‘It’s affecting all of them’: Montana climate scientists say warming will worsen if nothing changes

Multiple expert climate scientists, two plaintiffs testify on Day 2 of Held v. Montana trial

By: - June 13, 2023 8:41 pm
Dr. Cathy Whitlock testifies on the impacts of climate change in Montana at the second day of the Held v. Montana trial on Tuesday, June 13, 2023.

Dr. Cathy Whitlock testifies on the impacts of climate change in Montana at the second day of the Held v. Montana trial on Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

For the second day in a row, a top Montana climate scientist told a Lewis and Clark County judge and those in attendance at trial that there was no doubt human-caused climate change was making the planet hotter and making life worse for children and future generations in Montana.

“[Climate instability] will get worse as Montana continues to emit greenhouse gases … because as I said earlier, every ton of CO2 that’s released into the atmosphere impacts the climate, so Montana has a role to play like everywhere else on the planet,” said Cathy Whitlock, a regents professor emerita of paleoecology at Montana State University’s Department of Earth Sciences.

Whitlock was the first witness called by the plaintiffs’ attorneys on the second day of the first-of-its kind trial in which 16 young Montanans are suing the state, alleging its continued efforts to burn fossil fuels violate their rights under the state constitution to a clean and healthful environment.

Whitlock, also a founding member of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems who helped author several major Montana and Yellowstone climate assessments over the past six years, compiled evidence as an expert witness in the case on how human-caused climate change from the creation of greenhouse gases is harming Montana’s environment and its children alongside Monday’s expert witness, Steven Running, who shared in a Nobel prize for his work on climate science.

At the trial Tuesday, Whitlock went into detail for several hours about how climate change is warming Montana and subjecting both adults and children to major physical health and psychological effects.

Decades of research into climate change, and reports published along the way, have warned that the earth will continue warming if humans continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates, exacerbating the cycle already being seen today, she said.

That means if there is not an effort to curb emissions, there will be more extreme weather events, hotter seasons than are typical for places like Montana, longer and more intense droughts, less snowpack, larger and more intense wildfires, and bigger floods that occur more often, Whitlock said.

Statewide, Montana has warmed 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950 – a little bit faster than other places in the U.S. because of Montana’s northern location and high elevation, she said. But the warming has sped up over the past 30 years – nearly in every part of Montana and more specifically in winter and spring.

“They’re experiencing and living with this warming trend that started before they were born, but it’s accelerating,” she said of the plaintiffs in the case. “It’s affecting all of them.”

She explained that the international climate community has developed methodology to measure carbon dioxide concentrations in the future – called representative concentration pathways (RCPs) – that scientists use to predict climate models over the next 80 years.

In a median estimate, Montana could warm an average of 5.6 degrees by 2100, but in an extreme scenario, it could warm an average of 10 degrees relative to 1971-2000, she said.

“By the end of the century, we’re looking at a couple of months over 90 degrees,” she said.

Plaintiffs' attorney Phil Gregory questions Dr. Cathy Whitlock about Montana's rising average temperatures on the second day of the Held v. Montana trial.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Phil Gregory questions Dr. Cathy Whitlock about Montana’s rising average temperatures on the second day of the Held v. Montana trial. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

Those warmer temperatures will cause snow to melt earlier in the year, less of it to fall in the winter amid an already steady decrease, streams and rivers to warm and drop in levels, and more wildfires to start because of longer periods of drought due to the changing seasons, she said. That in turn will harm the plaintiffs in the case, many of whom utilize Montana’s outdoors for an array of activities.

When she was asked if there was a timeframe or sense of urgency by the state and other governments to act, she said they needed to do so “as quickly as possible” because there is a consensus about those facts among the scientific community. Asked how confident she was in the accuracy of the models, Whitlock said: “I have no doubt.”

She told attorneys for the state on cross examination that greenhouse gas emissions should be considered under the Montana Environmental Policy Act – a core tenet of what is at stake in the trial after the legislature this spring amended MEPA to explicitly say that the state could not include an evaluation of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change impacts when conducting an environmental review for a project.

The state has argued for the first two days of the trial that even if Montana stopped burning all fossil fuels immediately, it is a tiny fraction of the global contributions to climate change. Judge Kathy Seeley, who is presiding over the case, told an animated Assistant Attorney General Thane Johnson at one point during his cross examination of Whitlock on that very topic that he needed to “settle down.”

Whitlock said the amended MEPA limitation was a “big step backward” and called it a constraint moving the state in the wrong direction. She suggested that indeed Montana reassessing its relationship with the fossil fuel industry and curbing emissions would have a positive impact because not doing so would only exacerbate problems.

“The harms will get worse,” she said. “… Montana’s sort of promotion of fossil fuel production is making the problem worse because every ton of CO2 makes a difference.”

Another expert witness the plaintiffs called was Daniel Fagre, a recently retired research ecologist who spent decades working on glaciology at Glacier National Park for the park service, National Biological Service, and U.S. Geological Survey. Fagre discussed how climate change has rapidly melted away what in 1850 was 146 glaciers inside what is now the park to just 26 that remain today.

“This is happening because of anthropomorphic climate changes and temperatures higher than glaciers can tolerate,” he said.

He said there was “no scientific debate” that humans burning fossil fuels over the past two-plus centuries have caused global warming, citing research of his and others that shows there is no other cause for the quickly warming planet.

He said the global climate has actually been on a 7,000-year cooling trend that would actually have the glaciers increasing in size if it were not for climate change.

“These things in the past would have taken hundreds or thousands of years. This change is so abrupt we can only look at human causes,” Fagre said.

For years, Fagre and other researchers have been mapping Glacier’s glaciers via plane, satellite, and on-the-ground photography in which they attempt to replicate photos of the glaciers taken in the early 1900s to compare what they say are climate change-induced differences.

He said his research shows that 82% of glaciers in the park 170 years ago are now gone, and that 70% of the glacier area in the park has also disappeared. The rate of glacier loss has also accelerated, Fagre said – to the point the park was losing 1% of its glacier mass a year from 2005 to 2015.

“Under the current trajectory, glaciers will not survive. It’s only a matter of time,” he said. “Whether it’s in the next few decades or at the end of the century, these glaciers have existed for 7,000 years and will be gone in human lifetimes, including those of the plaintiffs.”

The Glacier ecosystem is special in that it has headwaters of three major North American rivers and is home to species not found in many other places in the Lower 48 due in part to the high elevations, cold temperatures, and glacial waters, Fagre said. But the ecosystem and those downstream of the park are all at risk of vast changes if the climate continues to warm, there is less snowpack and glacier cover, and drought increases.

“If we were able to reduce emissions and some lag time temperatures, we’d find the glaciers would slow in their melting and would eventually stabilize. And with enough time would begin to grow,” he told the court. “Really, the only option is to change the temperatures, which requires changes in fossil fuel use and emissions.”

Both Fagre and Whitlock also offered rebuttals to planned testimony from Judith Curry, a climatologist the state has put on its witness list who is one of a handful of climate scientists who says they believe the predictions about climate change handed down by most scientists are wrong. Whitlock is traveling to Mongolia later this week to teach a course on climate change and health.

Two more plaintiffs also testified Tuesday – Mica K., a 15-year-old from Missoula, and Badge B., a 15-year-old from Kalispell. For most of his life, Mica said he has been advocating for policies to stem the tide of climate change and reduce dependency on fossil fuels.

Also an avid runner, snowboarder and outdoors enthusiast, he discussed how wildfire smoke has forced him inside many times in his life after he developed asthma, and how his winter snowboarding season is getting cut shorter because of warmer and drier seasons.

Mica said he joined the effort because he feels “betrayed” by the government for not doing more to stop burning fossil fuels and thus, he said, to protect Montanans. He said winning the lawsuit would give him hope.

Badge B. approaches the witness stand on the second day of the Held v. Montana climate change trial in Helena on June 13, 2023.
Badge B. approaches the witness stand on the second day of the Held v. Montana climate change trial in Helena on June 13, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

“I would know that we’re moving in the right direction, and we have more hope in the future and just have a better chance,” he said.

Badge, named after the Badger-Two Medicine area not far from his home where he likes to hunt and fish, said he feels melancholy when he sees the extensive burn scars there, a declining Hungarian partridge population that he likes to hunt, and shallower and warmer waters that make fishing impossible at times of the year.

He, too, said he wanted to make a difference by joining the lawsuit since he is unable to vote in order to preserve Montana for his life and next generations. When asked if he was worried about the Montana he stands to inherit, he told the court the state is not holding the constitution up to the standard “it needs to be held up to.”

“(It is) promoting the use of fossil fuels and not abiding by our constitution that says we have a right to a clean and healthful environment,” he said.

The final witness of the day, pediatrician and climate health expert Dr. Lori Byron from Crow Agency, started to discuss the impacts of climate change on children’s health in the final hour of the day and will continue her testimony on Wednesday. She too is slated to rebut Curry’s testimony ahead of the trip to Mongolia with Whitlock, who summed up her testimony by reading the conclusion of her expert report compiled with Running.

“I’ve been warning about the dangers posed by climate change and fossil fuels for decades, and yet Montana continues to aggressively pursue an expansion of fossil fuel utilization and production,” she said. “There’s little time remaining to avoid locking us into irreversible climate impacts, and we believe judicial intervention is essential to protect these children as well as their environment and our natural resources. These are things they depend on for their wellbeing and their very survival.”

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.