From the Front Lines #1: Missoula's Community Power

Climate change is not a singular problem; the phenomena that collectively make up this buzzword are many and diverse. Because our changing climate presents us with so many different challenges, it follows that there is not one single “silver bullet” solution, but instead many various solutions that will have to be employed in tandem. It’s challenging to even attempt to narrow down singular “solutions," strategies or focuses, as there are so many angles we can take in attempt to ensure a safe, stable climate and a livable planet for ourselves and future generations. We can’t solve the climate crisis exclusively by transitioning to renewable energy systems or by only fixing our agricultural system and food waste problems - this much I'm sure we can agree upon, but then where do we begin? This can all be very confusing – you’ve probably noticed that it’s difficult to talk about climate change in constructive ways, even when speaking with people who share your opinions. It’s my opinion that the way we communicate about climate change is one of the biggest stumbling blocks on the road to addressing it. Maybe that's a good place to start. 

 The Clark Fork in Missoula, MT

The Clark Fork in Missoula, MT

There are folks in Missoula, Montana who seem to share this opinion, as they are working to get the members of their community on the same page on climate initiatives. One shining example is Dr. Nicky Phear, who directs the Climate Change Studies program within the College of Forestry and Conservation at Missoula’s University of Montana campus. When I reached Roger’s Pass, MT, roughly 300 miles into my hike, I hitched a ride down into Lincoln, Montana (famous for being the area in which Ted Kaczinsky, aka the Unabomber, hid from the authorities). In Lincoln, I met up with Nicky, who was kind enough to not only take me down into Missoula, but also to put me up for a couple nights in her home.

 Dr. Nicky Phear

Dr. Nicky Phear

Nicky’s work as a professor is focused on empowering youth to tackle our planet’s energy and climate challenges. The interdisciplinary Climate Change Studies minor program that she oversees and helped develop was one of the country’s first and only academic programs focused specifically on climate change. Nicky's role as an educator certainly involves establishing a functioning vocabulary for talking about climate issues and initiatives, and the program she helped develop gives students from multiple disciplines – whether the sciences, journalism, music, what have you – a grounding in the science and the social impacts of climate change. Through the field-based classes she has taught, Nicky has emphasized experience within and across communities to get students “looking at the impacts on the land, how people are responding, and how people differ in their perception, understanding and concern about the issue.”

 My friends from this summer's Cycle the Rockies course

My friends from this summer's Cycle the Rockies course

These experiential courses include the Cycle the Rockies course for Wild Rockies Field Institute, in which students travel across Montana by bicycle, learning about the social, economic and environmental impacts of various modes of energy production (if you’ve been following along with my journey, you’ll remember the awesome Cycle the Rockies crew I met with back in East Glacier Village, MT); the Bhutan Ride for Climate, in which American students exchange ideas regarding climate and solutions with Bhutanese students as they cycle across their country; and a student course in Vietnam that focuses on the impacts of climate change – socio-economic and environmental – on the Mekong Delta. Furthermore, Nicky has established a series of internships that place students in the service of climate solutions based on their skills and interests, whether teaching climate science to high-schoolers, developing policy and so on. I'm not the only one impressed with Nicky's achievements; in 2016, Nicky received the Clean Energy and Empowerment Award from the U.S. Department of Energy. 

 UM Climate Change Studies students doing field work (literally...) in Vietnam

UM Climate Change Studies students doing field work (literally...) in Vietnam

Of course, not everyone in Missoula is enrolled in the university, let alone in the CCS program. While the effects of formal education do extend far beyond the direct relationship of tutor-pupil, particularly with courses that place such importance on interacting with communities, Nicky recognized the need to further engage the many and diverse residents of Missoula in planning and acting on climate change. Missoula, like most cities and towns in America, has a fairly diverse political atmosphere, and we all know it can be hard to get folks of different political ideologies on the same page when it comes to climate change. So how can you reach people across the entire spectrum?

“I think it’s really important to have different kinds of messengers; there need to be the right messengers for the right communities, and they are there. There are people across the nation, across the globe that care about this issue, from all backgrounds,” Nicky said.

Nicky was instrumental in the organization of two climate “summits” that brought in over 120 individuals seen as community leaders and key stakeholders for the purpose of developing an integrative and comprehensive strategy for reducing Missoula’s own impacts on the planet and for responding to the local impacts of a changing climate. These people brought hope to the table.

“To get through this issue we need hope and optimism; we need people who can be creative problem-solvers,” Nicky said. “Negativity breeds on negativity and hope begets hope.”

Aside from the incredibly important outcome of establishing a diverse and impassioned community with a unified vision, these summits also resulted in the formation of a Community Climate Action Plan. The plan is comprised of twelve “buckets” or sectors of focus through which Missoula ought to be addressing climate change – these buckets do a pretty good job of parsing out the problem I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, so I’ll list them here (in no particular order):

§  Education and Outreach

§   Inventory and Metrics

§   Forests and Open Lands

§   Green Building, Energy Efficiency and Conservation

§   Healthy, Thriving Community

§  Local Food and Agriculture

§  Renewable Energy

§  Sustainable Economic Development

§  Transportation

§  Water Conservation and Protection

§  Zero Waste

§  Smart Growth       

Now, it may seem a little daunting when all these arenas in need of intentional development are laid out like this, but think about trying to accomplish meaningful progress with the singular objective of “mitigate climate impacts and develop adaptation strategies.” Seems a lot more manageable to me with the techniques these folks in Missoula are employing.

So how do you sustain this momentum beyond the summit, to move from strategy to tactics and actually implement them? Obviously, as these many local leaders must have been active in the community in order to be considered leaders in the first place, they have other goals and obligations to tend to. Organizers and participants of the summits – Dr. Nicky Phear prominently among them – developed a non-profit organization to serve as the community hub to employ the Community Climate Action Plan: Climate Smart Missoula.

 Photos from a meeting on transportation initiatives hosted by Climate Smart Missoula

Photos from a meeting on transportation initiatives hosted by Climate Smart Missoula

I met up with the inspiring women of Climate Smart Missoula at their office just off the “Hip Strip” of Missoula, including director Amy Cilimburg, who has a decade of experience with climate and energy policy at the local, state and federal levels predominantly through her work with Montana Audubon. Also at the office that day were Abby Huseth, a UM grad student who focuses on local food initiatives as well as engaging Missoula’s faith communities with climate issues, and Zero Waste expert Becca Boslough, an Energy Corps Member who also works at Home ReSource.

 Abby, Amy and Becca

Abby, Amy and Becca

Climate Smart Missoula is “a group of dedicated leaders working to implement and support real-time projects that make measurable differences for our one-of-a-kind community and landscape.” As a community hub, they strive to connect and support groups working on climate mitigation and adaptation, implement projects and actions that align with the vision set forth in the Community Climate Action Plan, and inspire, inform and sustain a healthy community responsive to climate related challenges with hope, kindness and innovation. Climate Smart aims to be a wealth of information for Missoula residents, offering resources for everything from installing private solar to reducing one’s own carbon footprint. “We want to communicate that we can weather the weather as a community and look out for our neighbors and make sure we’re tackling these issues together,” said Amy Cilimburg.

 Community members hanging out with Climate Smart at Missoula's Sunday Streets event

Community members hanging out with Climate Smart at Missoula's Sunday Streets event

Communication? Check. Community? Check.

The women of Climate Smart Missoula were excited to talk to me about one of their ongoing projects, Summer Smart, which focuses on preparation for responding to the health and safety concerns of intensified wildfire events and the impacts of hotter, drier weather patterns. Summer Smart is a pretty comprehensive program, with focuses ranging from staying healthy during wildfire smoke events to ensuring that at-risk community members and those living in older, less affluent buildings and areas have the necessary resources for staying cool during hotter days and nights.

I asked about the diversity of the coalition they had built beyond the initial group of movers and shakers who created the buckets. Becca Boslough gave an example from the Zero Waste sector: “We have people from the actual field; we have people from Home Resource and professors from the university who work on waste initiatives, but we also just have interested community members like hospital employees and high school students who bring in lots of different insight and information, and it’s been interesting to see how that coalesces into the different goals for that group and how we carry those out. The diversity has really helped us with ideas and approach and in being effective in including more members from the community.”

These people understand that our changing climate demands not only our attention, but our best efforts, and immediately; they also recognize that meaningful progress can only be accomplished through cooperative community efforts. “Action on the international level can feel very disempowering at times, and it can be hard to see progress,” says Climate Smart’s Abby Huseth. “I attended the Paris Climate Talks, and one thing I took away from that was how important action at the local level is – to work locally but in a global context. All those ‘drops in a bucket’ do fill the bucket. Action at the local level is where we can see positive change, and that can be so gratifying. It’s so important to find that community of people who are right in your neighborhood and want to be involved and can get things done. That’s what can give you the strength to go back and continue working on those broader levels and continue pushing the issues on the national and global scales.”

Of course, there are impacts of climate change affecting Missoula that extend beyond what a local community can change – things like federal rail lines that run through town being used for the transportation of non-renewable fossil fuels and the simple fact that action taken elsewhere that contributes to climate change has global impacts, including on the lovely city of Missoula, Montana. Fortunately, out of this active and climate conscious community that people like Nicky, Amy, Abby and Becca have fostered, groups focusing on statewide, national and global initiatives have arisen. We’ll get to that next time when I introduce you to some particularly bold and optimistic Montanans who believe the great personal risks they take upon themselves pale in comparison to the gravity of the challenges we’re faced with.  

For more of my interviews with these bold climate warriors, stay tuned for Hike the Divide's first video. In the meantime, you can learn more about Nicky and the program at the Climate Change Studies website, and you can delve into the details of each "bucket" at Climate Smart's website.