Warning signs and winning solutions
Plus: 2 Dolla Will, Junior and more Montana music.
Welcome to Big Sky Chat House— a newsletter of candid conversations with movers and shakers in Montana.
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Friends, I don’t need to tell you that the winter of 2023-2024 has been a weird one. Snowpack levels remain dramatically low across Montana, the air is wet, the ground is soggy and—a few days of extreme cold aside—temperatures have risen to unseasonable (and in some cases, record-setting) highs. All the while much of our winter recreation industry limps along, and worries mount over the prospect of a brutal wildfire season.
While it’s important to recognize that weather and climate are not the same thing—a strong El Niño pattern is partially responsible for current conditions—this piss-poor winter reflects a much larger trend: as virtually every analysis from across the globe has concluded, the planet is quickly getting warmer, due to the greenhouse gases that we have emitted into the atmosphere. 2024, it should be noted, arrived on the heels of the hottest year on record.
Montanans—including readers of this newsletter—are far from agreement on what these events and data mean. For some of us, they warn of an imminent apocalypse. For others, the prospect of a warming world barely moves the needle; a scare tactic employed by Democratic politicians and clean-energy hucksters.
Yet no matter our personal beliefs, conversations about the environment are bound to come front and center in Montana this year: for one, we will see more projects funded by the Biden Administration’s wide-reaching (and absurdly named) Inflation Reduction Act across Montana, from energy-efficient residential heat pumps to rooftop solar arrays on businesses. We will watch the Held v Montana lawsuit continue to play out. Barring a dramatic reversal, our record-low snowpack could fuel extreme fires. And then, in November, we will vote, for an array of candidates with starkly different approaches to environmental policy.
Lots of people disagree about the best strategy for navigating these uncharted waters, and whether we should focus more on short-term versus longtime solutions. Advocates like Hannah Downey, of the Bozeman-based organization PERC, for example, aim to prioritize forest management today, instead of focusing on future scenarios. When she and I spoke for this newsletter last year, Downey pointed to California's 2020 wildfire season, which erased 16 years of emissions cuts, to help make the case for active forest management. “If we are investing all of this time and money and resources in climate, we need to make sure that one catastrophic event or one catastrophic wildfire season can't wipe that out,” Downey told me. (A separate but not fully dissimilar argument comes from the well-known Danish writer Bjorn Lomborg, who advocates for spending on global issues like the fight against tuberculosis and malaria rather than focusing on climate. Those efforts, he argues, would have a much greater impact on the poorest among us.)
Here in Montana, if we allow the status quo to persist, the results of warming will have myriad and ever-worsening impacts: on our health, our agriculture, our insurance policies, our $6 billion tourist economy. And that won’t just mean shrinking ski seasons, but fewer opportunities for fishing as populations die off and longer, fiercer wildfires that could crush our national parks’ revenue and eliminate countless jobs.
Personally, I believe it’s time to lean in. The incentives to make a change—and in particular, the economic incentives—have never been more abundant. The solutions are already at hand, and they offer opportunity for all of us.
Many of the most promising solutions can save us money. Right now, for instance, solar presents the cheapest source of energy in the United States. Especially as Montanans reel from the singular and audacious fuckery of our Public Service Commission’s recent 28% consumer utility rate hike, prioritizing affordability should come second to none.
The savings aren’t measly, either. Check out this school in Arkansas that raised teacher salaries by $15,000 with the money they saved from switching to solar. “If you’re conservative, we didn’t ask you for more taxes; if you’re liberal, you love the green concept,” Michael Hester, the school superintendent, explained. “It’s a win-win.”
Furthermore, in 2024, Montanans can take advantage of the Inflation Reduction Act to save even more cash: residential solar ain’t cheap, but for now, Montanans can access a 30% rebate. The IRA also offers $8,000 in rebates for home heat pumps. Businesses are already taking advantage of these incentives, and the state’s electricity co-ops can now access tax credits to switch to new energy sources. And with infrastructure projects like the North Plains Connector transmission line becoming operable within the next few years, we should expect to see our supply of renewable energy rise, and costs continue to come down.
In the spirit of Big Sky Chat House, let’s address a couple of good-faith criticisms of these efforts to curb emissions:
First, there’s the argument that renewables carry their own carbon price tags. When I spoke to State Auditor (and current Republican Congressional candidate) Troy Downing, for example, he cited his concerns over wind infrastructure. Downing is right that constructing and operating wind turbines does come with its own carbon footprint, but it’s roughly 1/100 the size of coal’s.
Montanans have also expressed concern that embracing clean energy will kill jobs. Fair enough. Current trends and research, however, show that a growing clean energy sector can help folks working in industries like coal make a transition to new employment.
Lastly, some of you may believe we should just let market forces solve this problem. I hear you. But there’s one major catch: many of the industries that contribute the most to warming don’t have much, if any, market incentive to change course.
The market won’t solve this problem on its own, but I don’t think it’s our enemy, either. America has innovated before, and we can do it again—from “green steel” to smart grids, from “hempcrete” to more affordable electric vehicles. We can reign in global warming without sacrificing our economy, but instead, actually bolster it.
Climate is just one thread I hope to follow this year in Big Sky Chat House on the long road to November’s elections. But I believe it’s one that is central to our politics, our economy and our future. Look out for more questions on this subject (and many more!) in the interviews to come.
What do YOU think? Feel free to leave me a comment, send me an email or buy me a heat pump!
One more thing (or three)…
The hills are alive with the sound of (occasionally abrasive) music! In recent weeks, I’ve had the pleasure to chat with some wonderful Montana musicians and write about new tunes from many more. Here are a few recent clips:
The beloved folk-rock trio Junior dig into the challenges of being spread across several towns in western Montana, their Patsy Cline cover band origin story and more for this Montana Free Press interview.
I can’t believe it! I got to interview the hyper-prolific and out-there Butte rapper 2 Dolla Will, who offered some unexpectedly heavy takes on politics and the shock value of his music. Read his interview here, also part of “The Sit-Down” column in Montana Free Press.
It was a real treat to compile this list of terrific (and terrifically strange) new music from Montana bands—from stoner metal and ambient soundscapes to weirdo pop and experimental folk—for The Pulp.
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.