Will the Mountain West meet the climate challenges?

Better than you might think, argues former Missoula mayor Dan Kemmis, citing the hard country's traditions of cross-ideological, collaborative problem solving.
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A field trip in Montana.

Better than you might think, argues former Missoula mayor Dan Kemmis, citing the hard country's traditions of cross-ideological, collaborative problem solving.

"Drought, extreme weather events, catastrophic wildfires, disruption of natural systems" combined with "longer periods when streams are dry, with serious consequences for wildlife, natural habitats, and water supplies." That's the scenario for my region of America in a provocative recent Lincoln Institute of Land Policy report, "Planning for Climate Change in the West."

And political will to address these challenges? The report notes that the Mountain West "has lagged behind other regions in pursuing aggressive planning strategies to reduce [greenhouse gases]" largely because of a conservative political culture and insufficient political will.

It is true that the region has tended to be politically conservative, and there may well be an above-average level of climate change denial among westerners. But there are also significant historical vectors at work here that could supply the political will this historic challenge demands.

It's true that with climate change, western landscapes, historically hard to inhabit, will now become even more of a challenge. But let's not miss the hopeful side. This hard country has always attracted and retained a hardy, resourceful set of people. From native tribes through homesteaders to western city-builders, a capacity to adapt to challenging conditions has been a baseline requirement for survival in these majestic but forbidding landscapes.

That adaptive capacity has been strengthened recently by a rise of cross-ideological, collaborative problem solving, especially around natural resource issues. No region of the country has produced more examples of loggers and environmentalists, farmers and fishermen sitting down together and hammering out mutually beneficial plans for managing particular watersheds or ecosystems. As climate change creates new challenges, that collaborative experience, now shared by thousands of westerners, will be a major political resource.

Another hopeful trend is the political realignment that has swept across the region over the past decade. The Lincoln report notes, "With views on the need for national climate action basically split along party lines, garnering political support for local efforts can be difficult in the largely conservative and traditionally Republican states."

It's true that by 2000 the interior West had become the nation's most Republican region, with no Democratic governors, only three Democratic U.S. Senators, and only New Mexico voting for Al Gore in that election. By 2008, however, five of the region's eight governors were Democrats, as were seven of 16 U.S. Senators. And Obama carried three mountain states.

This realignment has reflected a growing restlessness with an ideological brand of politics that bore little relevance to the region's real challenges. Centrist Democrats like Colorado's Salazar brothers, Wyoming's Dave Freudenthal, and Montana's Brian Schweitzer have been winning by offering a non-ideological, thoroughly pragmatic approach to the region's challenges.

Many of those challenges arise from the fact that the Mountain West has been the nation's fastest growing region since the late 1980s, its economic center of gravity shifting from resource extraction to the increasingly attractive livability of western communities. Now, this center-staging of livability is contributing to the West's capacity to address the challenges of climate change.

It's still true — climate change is not yet something that keeps a majority of westerners up at night. The economic viability of their communities is another matter, though. Significantly expanding ranks of westerners, including business leaders, now understand that prosperity and livability are intimately linked. As the Lincoln Institute report notes: "An array of familiar smart growth strategies for creating healthier communities now double as climate solutions."

A prime example — Utah, where the citizen and business-supported Envision Utah process of recent years helped to set new, land and community-conserving priorities. So it was no surprise when Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said in his 2010 State of the City address: 'ꀜIf I were to sum up 'ꀦ our goals for 2010 in one word, it would be 'livability.' "

True, the words "climate change" don't appear in Becker's speech. But I found a long list of accomplishments and aspirations, all aimed at making Salt Lake City more livable. They range from bike lanes, street cars, and expanded light rail to downtown revitalization and programs to promote eating locally. All these initiatives contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

But that's not why most Salt Lake City residents welcome and support them. They support them, and provide the political will to make them happen, because they love living in the hard, beautiful, mountain-and-desert landscape they call home, and they are willing to do what it takes to live well there. Most westerners join them in a rugged, pragmatic love of this place we call home. In that rootedness lies the West's best hope to meet the challenges of climate change.

This column comes from Citiwire.net.


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