University of Montana professor Steve Running came away with one distinct impression from his time at the International Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, earlier this month: The United States continues to take small steps to acknowledge the threat of global warming, but binding commitments never come.
"You never see any hard implementation agenda, like the U.S. commits to closing 50 coal-fired power plants in the next decade, or something like that," says Running, who claims a slice of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for work he's done combating climate change. "Do you ever see that? No, never."
That same point couldn't have been better highlighted than when, just days after Copenhagen ended, Running watched aghast as policymakers in his home state gave the thumbs up to lease more than 570 million tons of state-owned coal in the Otter Creek Valley east of Hardin.
For Running, the Otter Creek decision and the token commitments made in Copenhagen are inextricably linked. At the summit, he says all eyes were on the U.S.—the largest historic emitter of greenhouse gases—to step up and show it was set to implement hard limits on emissions. It never happened. Instead, as soon as the conference ended, Montana officials showed exactly how quickly leaders forget about climate change when making big decisions.
"Every one of them was waiting for [the U.S.] to show that we were serious," he says of the summit attendees. "And the very next day the Montana state government votes to lease another billion tons of coal, my God. All those countries saw how willing we are to lead. It's pretty pathetic. As long as the political leaders keep making decisions like that, all of these targeted emissions reductions are a total joke."
Montana Land Board members who voted in favor of the Otter Creek deal point to the financial benefits of mining the sprawling expanse near the Tongue River. A sizeable slice of the proceeds are slated for Montana schools.
"We have a fiduciary responsibility to get a return on those assets for the education trust," says Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who voted for the leases along with Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, Attorney General Steve Bullock and State Auditor Monica Lindeen. "If a company moves forward leasing the Otter Creek tracks, they'll move forward after writing a $140 million check to the state of Montana."
Schweitzer says it's easy to point fingers, but the economic realities of sitting atop tons of coal are unavoidable. Fifty percent of the country's electricity still comes from coal, he says. If power companies don't load up on coal in Montana, they'll go somewhere else.
"Wyoming will continue to mine it, or Kentucky," he says. "Or it will be mined in China."
Despite backlash against the Land Board's vote, Schweitzer defends his environmental track record. He points to his 20 x 10 Energy Initiative, which will have curbed energy use in state agencies by 20 percent from 2007 levels by the end of this coming year, while cutting fuel consumption in state vehicles. His administration has also been an aggressive proponent of wind energy, laying a platform for the renewable resource to be an up-and-coming state industry.
"I can sleep very well at night because there's no governor in America, not a single governor in America, who has made greater steps toward energy conservation," Schweitzer says.
But Running says the planet is rapidly changing, and policymakers must look to the broader picture in order to shape a sustainable environment. The Otter Creek decision shows that's not happening.
"The trajectory of emissions is nothing but up," he says. "It has been for decades. And it's been accelerating in the last decade. And if while we argue we continue business as usual emissions, the point will come, yeah, we lost the argument, just by delay, rather than by specific decision."
Running and other Copenhagen attendees struggle to find glimmers of hope from the recent developments. Keegan Eisenstadt of Missoula's ClearSky Climate Solutions, which works locally and internationally to curb greenhouse gas emissions, says the summit overall was a disappointment, but that political momentum continues to build.
"I used to feel like I was a member of this weird little cult—the climate change cult," Eisenstadt says. "Copenhagen was the first time that it felt like the whole world was watching...That, I think, is a significant change."
Another small victory came as the U.S., China, Brazil, India and South Africa signed off on "The Copenhagen Accord." Though not legally binding, the last-minute deal aims to limit global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial times, with the U.S. joining other developed nations in providing $100 billion annually by 2020 to help developing nations reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But Running says that's not enough. Climate change is already becoming visible in Montana as mountain pine beetles thrive in warming temperatures and consume forests across the state.
"It is something to contemplate—hillsides full of dead trees and streams that are running out of water," he says. "And you realize that, even here, impacts already are quite clear. I can't imagine anybody can argue that they like millions of acres of dead trees."
The responsibility to change belongs to citizens and policymakers alike, Running says, and urgency is mounting.
"We may have already hit a tipping point," he says.