In September, a group of scientists, business leaders and citizens announced the Montana Climate Solutions Plan. Assembled by Gov. Steve Bullock, the Climate Solutions Council developed an ambitious framework that would help the state become carbon neutral by 2050 by reshaping the state’s economy.

Weeks into his administration, it’s unclear where the plan stands with Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, an avid supporter of President Donald Trump’s energy dominance agenda for the past four years.

Gianforte Press Secretary Brooke Stroyke said in an email that “Governor Gianforte will review all existing councils and task forces.”

“The governor has been clear: He believes we simultaneously can protect our environment and responsibly develop our abundant Montana resources,” Stroyke continued. “They aren’t mutually exclusive.”

The science has been clear that in order to combat the worst impacts of climate change, significant action must be taken to curb fossil fuel emissions by 2030.

Climate change is expected to impact all parts of Montana, from snowpack in the mountains to water levels in the rivers to more wildfires and smoke in the air. Already, average temperatures have risen 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950 and the growing season has increased by 12 days.

Amid the largest public health crisis in a century, a recent report from Montana State University warned that the effects of climate change will also pose a risk to the well-being of thousands of Montanans through increased exposure to wildfire smoke, diminished water quality and increased stress.

Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director John Tubbs, left, listens as Montana AFL-CIO Executive Secretary Al Ekblad urges fellow members of the Climate Solutions Council to address the impacts of greenhouse gas emission reductions on the state’s labor force in Jan. 2020. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / Montana Free Press

Whitney Tawney, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters, said it’s “too early to know where Gov. Gianforte is going to be in addressing climate change.”

Montana Conservation Voters endorsed former Lt. Governor Mike Cooney in the November election. As Montana’s sole representative in the U.S. House from 2017 through 2020, Gianforte received a 5% score on the League of Conservation Voters’ report card on environmental issues, among the lowest-ranking members of Congress

Since taking office, Gianforte has criticized President Joe Biden for rescinding a permit needed for construction for the Keystone XL pipeline. Montana’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester and former governor Bullock also have supported the pipeline.

But Tawney said she is glad Gianforte recognizes climate change as an issue that needs to be addressed.

“It’s pretty simple. There will be no ‘Montana Comeback’ without addressing climate change,” Tawney said.

Members of the Climate Solutions Council, who designed the plan to be implementable by Bullock’s successor, said there is significant common ground between Gianforte’s economic development goals and those of the plan. 

“This plan was put forward for everyone to utilize, especially the new incoming administration, whoever it was,” said Amy Cilimburg, executive director of Climate Smart Missoula and a climate council member. 

Cilimburg said she hopes the plan doesn’t just get put on a shelf. She said the plan can be utilized by people at every level from state government to local government to private companies, but that Gianforte’s role is important.

“It would be a disservice to council members, who put in a lot of work. A lot of good research was done, asking experts around the country to help inform where our state should go. We didn’t just pull stuff out of a hat,” she said.

“Gov. Gianforte is in an interesting position. He is both really knowledgeable about the tech sector and innovation across the state in cities. He also has support from and affinity for a lot of traditional economic sectors. The person who can bring that together and find solutions to unite the urban and rural economies through an innovation-led effort can do really great things.”

Mark Haggerty, research director at Headwaters Economics and a member for former Gov. Steve Bullock’s climate solutions council

Tracy Stone-Manning, associate vice president for public lands at the National Wildlife Federation, also served on the council. Stone-Manning was previously Bullock’s chief of staff and director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. She said Gianforte’s experience leading RightNow Technologies before selling it to Oracle, his work to bring tech jobs to Montana and his private philanthropy to Montana State University show that he understands the type of shift Montana needs to undergo.

“He made his mark in innovation. He understands the power of technology. He became a very wealthy man because of the power of technology,” she said. 

Mark Haggerty, research director at Headwaters Economics and a council member, agreed.

“Gov. Gianforte is in an interesting position. He is both really knowledgeable about the tech sector and innovation across the state in cities. He also has support from and affinity for a lot of traditional economic sectors [such as timber and agriculture],” Haggerty said. “The person who can bring that together and find solutions to unite the urban and rural economies through an innovation-led effort can do really great things.”

Large-scale investments will be needed to address a changing climate across Montana’s economic sectors, from agriculture to timber to energy, Haggerty said.

“The scale of the investment that’s going to be required to adapt to and mitigate climate change is in the trillions of dollars” nationally, Haggerty said.

Much of that funding will likely come from the federal government. Montana relies more heavily on federal funds than any state in the U.S., with 44% of the state’s general fund coming from the federal government, according to an analysis from the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit policy think tank. 

Already, Biden has pledged to unveil a large federal spending package in February to help mitigate the economic downturn caused by the pandemic and address the changing climate. Stone-Manning said Montana benefited greatly from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed to help stimulate the economy after the recession of 2008. The council’s climate plan could provide a framework for new rounds of investment.

Haggerty said that even if political leaders don’t believe aggressive action is necessary to combat climate change, the plan identifies good areas for investment to help grow the economy statewide. Haggerty said energy market changes are already happening, whether elected officials like it or not.

“It puts Montana in a pretty good position to be a leader,” Haggerty said of the council’s plan.

Robin Saha, an associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana who is not affiliated with the climate council, said the federal money could help Montana adapt to a changing world and economy.

“The state could get left behind if [Gianforte] doesn’t get on board,” Saha said.

Many of the best targets for investment have been identified by council members, Saha said.

“It’s common sense to take what good ideas have been generated and run with them,” he said. “The governor is smart enough and innovative enough to see those ideas.”

Climate activists protest before a Dec. 9, 2019 meeting in Helena at which NorthWestern Energy presented its 20-year energy supply plan. Credit: Photo by Eric Dietrich / MTFP

Tawney also said Gianforte should build off the Climate Solutions Council’s work identifying ways to make Montana’s economy more resilient.

“They’ve done all the work already,” she said.

Saha said there is significant opportunity to invest in clean energy, particularly wind and solar. Tawney and Saha both stressed that the state needs to allow clean energy a “fair playing ground” and not implement unfair hurdles to development to prop up the fossil fuel industry.

Stone-Manning said she is “not frankly holding my breath” for the Legislature to take action, but she is more optimistic about the governor. She said Gianforte’s appointment of Chris Dorrington, a DEQ agency administrator, to head the Department of Environmental Quality shows some continuity with the council. Dorrington was not a member of the council, but attended many of its meetings.

Just because the council’s plan hasn’t yet been widely discussed doesn’t mean it won’t be, she said.

“Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s very hard work to [install] a government in the middle of a legislative session,” she said. “Nobody should take the fact that this plan isn’t being talked about as a signal yet. They’re busy over there.”

Stone-Manning said that while Gianforte may differ politically from Bullock, there are many “no brainers” in the council’s plan. Forty of the council’s approximately 50 recommendations have unanimous council support, and agreement from organizations including the Montana Chamber of Commerce, the Montana Petroleum Association, NorthWestern Energy and the Montana Electric Cooperatives’ Association. 

“There’s plenty to do in this space that people agree on,” she said.

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Johnathan Hettinger

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at jhett93@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.