Guest Column

Think Globally, Litigate Locally?  

Wildland fire has shown me real world effects of climate change, but it's also shown me that not all people are included in the climate change solution conversation

By Pat McGunagle

The Beacon series on the youth-led coalition of Held v Montana has been illuminating … until it became amusing, and then annoying.  

I do not want to in any way disparage the civic spirit of these young folks – I wish them well along their journeys, perhaps in STEM fields related to climate change effects, if they look for answers beyond the courtroom. There is no doubt these individuals will have fine college application essays and bright futures. 

However contagious and intoxicating this youthful spirit is … It is also youthful in perspective. Legally requiring consideration of climate change effects beyond state borders sounds like a great idea grounded in Montana values, but the argument in Held does little to show that the plaintiffs consider the actual breadth of the wonderful state of Montana at all. The best argument I’ve heard in Held is from the indigenous perspective and how pre-climate change conditions are required to convey tradition and stories of cultural significance. 

I’d like to contrast the other youths presented in the litigation to youths from across Montana, perhaps Joliet High School, or Havre Elementary, or since some of the litigants are in the wee single digits, Forsyth Kindergarten. I wonder how much of the Beacon readership has been to eastern Montana, Coal Country, where a few ppm change in emissions standards spells doom for an entire town’s economy. Do teens at those schools get a lawyer to advocate for their futures as well?  

Since we’re considering climate change effects outside of Montana, why not contrast Montana youths with those in rural Argentina, Chile, perhaps even the Congo? Climate change is a global phenomenon. It takes a global economy to make an iPhone or a Tesla, much less an avalanche beacon or an entire ski lift.  

In the U.S., I fight wildland fire for a living. I’ve been on large and small fires all around the west, arriving either as part of a hotshot crew or an engine or under parachute as a smokejumper. The jumper fires were the best, because we always got picked up in small towns far off the beaten path. These are wonderful places! However, these are towns where post offices are under constant threat of closure, where high school graduation is five or ten kids. Importantly, these are not the same kind of kids as those framed by the recent Beacon series, kids who love and are able to ski every day they can (the carbon impact of their SUVs driving up and down Big Mountain notwithstanding), whose parents take them on world travels. These rural towns grow Big Sky Country Kids, however, and I’m disappointed that Held doesn’t appear to give them a voice, but could dramatically affect their lives. This is not equitable. Wildland fire has shown me real world effects of climate change, but it’s also shown me that not all people are included in the climate change solution conversation.

Remember when you were a kid and teachers taught that when you pointed at someone, you had three fingers on the same hand pointing back at you? I’ve lived in Whitefish for off and on 25 years. Whitefish is a ski town. I love it, but it’s not real. Sorry. If you ski more than 10 days a year, you are undoubtedly in the top few percent of the global elite. If you ski, there’s an 88% likelihood that you are white (Powder Magazine, 2020). In 2018-2019, 43% of the 1.77 million ski visits in Montana were from out-of-state people (UM “Economics and Characteristics of Alpine Skiing in Montana 2018-2019”) and a quick Google reveals that simply the last flight into Kalispell from Seattle or Bozeman from Denver is approximately 100kg of CO2 emissions per person. How conscious! Ski towns trying to preserve ski town economies are the least of our global worries when it comes to climate change. There’s not much diversity represented in the thought. Color me stupid, but the name of the town is WHITEfish after all.  

I would prefer a case like Held to promote global diversity of thought and culture. When I see a Flathead Valley kid who skis every weekend, I think of the Argentine or Chilean kid who gets a coal mine or cadmium mine in his backyard because the U.S., with some of the most strict (and thus accountable) environmental policy on the planet, forces these mines into those places. This isn’t climate consciousness; this is neocolonialism of the most privileged and narcissistic type. I wish I knew this sort of stuff when I was 2, but fact is, I didn’t know anything at all when I was 2.  

I don’t like being fossil fuel dependent as much as anyone else, but isn’t it disempowering to our youth to focus on local legal mandates as a remedy for global climate change effects, rather than encouraging development of science and technology, powered by the massive local economies of energy we have in places like Montana with Montana coal, wind, solar, and hydropower?  

The shadow of climate change is that the concept doesn’t let kids be kids. Stripping a generation of the opportunity represented in its future is at the very least logically unstable, because the future is always nebulous. Climate change represents the greatest opportunity for our species to recognize the planet as a system and act accordingly in ways we’ve never done before. Montana is great, beautiful, wonderful. There’s energy in this Held lawsuit. In the spirit of Held, the state can become a global leader by incentivizing economies to climate change technological solutions rather than legal constraints. In the spirit of Held, let’s say yes to economy rather than no to industry. Let’s keep Montana policy inclusive and prosperous for all Montanans. We’re over the fronts of our skis if we don’t.

Patrick McGunagle lives in Whitefish.

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