Climate Strange: Idaho's Tug of War on Climate Change 

Statehouse panel highlights political divisions

Capital High School student Jai Bansal (left) and University of Idaho Assistant Professor of Geography John Abatzoglou (right).

Harrison Berry

Capital High School student Jai Bansal (left) and University of Idaho Assistant Professor of Geography John Abatzoglou (right).

When the Idaho Legislature declined to hear a bill from Rep. Ilana Rubel (D-Boise) calling for a comprehensive study of the effects of climate change on the Gem State, Rubel convened a public forum and a panel of experts March 15 to showcase what information they had.

The event drew hundreds to the capitol, filling the Lincoln Auditorium and three overflow rooms, confirming public interest in the issue and its impacts on Idaho, but drawing few Republicans, who control both houses of the Legislature and the executive branch of state government. It was a crash course on the reality of climate change, but also a spotlight on political divisions that have hampered efforts to mitigate its effects or prepare Idaho for changes yet to come.

Earlier in the legislative session, however, the House Education Committee stripped references to climate change and other human environmental impacts from state education standards. The House Environment, Energy and Technology Committee also rejected Rubel's request for a hearing on the issue in January. Committee chairman Rep. Dell Raybould (R-Rexburg) attended the meeting, but said he believes climate change is a natural phenomenon likely to have a positive impact on Idaho agriculture.

"Listen to Rush Limbaugh once in awhile," he told Idaho Falls Post Register in 2015. "See what he thinks about it. He'll tell you that this is just a bunch of nonsense."

Raybould said he believes increased atmospheric carbon could be good for plants, and he's not the only one in the Idaho Legislature on the spectrum of climate change denial. Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill (R-Rexburg) he believes climate change is taking place, but humans' role is unclear. Rep. Tom Loertscher (R-Iona) thinks what scientists are observing is mere weather.

A handful of students who attended the meeting begged to differ. One of them was Capital High School junior Jai Bansal, who said he doesn't blame legislators for not believing in climate change, but warned rising sea levels, extreme weather and the increased incidence of forest fires are likely to affect people regardless of what they believe.

Bansal, who participates in the Leadership Boise Academy and is set to begin an internship at Hewlett-Packard, said there will be a literal sea change for humanity going forward.

"Climate change will affect my generation more than the internet affected my parents' generation," he said.

Scientists painted a grimmer portrait of the situation.

"The broader issue of climate change is already impacting our state," said University of Idaho Assistant Professor of Geography John Abatzoglou.

In late 2016, Abatzoglou was one of several researchers involved in a study,"Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests," which concluded a staggering 84 percent of the nation's wildfires between 1992 and 2012 were human-caused. In Idaho, however, just 31 percent of fires are ignited by similar factors, as "lightning ends up playing a much bigger role in terms of not only the number of fires [in Idaho], but, moreover, the amount of burn area associated with those numbers."

Underpinning all those facts and figures, however, is water: How much of it flows through Idaho, when, and how long it stays in the form of snowpack and groundwater. According to Abatzoglou, Idaho's shifting climate is already reducing mountain snowpacks, kickstarting early spring seasons and drying out summers, thus lengthening the fire season and increasing the likelihood that a lightning strike, unextinguished cigarette or campfire could grow into an inferno.

Presenters made the case that despite the hemming and hawing of some conservative lawmakers, climate change is real and happening right now. Scientists from Boise State University and the University of Idaho described the delicate carbon cycle, whereby greenhouse gasses are released into the atmosphere and reabsorbed, as well as the factors that disrupt that cycle like human carbon emissions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, between 1901 and 2016, the average surface temperature in the lower 48 states has increased by .14 degrees Fahrenheit per decade on average, and each year for the past four years has broken the record for the warmest in recorded human history.

By 2040, said Jen Pierce, who teaches geomorphology at Boise State University, Boise could have a climate similar to Fresno, Calif.—a city far to the south and thousands of feet lower in altitude—which would entail less snowpack, a longer dry season and hotter summers.

Shorter winters are already affecting Idaho's winter recreation industry—Bogus Basin General Manager Brad Wilson confirmed the resort has experienced "shorter and less reliable winters." At peak season, Bogus Basin employs approximately 600 people and between Christmas and New Year's Day, the resort makes almost a quarter of its yearly revenue. Bogus Basin has begun transitioning into a four-season resort, but inadequate snowpack in December would deal a devastating blow. Concerns over climate change, Wilson said, is widespread in the recreation industry.

"Nobody is more concerned about climate change than the ski industry," he added.

Other business leaders said companies are taking the initiative regarding the issue. For Rubel, however, states need to pave the way for social and economic changes by encouraging green energy, educating students about climate change, enacting policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promoting stainability.

"Lots of states are doing these things," she said. "We are doing none of them."

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