Letters from the West

Idaho lawmakers hold 1st climate change hearing — and no one argued about its existence, causes

Idaho lawmakers had their first official hearing about climate change — and no one argued about its existence or causes.

The House Environment, Energy and Technology committee hearing on Wednesday, carefully scripted through negotiations between the Republican majority and Democrats, represented a new phase in an evolving transformation.

The impacts of a changing climate on Idaho are not new to residents who now annually suffer through “smoke season” in the summer. Climate change isn’t new to residents who, in early March, flock to earlier spring runoffs that show why Shoshone Falls on the Snake River at Twin Falls is “the Niagara of the West.”

We have seen our fall nights warm enough to allow winemakers in Idaho to grow grapes for stunning red wines, impossible just 35 years ago. Even Bogus Basin’s average opening has shifted from November to mid-December as warmer temperatures bring rain instead of snow, limiting the ski area’s most profitable days.

But a 30-year campaign by fossil fuel companies and others to exploit the uncertainty surrounding climate change first politicized the very existence of the rapid warming of the planet, then politicized the greenhouse effect of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuel.

Despite Idaho’s leadership reducing carbon for electricity, Republicans have remained on the skeptic side of the debate. But Idaho Gov. Brad Little broke ground in January when he called for action to reverse climate change.

“Climate is changing; there’s no question about it,” he told the Idaho Environmental Forum.

“Sometimes what you do from a regulatory standpoint might be counter to what the right thing to do is, but you’ve got to recognize it. It’s here,” Little said, according to an Associated Press report. “We’ve just got to figure out how we’re going to cope with it. And we’ve got to slow it down. Now, reversing it is going to be a big darn job.”

Idaho lawmakers agreed to take the first step.

Hearing from the Idaho experts

At the hearing Wednesday, they heard Idaho experts talk about ways to adapt to the changes in our environment and also heard about opportunities that combating global warming presents to the state.

They heard Idaho National Laboratory Director Mark Peters talk about the soon-to-be-expected breakthrough in battery development that will unleash the promise of renewable energy. And he prompted enthusiasm when he talked about INL research into micro grids that can give communities large and small power stability, from rooftop solar options and small modular nuclear reactors.

They also heard JR Simplot Environment and Regulatory Affairs Vice President Alan Prouty warn about the potential costs to farmers and food processors to transform the economy from depending on fossil fuels to clean energy.

“For certain types of manufacturing operations including food processing, there is a certain amount of fossil fuel usage that’s going to happen,” Prouty said. “There’s limits to what technology can do.”

The need? More local climate change data

But after two decades of largely ignoring the issue, lawmakers found consensus on one thing: the need for more data.

“It did highlight the need to get Idaho-specific information rather than global,” said committee chairman Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa.

Over the last two years, the debate over climate change has shifted politically. On one side, President Donald Trump continues to claim climate change is a hoax perpetrated by China to hurt the U.S. economy. On the other, Democrats are promoting a massive “Green New Deal” to prevent catastrophic climate change over the next decade, a program Idaho Republican Rep. Mike Simpson described as “looney.”

That has left political space in the middle. That’s where many Republicans are finding more comfort, especially next to businesses like Hewlett Packard.

“The science is clear, the impacts are serious and the need to act is essential,” David Eichberg, Hewlett Packard chief sustainability and social impact officer, told the committee. “We encourage you to explore policy solutions that help mitigate climate change and transition to a low carbon society.”

Two years ago, Democratic Boise Rep. Ilana Rubel sought repeatedly to get a hearing in the House Energy Committee, but then-Chairman Dell Raybould, a potato farmer, did not consider the issue of climate change significant enough to take committee time. The Rexburg Republican did support Rubel’s informal climate presentation that filled the larger Lincoln Auditorium at the Statehouse.

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Rep. Britt Raybould, District 34B

Now the Raybould on the committee is Dell’s granddaughter, Britt, chief financial officer of the family farm near Rexburg and a business consultant. She knows climate change is real and that she and her grandfather “come at this issue from a different perspective.”

“My focus is on the practical implications,” Raybould said in an interview. “I think it’s helpful to focus on specific solutions.”

She has the Idaho National Laboratory in her district, and the Republican sees a great opportunity for the energy laboratory to find some of those solutions.

“If I have any frustration in this debate it’s the idea that making a transition from one kind of economy to another can happen overnight,” Raybould said. “It can’t.”

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