Last month, a United Nations panel issued an urgent, dire warning: To head off the catastrophic effects of climate change, humanity must work to severely reduce greenhouse gas pollution in the next 12 years.
In response, President Donald Trump questioned the scientific consensus that humans are responsible for the warming that has occurred in the past 150 years. In 2018, taking action to address climate change has fallen to state and local governments.
California has moved aggressively to address greenhouse gas emissions, and on Nov. 6, Washington state voters will decide the fate of a ballot measure that would impose a fee on carbon emissions within its borders. Colorado voters will decide a ballot measure that would restrict extraction of oil and gas using hydraulic fracturing.
What about Idaho? In the Legislature, minority Democrats have been stonewalled in their attempts to hold hearings on the effects of climate change in the state, said Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise.
Next Tuesday’s election may offer a path forward for Democrats. Voters statewide will decide a ballot measure on expanding Medicaid, which received a boost this week when retiring Gov. Butch Otter endorsed the measure.
Rubel said ballot measures are gaining popularity in Idaho to upend the Legislature’s decisions or as a “work-around” to its inaction on issues such as climate change. Rubel and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said Medicaid expansion, which is on the ballot as Proposition 2, has to pass to prove the viability of this approach. Proposition 1 in Idaho seeks to nullify the Legislature’s 2015 decision to ban historical horse racing machines.
Rubel said she has yet to see action toward a ballot measure addressing climate change in Idaho, but she’s open to the idea.
“We’ll see if anything passes next week,” she said Thursday. “If it does, it will be really interesting. There is such a backlog of issues that the Legislature has yet to address. I’m open to all kinds of alternatives. They won’t even consider the smallest baby step.”
A ticking clock?
The U.N. report, authored by 91 scientists from 40 countries and based off 6,000 studies, said human-caused atmospheric carbon dioxide must fall by 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050—meaning that any increase in emissions would need to be balanced by removing existing CO2.
The report concluded that that would prevent 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, but would require precipitous drops in coal use by 2050, and renewable-energy use to grow from 20 percent today to 70 percent.
“Human activity has warmed the world by about 1 [degree Celsius] since pre-industrial times,” the report stated. “Reaching 2 [degrees] instead of 1.5 of global warming would lead to substantial warming of extreme hot days in all land regions. It would also lead to an increase in heavy rainfall events in some regions, particularly in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. The impacts of any additional warming would also include stronger melting of ice sheets and glaciers, as well as increased sea level rise.
“The 0.5 [degrees Celsius] rise in global temperatures that we have experienced in the past 50 years has contributed to shifts in the distribution of plant and animal species, decreases in crop yields and more frequent wildfires. Essentially, the lower the rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels, the lower the risks to human societies and natural ecosystems.”
A deep partisan divide
In the 2017 legislative session, Rubel approached the chairman of the House Environment, Energy and Technology Committee, Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, and asked to conduct a hearing.
“His first response was that it was a hoax,” Rubel said. “It was made up by the Chinese so they can sell solar panels.”
The exchange is indicative of a yawning chasm between the Democratic and Republican parties on the continued warming of Earth’s climate.
Rubel held an informational hearing on her own by booking a room in the Capitol building. She brought in scientists, clean-energy specialists, fire-fighting experts, a member of the clergy and students.
She said the focus was on what will happen to Idaho if the climate continues to warm—disruptions to crop-growing, longer wildfire seasons, earlier snowmelt and shorter winters. Idaho ranks among the lowest in the U.S. for carbon emissions. In 2015, it was 44th in the nation, with 18 million metric tons; Texas was No. 1, with 626 million.
Rubel’s hearing drew more than 600 people.
“We completely packed the Capitol with people who were interested in hearing about this,” she said.
As scientists and international organizations such as the U.N. ratchet up warnings of a coming calamity, Republicans in Idaho, firmly in charge of the Legislature and the state’s constitutional offices, dispute the scientific consensus that humans are the cause of that warming.
“I would be happy to have a single member of the majority party be willing to address human-caused climate change,” Rubel said. “I haven’t seen it yet. This is a collective issue. It’s going to be extremely difficult to solve without government action. We really need to have to do something through policy.”
Rep. Steve Miller, R-Fairfield, who has served in the Legislature since 2012, and Mike McFadyen, a District 26 Republican candidate for the House, explained their views on engaging in that debate.
Miller said he is satisfied with the federal government’s existing regulations on carbon emissions, but has not researched climate change in-depth because of conflicting science.
“It’s kind of like a court case where each side gets an ‘expert witness’ that presents opposing views,” Miller wrote in an email. “We certainly have seen seasons change in the last 150 years in the West, but we don’t really know what all has happened and why in the last few thousand years.”
McFadyen moved to Idaho from California six years ago. He worked as a project manager for the EPA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Port of Oakland and at oil refineries in Martinez, Calif. He said his move away from California was spurred in part by what he considered nightmarish government regulations meant to address pollution and emissions, including some that forced him to change the engines in his vehicles and equipment.
He sees an epochal shift in the Earth’s climate occurring independent of human influence.
“We have these cyclical time periods,” he said. “I think it’s something that’s happening without a doubt. How arrogant are we as a species to think that we could change the weather?”
In campaigning for the Legislature, McFadyen said he wants to see Idaho avoid adopting the kinds of regulations that drove him from California. He said he sees a religious fervor among proponents of addressing climate change, and a reticence to consider alternative points of view that makes productive debate impossible.
“It’s left me a little jaded,” McFadyen said of his time in California. “I escaped the madness. I really wish people would take things apart and go, ‘Why?’ I’d like to see our lifestyle here go on. It’s not perfect, but people are flocking here from everywhere. Why? Why aren’t they concerned with [climate change] here? It might be that they don’t have that religious fervor.”
Rubel said an excess of renewable-energy resources in Idaho—solar, wind and geothermal—could help the market for clean energy in other states such as Washington, Oregon and California that have renewable-energy mandates.
Paulette Jordan, the Democratic nominee for governor, said she likes the idea of imposing a fee on carbon emissions, similar to what Washington Gov. Jay Inslee proposed in recent years.
“The polluters should pay,” Jordan said.
Her opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Brad Little, supports additional water storage for power generation and “safe and clean advancements” of nuclear energy and other research at the Idaho National Laboratory, according to his campaign website.
In District 26, Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, said the state public education curriculum should include teaching human causes of climate change. Democrat Muffy Davis is challenging Miller and wants Idaho to move to 100 percent clean energy by 2050.
Stennett and her Republican opponent, Julie Lynn, said Idaho needs to get a better grip on the fire danger on its forestlands.
Stennett said wildfire is a huge source of carbon pollution and state agencies are working with timber companies and the federal government under the Good Neighbor Authority.
“Those are our biggest polluters now,” she said. “We haven’t allowed [prescribed] burns in a lot of areas. It is a bipartisan effort.”
She sees more legislative battles brewing on how to regulate Idaho’s nascent oil- and gas-drilling industries, which are clustered in Washington and Payette counties.
“That is going to be a bill-by-bill debate of how we regulate that industry statewide,” she said.