June 20, and a decision is forthcoming.
While the case has received robust attention in the state and national press, the writer and advocate Karin Kirk brings a singular perspective to the conversation.
Karin Kirk has been on the frontlines of climate advocacy in Montana for years. Beyond her work as a ski instructor at Bridger Bowl near Bozeman, she writes regularly for NASA and Yale Climate Connections. Karin also volunteers her time to canvas for political candidates whose views on climate she supports.
Karin and I caught up after the first week of the trial to discuss the plaintiffs’ case and the state’s defense. Read on to learn her prediction for the outcome of the case, why she remains optimistic about our ability to combat climate change and why she believes climate action should be non-partisan.
Before we get into the trial, I’m curious to get a sense of how often you talk to climate change skeptics. What do you hear from them most often?
Karin Kirk: That's a huge, huge question, but it's something that I've done a lot, in a lot of different ways.
I knock on doors to talk to Montana voters about climate and energy at every election. That's really where the rubber hits the road. Those are intimidating face-to-face conversations where I'm in someone else's space, so you better be pretty nimble (laughs).
I do a lot of listening before I say anything to people. I really want to hear about where they're at and their priorities. That will really help fill out who this person is and if they can be motivated at all. You don't want to make yourself too frustrated by doing something that's not gonna go anywhere.
Most often what you hear is the talking points. So you hear, [for example], that making batteries for electric cars is worse than the whole lifetime of a gas tank car. Totally not true. But if you become familiar with those talking points, then it's pretty easy to open the door to a really interesting conversation. Not throw it back in their face, but just use that as a little trailhead, you know, to get into some of what's behind that.
There's conflict everywhere. The rarer thing is to dial it down rather than up. You never want to get in someone's face when you're standing on their front porch.
Have certain elements of the trial surprised you?
It was an order of magnitude different from what I expected. The plaintiffs were amazingly thorough, and all the experts, and every testimony they had was accompanied by amazing slides. It was very much step-by-step, building this incredible case.
I felt the opposite with the state. The state’s [opening statement] was less than four minutes. And it was basically like, nah, Montana, we don't really count for anything. We're spectators. Our emissions are minuscule. And I was like, wait, that's it? That's your opening statement? I could not believe it. And then that same theme just continued through the week.
So the state’s attorneys basically argued that climate change is a global problem, and thus that eliminating Montana’s emissions won’t fix the larger crisis. How do you, speaking personally, counter that claim?
That is the crux. Montana's argument here is like, we're just not that big, so why bother doing anything? But that means every other state could make the same argument, [or] blame China. And China's gonna be like, well, this coal plant isn't making much of a difference, either.
The US is doing the same thing. We're approving new oil and gas projects, and that is exactly what you hear: Oh, well, this one alone doesn't really do much. And Montana uses that same reasoning for every coal mine and every power plant. That logic has failed.
You can also just take the numbers. Montana's numbers are not insignificant. We have so much coal and we're trying every profitable way to burn it, move it, transport it, export it. We're trying to do everything we can to use the most polluting fuel on earth. That counts for a lot.
The last thing I'll say is, it doesn't have to be this way. Montana has so many options.
What’s your response to the claim, made by Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, and others, that the trial is a publicity stunt?
That's very clearly their attempt to dismiss the whole thing to make everybody look the other way and not worry about it. They're just trying to take the wind out of the sails of what's going on. And you saw very uniform messaging on that; they were just trying to make it seem unimportant.
I am curious what you think about the optics of two of the plaintiffs, brothers Badge and Lander Busse, being children of Ryan Busse, who is a public figure, and a pretty explicitly partisan one at that.
I might want to pass on that.
I don't feel like I am a political person. I'm an issue motivated person. I love science, I love Montana and its environment, and I really love the data. I really love to see the jobs numbers and the money we could make.
Montana has such great prospects. I'm an incredible optimist. I want to see that future play out. So that puts me more in line with the Democrat side than the Republican side.
When I first did this research about people who changed their minds on climate change, what I was hoping to find was people who were just regular Republicans that stayed as regular Republicans, but changed their mind on climate change. I did not find anyone like that. The people that changed their mind, they left the Republican Party. That's terrible. I want climate change and clean energy to encompass everybody. I don't want it to be so political.
My best hope for Montana politically is [being] purple. Purple means everybody has to freaking work together and that's the absolute best outcome.
It’s how we've been for a long time. I think it keeps everyone engaged. I hope we can get back to that.
Peering into the crystal ball, what do you think the outcome of this trial will be?
I'm feeling amazed by what I saw. I don't want to predict the ruling, but I will say I feel optimistic. I think the initial ruling from District Court Judge Kathy Seeley will reverberate around the world.
It's one of the first times that climate change has truly been on trial. It's going to have momentum that’s bigger than whatever Montana does with this particular case.
It was a master class. And it’s not hard to replicate. We can do that again. We can do it in every state. They were the first ones to sort of walk this path. And it's always hard to be the first ones.
Did you hear that the state's main witness won't be testifying? That feeds my optimism a lot. Dr. Judith Curry is a very well known scientist who does not agree with almost everybody else in her field; she [believes] that natural variability is making climate change more than human impact.
Especially since the fires and smoke that hit the East Coast earlier this month, there’s been lots of talk—often, but not exclusively—from folks on the political right, that forest thinning and fire suppression are effective ways to reduce wildfire intensity. Is there data that substantiates that claim? Do you think it's an attempt to move the focus away from our contribution to climate change?
My take is that the answer to both of your questions is yes. Forest management has a lot to do with it. Human-caused climate change has a lot to do with it. It's my favorite kind of situation because everyone's right.
They're both important, but climate change is the bigger of the two factors. With climate change, we get more [weather and conditions that are conducive to fires]. The part of the summer that's like that starts sooner and ends later. That's the biggest driver of these huge fires.
A lot of [forest management] is just the suppression of fires that we started years ago. That did a lot of damage. We're kind of in arrears from that. Then the thing you see, well because of that, [some people believe that] means we should just really get after it with logging and stuff like that. I’m not so sure.
It's not clear because I'm seeing from some of the stuff I'm reading that even in these very managed spaces, they're still having enormous fires. But I quickly get outside my expertise there.
It would be so lovely if just a little bit of forest management would end this, but there's obviously no way.
Lastly, do you think there will be a tipping point in terms of the momentum for widespread change towards fighting climate change?
I have a really good answer to that: it has already happened.
It doesn't feel like it necessarily, but the solutions, the switch away from fossil fuels, the foundation of that has happened. No project of any kind gets built without financing and some sort of insurance behind it. Those two industries have radically switched. Not to say that we won't build a couple more coal plants or whatever. But those industries are the bellwethers and they are apolitical. They are just money people. And they're like, these are bad bets. So we're switching. That started happening a couple years ago.
So then what happens next is you see the infrastructure coming along faster and faster. American public policy right now on modern energy is really some of the world's best public policy. Now that's accelerating things. Stuff's moving.
In every forecast for how many EVs and how many wind turbines and all that, they're undershooting it every time. The world is outperforming expectations every time, every quarter, every year. It's just amazing. And that just happened I'd say a couple years ago.
The caveat to that is we started too late and we still have to do what everything we're doing even faster. But the momentum has finally flipped, on pretty much every level.
So when Montana says we're a spectator, it's like, yes we are. Because South Dakota is kicking our asses on wind energy and wind jobs. We should get going, you know, and participate in American energy because it's changing and Montana isn't. That's where we're missing out.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Montana Song of the Week
Gabba - Disco House Set
Calling all party people and fans of exercise music: You don’t want to miss out on this recent mash-up set from DJ Gabba, a member of the funky group PARTYGOERS, from the Badlander in Missoula.
Playful, high energy and full of nuance, it includes remixes of tracks ranging from Tyler the Creator’s “DOGTOOTH” to Will Smith’s “Miami.” Bon appetit.
Thanks so much for being here. In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.
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