Leading climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe was the keynote speaker at the Northern Plains Resource Council’s 50th membership meeting. Credit: Texas Tech University Department of Political Science

Katharine Hayhoe works in the physical sciences when she’s modeling climate change projections for municipal, state and international bodies, but the award-winning atmospheric scientist leans heavily on “soft science” when it comes to outlining a strategy to avert the direst impacts of a warming planet. During the 50th meeting of the Northern Plains Resource Council, a grassroots conservation and family agriculture advocacy organization, Hayhoe spent just as much time in her keynote talk discussing best practices for communicating about climate change as she did outlining its causes and highlighting the threats it poses. That balance is by design.

Hayhoe, a leading climate change communicator whose work has garnered her accolades from the United Nations, Politico, Sierra Club and Fortune, addressed approximately 200 Northern Plains Resource Council members assembled on Zoom Nov. 19. She said insights from other sciences such as psychology and neuroscience inform how she talks about her work. Hayhoe said fatalistic and scientifically unsound beliefs about climate change can partly be explained by fears surrounding the transition away from fossil fuels. Misinformation peddlers have exploited those fears to promote their own agendas, she said. She said she tells people to fight fatalism and apathy with conversation, and to bring more than cold reason and a catalog of doom-seeding projections to the table.

“Talk about why and how climate change matters to [you] here and now, in ways that matter to me — as a farmer, as a rancher, as a skier, as a birder, as a hiker, as someone who lives in Montana, as a student. … Whoever we are, we need to start from the heart rather than the head,” she said.

Hayhoe said fear and anxiety tend to freeze people into inaction rather than promoting the kind of forward-looking measures that a threat of this nature demands, so she said she’s careful to include action-oriented information in the conversations about climate change she has on a daily basis, and she recommends that other people — scientists and nonscientists — do the same.

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe addresses members of the Northern Plains Resource Council at their 50th annual gathering, which occurred virtually this year due to the pandemic.

From there, she said she tells people to help their friends and family members connect the dots between what they care about and how climate change will affect those things. Finally, she counseled, discuss positive, constructive steps that are helping to fix the situation. 

“You know what that does? People feel empowered and change results,” Hayhoe said. “That is how we get people to add their hand on the boulder. Once our hand is on the boulder and we look at all the people who are beside us, that continues to give us hope because we realize we are not alone.”

Hayhoe also advised attendees to discuss regional impacts that will resonate with whomever they’re speaking to.

“I was asked the other day, ‘How do you tell people about polar bears and melting ice sheets in Iowa?’ I said, ‘You don’t.’ In Iowa, you talk about corn and you talk about flooding. In Texas, you talk about wind energy and hurricanes and drought. In Montana, you talk about wildfires, and snowpack, and droughts, and wildfires, and health and agriculture … Talk about how climate change affects us here, now, in ways that are directly relevant to us.”

Hayhoe’s talk included several grim snapshots of the state of affairs in Montana, including the fact that the state’s snowpack has been in decline since the 1950s, and the state’s wildfire season has an ever larger and longer reach.  She also outlined a handful of energy trends that illustrate a national and global shift away from fossil fuels that are gathering momentum. For example, 90% of the energy that came online since the start of the pandemic has been of the green variety, she said, and that includes projects sited in some of the poorest places in the world.

 “I was asked the other day, ‘How do you tell people about polar bears and melting ice sheets in Iowa?’ I said, ‘You don’t.’ In Iowa, you talk about corn, and you talk about flooding. … Talk about how climate change affects us here, now, in ways that are directly relevant to us.”

Katharine Hayhoe, author of Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World

She added that even though fossil fuels are subsidized in the U.S. to the tune of more than $600 billion per year, wind and solar energy are still cheaper than fossil fuel-generated energy in much of Middle America, including in nine eastern Montana counties where an energy calculator produced by the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute found that wind leads the affordability pack. (In the state’s 47 other counties, the cheapest form of energy is combined cycle natural gas).

“Nowhere is coal the most affordable source of electricity today,” Hayhoe said, bringing the conversation around to coal, a highly polluting fossil fuel that played a key role in the founding of Northern Plains Resource Council 50 years ago.

POWERING PAST COAL: A NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL GENESIS STORY

Jeanie Alderson, Northern Plains Resource Council’s outgoing board chair, introduced Hayhoe at Friday’s gathering. A fourth-generation rancher from Birney, Alderson said she basically grew up with the organization. Alderson’s parents were among the grassroots advocacy group’s earliest members. The Aldersons and other southeastern Montana ranchers came together in the early 1970s over concerns about coal mining’s potential to threaten their ranches’ water supplies.

Like other early Northern Plains members, Jeanie’s parents had caught wind of a document called the North Central Power Study, and what they found made them both terrified and furious, she said. The plan called for a massive expansion of coal mining and coal-fired power plants between Colstrip and Gillette, Wyoming, replete with the attendant infrastructure — slurry lines, transmission lines and railroads. Had the area been developed as outlined, that stretch of the country could have housed more than 20 coal-fired power plants, two of them with the capacity to generate more than 10,000 megawatts of electricity. (For comparison, Colstrip’s Units One and Two top out at fewer than 1,500 megawatts of electricity.)

To Alderson’s parents, the document all but spelled an end to the clean water and functioning agricultural land they’d relied on to run their commercial cattle operation. The Aldersons weren’t alone in their concerns. Families began to share information to try to keep the deep-pocketed coal companies at bay. They developed guidelines to help guide their interactions with the coal companies. The group counseled landowners to have a witness present when representatives from coal companies came calling, to verify claims of neighbors leasing their land rather than taking coal representatives at their word, and to avoid panicking if a coal company threatened to condemn their land. “You have more rights and power than the coal company wants you to think,” reads an early Northern Plains guiding document.

More than 20 years after coal sparked those first meetings among neighbors, Alderson found herself supporting Northern Plains in the thick of another coal-centered battle, this one over a multi-million-dollar railroad that would have significantly expanded coal mining in the Powder River Basin of southeastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming. 

“After traveling around and doing a lot of work, I realized that we were going to have to fight a coal-hauling railroad through our ranch, and I was going to have to get way more involved,” Alderson recalled. 

The Northern Plains Resource Council was formed by ranch families who were concerned about the threat that industrial-scale coal mining would have on their property and their ability to make a living from ranching. Credit: Terrence Moore / Northern Plains Resource Council

She said in 1995 she joined Northern Plains’ board of directors. The Tongue River Railroad served as an animating force for the group for nearly four decades; Alderson said it took 39 years for Northern Plains to finally prevail over the railroad. The federal Surface and Transportation Board denied the railroad permit application in 2016, effectively killing the project. 

Not all of the group’s victories over the past five decades have required that degree of persistence. Northern Plains was instrumental in the passage of the Montana Strip and Underground Reclamation Act of 1973, an early win. Four years later, Northern Plains members helped pass a national strip mining act modeled on the Montana law. In 2000, Northern Plains and two of its affiliate groups formed the Good Neighbor Agreement with the Stillwater Mine, a legally-binding agreement that has helped protect water quality in communities downstream of the platinum and palladium mines owned by Sibanye-Stillwater. 

Julia Page, who served as Northern Plains’ board chair in 1995 and 1996 after joining an affiliate group in Gardiner a decade earlier, said joining Northern Plains was like going through a crash course in grassroots organizing. When Northern Plains members were preparing to enter into a negotiation with the Stillwater Mine Company for the Good Neighbor Agreement, Northern Plains put the negotiators through a two-day training called “Negotiate to Win.”

“It was a very, very good training, and I still think about it and use elements of it,” she said. 

As a Northern Plains member, she said she’s found herself taking a very active role in environmental concerns: commenting on environmental impact statements, speaking publicly before lawmakers and agency heads, even gathering water quality samples from Bear Creek and the Yellowstone River. At times she didn’t feel completely prepared, she said, and she acknowledges that it can be a messy, slow-moving process, but said that’s part and parcel of the model.

“Democracy can be — and is — very messy because you have to listen to people and still decide and go in a direction, and that’s hard,” she said, adding that members-as-lobbyists can be complicated, too. “When your members are your spokespeople, that’s a risk. What if we go off message? What if we’re not the most forceful person?”

Rep. Josh Kassmier, R-Fort Benton, said he likes a bit of both perspectives — the concise, polished lobbyist and the heartfelt, if long-winded, grassroots advocate — when he’s chairing meetings of the House Agriculture Committee. 

“It’s always good to have member individuals [offering testimony], but it’s always good to have that forefront lobbyist that can get the point across in a timely manner and speak directly to the committee,” he said. 

Kassmier said he doesn’t always agree with Northern Plains’ positions, but he still appreciates their arguments. “We didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but respected each other and agreed to disagree,” he said.

Jean-Marie Souvigney, who joined Northern Plains as an intern in 1981 while working on her environmental studies degree from the University of Montana, said she appreciates that its membership isn’t politically homogeneous.

“I think their membership is divided — not divided in a bad way, but divided as far as their political loyalties go. That brings a much broader perspective to their discussions about issues they’re working on,” said Souvigney, who continues to stay apprised of the organization’s advocacy.

She added that although there are other groups like the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, the Montana Stockgrowers Association and Montana Farmers Union that share some of the same policy space, Northern Plains is unique in its commitment to sustainability. It’s what drew her to the organization more than 30 years ago, she said. Souvigney said she sees the group’s investment in long-term outcomes in its advocacy and the way it runs its operation on a day-to-day basis, such as its decision to build a highly efficient LEED-certified building in a part of Billings in need of economic development, and its support of policies such as lifting the net metering cap to remove some of the barriers to expanded renewable energy development.

This past session, Kassmier sponsored House Bill 448, which sought to raise the net metering cap on residential and public buildings as a way to encourage renewable energy development. It’s an issue Northern Plains has long tried to reform, and this year’s effort was close, but didn’t quite pass. Kassmier said he thinks they’ll be able to get a better estimate on costs to utility companies and get it across the finish line next session.

Outside of the legislature, Northern Plains members have kept pressure on politicians and regulatory agencies over big energy projects such as the Keystone XL Pipeline which, had it been built, would have transported 830,000 barrels of oil per day from the Alberta tar sands to the Gulf Coast. After President Joe Biden nixed the project’s cross-border permit earlier this year, Canadian company TC Energy announced that it would abandon its plans.

Colstrip also remains high on the priority list for people like Alderson, who’s stayed active in conversations about the power plant and the community’s future. 

“I’m proud of our ability to bridge divides. It’s why we’re here 50 years later … I think we’re really going to need groups like Northern Plains moving forward —  for Montana, but also for our country.”

Jeanie Alderson, outgoing chair of the Northern Plains Resource Council Board of Directors

“I’m really proud of our recent work in Colstrip to try to bring the community together to keep good jobs, clean up jobs, and get those ash ponds cleaned up,” Alderson said, referring to nine ponds adjacent to the power plant that have accumulated decades of toxic coal ash. “That’s something that we all need: we all need to keep people working and we need the land and communities to be healthy.”

Alderson said she’s inspired by fellow members’ advocacy for “good, common-sense clean energy” and Northern Plains’ efforts to lobby the Legislature to institute market reforms that support independent agricultural producers. She said she is also proud of the organization’s work supporting country of origin labeling. (In the last legislative session, Northern Plains lobbied in favor of measures requiring grocery stores to label USA-raised beef and pork as such, and imported meat as such, but both  died.) She said Northern Plains will continue to take an active role in conversations about NorthWestern Energy’s proposed natural gas power plant in Laurel. Looking ahead, regenerative agriculture will also feature prominently in the organization’s priorities, given the farming practice’s potential to sequester carbon and mitigate the effects of climate change.

But it’s not just what Northern Plains has done during the past two years she’s served as the board chair that inspired Alderson, she said. It’s also how Northern Plains and its 12 affiliate groups do it.

“I’m proud of our ability to bridge divides. It’s why we’re here 50 years later,” she said. “I think we’re really going to need groups like Northern Plains moving forward —  for Montana, but also for our country.”

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Billings native Amanda Eggert covers environmental issues for MTFP. Amanda is a graduate of the University of Montana School of Journalism who has written for Outside magazine and Outlaw Partners. At Outlaw Partners she led coverage for the biweekly newspaper Explore Big Sky. Contact Amanda at aeggert@montanafreepress.org.