Letters from the West

With Idahoans split, our big employers take the lead on adapting to climate change

Clif Bar General Manager Dale Ducommun talks about the new production line Feb. 23, 2017, at the company’s bakery in Twin Falls.
Clif Bar General Manager Dale Ducommun talks about the new production line Feb. 23, 2017, at the company’s bakery in Twin Falls. Times-News

Most Idahoans say climate change is happening. But less than half think humans caused it and can do anything about it.

A group of scientists, economists, farmers, business leaders, environmental activists, and local government leaders came together around the state last week in the latest effort to change that statistic. Before Idaho can come together behind ways to fight and adapt to climate change, people need to talk, said Toni Hardesty, executive director of the Nature Conservancy of Idaho.

“The only Idahoans who are not impacted by climate change are those who don’t use water, electricity, eat, breathe, recreate, rely on the forest endowment for their children’s education,” Hardesty said at the Idaho Climate Summit.

The talking is important, but Idaho businesses aren’t waiting for a local political consensus to react. They can’t afford to.

They depend on a global market that already has shifted toward a green economic model designed to “decarbonize” the economy. Companies like J.R. Simplot, Clif Bar, Monsanto and HP risk being left behind if they don’t act quickly.

“These are expectations we are seeing from our customers and our investors,” said David Eichberg, an HP sustainability executive.

The businesses have made commitments to dramatically reduce energy use, water use and greenhouse gases over the next decade, in part to meet the goals set by world leaders in the Paris Accords. Some of those gains they’ve already achieved: Simplot has reduced its energy intensity (the total energy it uses to make each bag of potatoes or fertilizer) by more than 10 percent, with savings at two of its factories exceeding 25 percent. Put simply, the company uses less power while still producing the same amount of potatoes and fertilizer, which aids its bottom line.

Simplot also has reduced its own water use, but to meet its ambitious goals it needs to get the farmers who supply its potatoes on board. Simplot is encouraging them to plant other potato varieties that have yields 30 to 40 percent higher than Russet Burbanks, the traditional Idaho potato. This reduces the number of fields in production and the amount of water and energy the farmers use.

All of these companies are using incentives to get their suppliers on board. Clif Bar came to Idaho not because of this state’s low taxes, but because of a young, skilled workforce and the high percentage of renewable energy that feeds Idaho Power’s network, said Rich Berger, Clif Bar’s vice president of engineering and food supply.

To make its Twin Falls plant 100 percent “clean green power,” Clif Bar bought clean energy credits from the Meadow Creek Wind Farm in Ririe. And it gives it workers generous incentives to buy electric cars.

So far 430 workers, a third of its workforce, have bought the cars. This behavior is changing Idaho despite the lack of leadership from the Idaho Legislature, the state’s congressional delegation or Republican primary voters.

A Yale University poll showed that the majority of Idahoans believe climate change is only affecting others. That’s despite the smoke they breathe from the regular megafires we experience, and the early snowmelt that leaves less water in our rivers in summer for power, irrigation and fish.

I have covered the climate for 42 years and watched how a well-paid band of professional skeptics have exploited the inherent uncertainties that a change of a global scale has. They have brought along thoughtful people who also fear they’ll be bound by international regulatory handcuffs intended to stop climate change.

So first, they denied it was happening. Then, they said humans had nothing to do with it. Now, they say there is nothing we can do.

Fred Birnbaum, vice president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, said the measures the Paris Accords recommended won’t stop climate change.

“Show me the data that those things will have a meaningful impact on climate,” Birnbaum said Monday.

I could show Birnbaum the scenarios climate scientists agree on, like a 7-degree Fahrenheit rise in global temperature by 2100 if past trends continue. And that the same scientists say the actions proposed by the Paris Accords would reduce the warming by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, which may be the difference between a rough adaptation period and catastrophe.

But it’s true: The world will get warmer no matter what we do. It’s just how warm, is the issue.

Kate Gordon is senior advisor of the Paulson Institute, started by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. Businesses, communities, states and countries, she said, face more risks than just the natural impacts of climate change — rising oceans, shifting agricultural zones, extreme weather and drought.

Failing to act could also leave us with an economy, infrastructure and institutions built on a carbon foundation, while the rest of the world moves on by us.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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