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Idaho businesses, industry, agencies, other groups come together at ‘Climate Summit’

UPDATED: Fri., Nov. 17, 2017, 3:39 p.m.

BOISE – From increased agricultural pests and disease, to longer, smokier wildfire seasons, to spreading invasive species, Idaho’s economy is already being seriously impacted by climate change, said participants in a statewide, two-day “climate summit” this week. And regardless of the causes, presenters said, it’s time for businesses, agencies, universities, tribes and more to come together to identify solutions.

“This is Idaho – we know how to work together and we know how to solve problems,” said Heather Kimmel of the American Lung Association. “We can identify solutions that will protect Idaho’s economy, Idaho’s water, Idaho’s land, Idaho’s health, and Idaho’s future for generations to come.”

The climate summit, entitled “Safeguarding Idaho’s Economy in a Changing Climate,” ran Thursday and Friday at four locations around the state: Boise State University in Boise, the University of Idaho in Moscow, Idaho State University in Pocatello, and the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council offices in Ashton. It was also streamed online.

The more than 50 sponsors ranged from Idaho Power and Monsanto Corp. to the Society of American Foresters, the Nature Conservancy, the Idaho National Laboratory and the Nez Perce Tribe.

An array of Idaho businesses shared their strategies for increasing sustainable practices and reducing their carbon footprint, from J.R. Simplot Corp.’s newest potato processing plant to HP Inc.’s recycled printer cartridges to Clif Bar’s moves to cut emissions and waste from its manufacturing plants all the way through its supply chain.

“To us, very much, climate change is real,” said John Bernardo of Idaho Power. The big southern Idaho utility is addressing it with efforts including cloud seeding to increase precipitation, vegetation management around remote power poles to keep them from burning up in wildfires, and pollution-reduction programs aimed at lowering the rising temperatures in the Snake River.

Idaho lawmakers, however, have been leery of addressing climate change; earlier this year, they controversially voted to strip climate change references out of the state’s school science standards and order a rewrite, out of concern that the original standards suggested “humans are bad.”

University of Idaho President Chuck Staben praised the summit organizers for how they framed the issue – avoiding the controversy over what’s causing the changes, and instead focusing on how to deal with what’s happening on the ground in Idaho.

“I think the summit has taken a very pragmatic approach,” Staben said.

Steve Pew, environmental health director at Southeastern Idaho Public Health District, said a colleague of his mentioned climate change at a meeting and “he was about to get drug out and strung up.” So Pew said he “started using the term extreme weather. … It’s easy for people to get a handle on that.”

Asked to identify the impacts they’ve personally seen and dealt with so far, several participants spoke out as the summit opened. Juliet Marshall, a U of I professor in Aberdeen, said she works in production agriculture. “When I first came here 25 years ago, we really didn’t have to worry a lot about diseases,” she said. “Over time, we’ve seen a complete shift in the disease pressure and the insect pressure in commercial agriculture. We’re looking at increases of two to three times in pesticide applications.”

“Wildfire, climate and precipitation are connected,” presenter Bryant Kuechle of the Langdon Group told the gathering, which drew 250 participants at the Boise location, in addition to more than 80 in Moscow, more than 60 in Pocatello, 30 in Ashton and 90 more online. “The western U.S. wildfire season increased from five months in the 1970s to seven months today.”

Western states are seeing four times as many major wildfires today as they did in 1970, he said, and six times as much forest burned. The number of acres burned doubled from 1984 to 2015.

Idaho also is seeing declines in spring runoff, with the largest declines below 3,000 feet elevation, and stream gauges show a 15 percent drop in cumulative annual streamflows over the last half-century. That impacts fisheries, recreation, agriculture and more.

“It isn’t really a door-opener when you tell legislators you want to talk about climate change, but it is a door opener when you tell them you want to talk to them about the economy. … Technology has a role in this.”

Kate Gordon, keynote speaker, senior advisor at the Paulson Institute and founding executive director of the Risky Business Project, which addresses risks from climate change, said, “This is a profoundly local issue.”

Idaho has opportunities, she said, but, “It does take operational change within the private sector, it does take policy change in the public sector, and it does take upfront investment.”

The world is moving toward “de-carbonization,” she said, offering examples including China’s pledge to manufacture only electric vehicles after 2019.

“It’s a moving market that we either take advantage of, or we risk not taking advantage of,” she said, noting that her background isn’t in science – it’s in economic development. “Let’s not wait ‘til tomorrow, let’s do this.”

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