Climate Change Communication in Montana

June 26, 2014

Written By: Raija Bushnell, UNHSI Ted Smith Climate Fellow

How do you communicate about climate change in Montana?  From what I have learned in my three weeks of living here, it is by not saying “climate change.”

To begin broadly, I would like to first acknowledge that the issue of communicating climate change is not unique to Montana. This past spring the Smithsonian Magazine published an article titled “Why Doesn't Anyone Know How to Talk About Global Warming?” The article discussed how, despite all the information and facts being presented by science, the communication strategy used is unsuccessful in furthering the public’s understanding of climate change, which prevents the buy-in necessary for action. It is a breakdown in understanding the culture of the audience, how to present the facts, and even the general semantics of the subject.

To some of the rural population in Montana and across the U.S., “climate change” and “global warming” are synonymous with the UN’s Agenda 21—a broad government conspiracy and plot for control. However, this doesn’t mean that people are blind to the changes in weather and the extreme weather events that are occurring. To counteract this, scientists and policy makers need to consider utilizing a different lens.

In Montana, that could be water.

Montana is unique in that it contains the headwaters for three continental watersheds: the Columbia River, the Missouri River, and the St. Mary’s river—Montanans and multiple states rely on these headwaters. Within Montana agriculturalists own 95% of the water rights, and unfortunately the legal structure of those rights is best summed up as “use it or lose it.” Further complicating matters is that in a state of a little over 1 million people, urbanization is increasing. This shift results in higher urban demands for water from limited municipal water sources. It also changes political dynamics where an urban population, who has strength in numbers, will begin to have a louder voice and more power to influence water discussions and actions. Mark Twain once said “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over” and in Montana this is becoming increasingly true as all types of Montanans are seeing changes in their water supply and demand.

Montanan agriculturalists are now seeing their growing season start earlier and last longer. Although a longer season can increase production it also means more water is needed. Skiers had a great year where the snowpack in some places was over 130% of the average, but the melting comes earlier and faster which causes flooding problems at the beginning of the season and low water later in the season.

130 ft Snowpack Beartooth Pass snowpack in 2011. In 2010-2011 the snowmelt came late, but trends have indicated melts are coming earlier. (Source:


Fishermen and outdoor enthusiasts are seeing warmer rivers with low water levels that don’t support fish habitat or their outdoor activities at the end of summer. All this adds up to concern about an issue that, despite disagreement about its causes, finds widespread agreement on the need to adapt and find solutions.

Infographic: Montana Spring As can be seen on this map, Spring (characterized in this case as the first budding of leaves) is coming earlier in the majority of states. (Source:


In my three weeks that I have been here, it has been interesting to observe how this communication strategy, which uses water as a common ground, is allowing Montanan non-profits, agriculturalists, scientists, and sportsmen alike to come together and begin important discussions that are relatable to all interested parties. More importantly, it represents the possibility of a new strategy that focuses on making climate change communication pertinent to the people that it is affecting the most.

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