MISSOULA — Montana farmers and ranchers know the climate is changing.
As evidence, Montana State University Adjunct Professor Timothy Seipel presented a survey Monday that showed 83.5 percent of farmers questioned see climate change as a problem.
Despite that acknowledgement, about 43 percent of 424 farmers and ranchers around Montana surveyed by members of Climate Research Assessment in Montana and the Northern Great Plains did not believe climate change was caused by humans, Seipel said. The 36 percent who did believe human activities spurred on climate change were all likely to be more liberal. The more conservative a person in the survey was, the more likely they were to believe climate change wasn't happening, despite what has been perceived by farmers across the state, Seipel said.
Seipel summed up the deeper point of the entire forum, hosted at the University Center Theater by the University of Montana Climate Change Studies Program and the Montana National Wildlife Federation.
"We need to depoliticize the causes of climate change," Seipel said.
The forum was planned months before last week's announcement from President Donald Trump that the United States would be pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement. While the scientists at the forum tried to keep their presentations focused on the evidence of climate change and the potential effects that increased temperatures and carbon emissions could have on the state, the president's decision was brought up early by Nobel Laureate Steve Running.
In the hour before Running gave his presentation at the conference, he came across an open letter to parties to the Paris Agreement from U.S. state, local, and business leaders.
"I've never seen anything like this in my lifetime," said Running, the UM Regents Professor of Ecology.
Running shared a Nobel Peace Prize with members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body that produces objective, scientific reports on climate change and its political and economic impacts.
If changes aren't made, Montana's temperatures are expected to rise 12 degrees over the next 30 years, which could turn Montana into a ghost town, Running said.
What could make a significant difference in carbon emissions all over the world is if people would stop burning coal, Running said. Already China is canceling large coal plant projects and India is as well, investing instead in solar panels, Running said.
"Coal is a public health menace," Running said.
But towns in Montana are tied to the doomed coal industry, Running said. One of his first research projects in the 1980s was on the town of Colstrip. With a wider economy, maybe it would be easier to shift the industry, but there are still jobs in cleaning up the coal plants and other industries.
"Most of the people there probably have marketable skills, they do have potential," Running said.
But Running said he isn't interested in convincing people of that. The people Running is trying to reach are the one-third of the voting public who shrug at the idea of global warming and don't see it as a global emergency, Running said.
So education and a more scientifically literate public are goals for people like Alisa Wade, a UM geosciences conservation scientist and spatial ecologist. Wade has taught the university's Introduction to Climate Change class it and students told her it was good to understand the science behind their beliefs — and have better arguments for their parents, she said.
"I really did like the idea of being focused on the science behind climate change," Wade said.
Climate change is such a complex theory, which opens it up for people to be misinformed about what is going on, Wade said. Scientists try to explain what is happening, with all the caveats they are trained to include, Wade said. Then people take that information and find its flaws.
"People want to pick it apart," Wade said. "But they don't want to come back to us after they've picked apart, and talk to us and dig deeper into the issues."
Yes, the earth has temperature cycles, but scientists for the most part understand those temperature cycles and can point to the causes, Wade said.
Based on the best scientific data available, carbon emissions are reason there are projected to be more days over 90 degrees in Montana and fewer with freezing temperatures over the next 30 years, Wade said.
The effects will be seen in longer fire seasons, which will cause more carbon emissions, Wade said.
Another effect — a reduction in the population of Montana's snowshoe hares, said Steve Mills, UM associate vice president of research for global change and sustainability. The hares need to change their coats from white to brown when the snowpack melts, but because the melts are happening much earlier than in the past, many of the hares are still white when they should already have changed colors.
And, the effect can be seen on the farm of Matt Bell's grandfather. Bell was one of about 100 people who attended the forum and who lined up to ask more questions after it was done. Bell's grandfather has a farm on the Fort Belknap Reservation and has had difficulty in past seasons fighting the increasing number of weeds cropping up.
"At some of the higher temperatures the models are projecting, society as it works now will not be feasible," Wade said. "If the models are correct, and we continue on the business as usual path, we're to see the highest of the hots neat the end of this century. If that happens, the world will look undeniably different."