Major forest fires have become the norm, draining state budgets and making the summer air dangerous. The winter snowpack we depend on for water is dropping every year. We’re seeing fewer pollinators like bees and more pests and disease like the pine beetle. Drought is on the rise. We’re seeing more very hot days every year. Outside our state, global changes are putting our food supply at risk. Soon many people on coastlines will be looking for safer shelter in places like Bozeman1.
Yet Montana has a D-, one of the lowest grades of all 50 states in preparedness for extreme weather, drought, and fire2. Our local economy is overly dependent on tourism, which could fall in the wake of extreme conditions. We’re already struggling with growth–how will we be ready for an even bigger influx?
We’ve always had droughts and wildfires, but extremes in our climate mean that everything is more fragile. We can know how vulnerable we are, but still not be able to predict exactly when and where crises will hit. Most of the talk now is about limiting the number of people in certain places. But as more come fleeing worse conditions elsewhere, that kind of thinking will fail. We have to do more.
The big idea
What if we decided that every development, every piece of infrastructure, and every land management policy should improve our natural environment as more people interact with it. Nature works in cycles, so that the life of one thing helps create the life of the next. We need to do the same with the things we build, make, and take.
Things you should know
- By 2050, our new climate reality will cut jobs in Montana’s outdoor economy by 85%! That’s $1 billion every year in lost wages3. A full half of Bozeman’s regional economy depends on these jobs4.
- Angling is expected to be cut by a full 1/3, and big game hunting by 15%5.
- Extreme weather alone cost Montana $11 billion in the decade from 2007-2016 6.
- 60,000 homes in Montana are at high risk of loss to fire by 2050, at a cost of $18.4 billion7.
- By 2050, we’re expected to spend $260 million a year fighting wildfires alone. That’s double what we spend now8.
- 26,000 Montanans are highly vulnerable to heat waves, and we’re about to get 15-30 more days of them a year9.
- In the next 30 years, drought in Montana is expected to be more severe than it was anywhere in the country from 1950-200010.
- Bozeman’s reliable water supplies can only support 66,000 people, which we’re expected to hit in 10 years11.
9 ways we can cut our impact and prepare for an uncertain future
1. Create a top-level Stewardship Department at the city that tracks well-being for humans and nature, maintains emergency preparedness plans, and ensures all policy is in line with both.
Other cities are already tracking their work in preparedness, and sharing that data and what they’ve learned. Bozeman is already collecting important data and doing valuable assessments, but they’re often scattered across departments or relegated to one-time projects. A Stewardship Department would make sure local government is being held accountable all the time, and give the city and our citizens a dashboard for progress.
2. Set higher standards for new buildings that make healthy, green, resilient neighborhoods.
With heat waves, wildfires, and drought on the rise, better-built homes aren’t just a preference, they’re a necessity. We can make our new neighborhoods beautiful, nearly energy independent, and pay for it sensibly. Even in a cold climate like Bozeman, homes built to use nearly zero net energy could be paid off by the time most people move out12. Greater canopy cover and drought-resistant landscapes provide better fire protection and use little to no water, compared to traditional lawns and open spaces.
3. Expand and develop joint adaption plans for wildfire, drought, and extreme heat.
While we hope for the best, chances are high that our town will test its ability to survive in the coming decades. Bozeman and its surrounding wild spaces are under serious threat from expected increases in wildfire, heat, and drought severity. We could see sudden evacuations, loss of homes and property, smoke and air pollution that’s deadly for those with respiratory problems, or permanent evacuation due to water loss. We need work with county, surrounding towns, and state and federal agencies, to expand our adaptation plans beyond local government facilities to include the entire ecosystem. How are we planning today for the worst tomorrow?
4. Partner with Northwestern Energy to build pilot projects that test if and how we can use new energy technology all year round.
We won’t get by waiting for the utility company, the state legislature, or the Public Service Commission to get the job done on an energy transition. And net-metering will never be enough: it’s only practical for the few who can afford it, and our grid infrastructure needs to change to make efforts scale. Instead of waiting, we can work to green-light small pilot projects now to find out what’s possible right at home.
5. Set smarter water pricing and usage limits to cut the biggest sources of waste and keep everyday use affordable.
The City has a practical limit on development based on available supply and rights, but when we reach the number in 10 years or so, it will bring new serious problems. Home prices will rise due to halted development, pushing it into the county and straining the water basin. We’ll be at constant risk that climate extremes will reduce reliable supply, causing seasonal or permanent shortages. We can choose between comfortable proactive changes now and emergency rationing later. This includes zoning around wetlands areas, changes to code that improve water use and cycling, and much higher prices for high use.
6. Give bike lanes the policy right-of-way.
Biking is one of the best ways to get around and enjoy the trip, especially in the kinds of beautiful, cozy neighborhoods we want to see all over town. But cyclists in Bozeman have too few dedicated paths where they aren’t in danger. Adding new lanes to busy streets often increases traffic, not to mention noise, pollution, and danger. Further, large roads are extremely expensive to build and maintain (over $15 million for the 1.3 mile Kagy expansion, for example). That money should go to a thriving trails and transit system.
7. Go energy independent by 2029.
In 2004, Aspen, CO set a mandate to use 100% renewables by 2015. It succeeded. Local renewable energy combined with smart microgrid technology will make us less vulnerable to disasters here and elsewhere, and reduce our overall usage without changing habits. The technology is there, but incentives won’t be enough. We have to set an ambitious goal, codify it, and stick to it.
8. Expand historic preservation.
New construction can take decades to offset the impact of construction, even for highly efficient buildings13. Older buildings generate less carbon and keep our neighborhoods full of character. Let’s avoid demolition and rebuilding wherever we can.
9. Build a beautiful, reliable transit system that makes it easy to leave the car at home.
Transportation is the largest source of carbon emissions in Bozeman 14. Too much car use clogs roads, creates more need for parking instead of development or green spaces, and causes noise and air pollution. It also disproportionately hurts the working class–a typical family spends $9,000 a year on transportation here!15–who could easily lose a job over car repairs. Transit systems done right save lives, cut costs overall, and make for a cleaner, more beautiful city.
The best answer is a rapidtransit bus system that rivals driving in 1) reliability, 2) convenience, and 3) comfortability. A parent could go to the grocery store with her kids in winter, have a place to stow the groceries, have warm, comfortable seats for the family, and pay nothing when they use it. An elderly person with mobility issues could rely on a bus stop close to home, rather than needing special transport. And commuters could enjoy a stress-free dedicated highway lane to Belgrade, catching up on the news instead of driving. Such a bus system would be expensive up front, but could be paid back through cost savings in road construction and maintenance.References
- For more see the MT Climate Assessment Report
- See the Preparedness Report Card from Climate Central
- See a study done by an economist and geoscientist about the Economic Impact of Climate Change in Montana
- From an economic analysis publish in National Geographic’s May 2016 issue
- See above note.
- You can see a map comparing $1 billion+ extreme weather events in every state here
- See the Impact of Climate Change study above
- See above
- See the States at Risk Montana summary
- See the above Drought analysis here.
- From the City of Bozeman’s Integrated Water Resources Plan Update
- From a report by the Rocky Mountain Institute
- See this study from the Preservation Green Lab
- 42%, from the 2017 City Greenhouse Gas Emissions report
- From the 2017 Bureau of Labor Consumer Expenditure Survey, referenced in MIT’s Living Wage model