On a bright spring day when no one possibly could have wanted the climate to change, about a hundred people showed up Saturday for the Billings version of the People’s Climate Change March.
Bearing signs with messages such as “Earth: It’s a beautiful thing” and “There are no jobs on a dead planet,” demonstrators on the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn heard speeches, signed petitions and lined North 27th Street to rally support from those in passing cars.
Many passing drivers honked their horns, rousing cheers from the demonstrators. But one pickup emitted a stream of dark black exhaust, suggesting that not everyone puts a high priority on clean air.
The march was one in a series of events planned across the nation on Saturday. The main event, held on a record-breaking 93-degree day in Washington, D.C., drew a crowd estimated at more than 100,000 people. Organizers of the Billings event said Montana marches also were scheduled in Bozeman and Missoula. About 300 other marches or rallies were held around the country.
One of the Billings organizers, Amaya Garcia Costas, said the idea for Saturday’s rally came during a discussion with friends at the Good Earth Market on Earth Day.
“Climate change is happening,” she told the crowd. “Climate change is real. Climate change is not a hoax.”
Costas added, “Our planet is hurting. It is most definitely sick. You know the statistics. The five hottest years on record happened in the last decade. The oceans are rising. Our fire seasons here in the West are extending. Some regions are getting dry; others are experiencing flooding.”
Costas, a microbiologist, said Americans have made great progress in dealing with human illnesses such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. But she said, “What is the point if we don’t have a planet to live in?”
She said that voters need to make sure that elected officials at all levels are “gravely concerned” about climate change and work toward a sustainable future. In Montana, she said, the House Energy Committee tabled House Bill 504, the Solar Jobs and Freedom Energy Act, because of the influence of NorthWestern Energy.
“We need to be louder than the special interests,” she said. “We need to be louder than dark money.”
She also said that lawmakers must preserve the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which was created with bipartisan support under a Republican president. The Donald Trump administration has proposed massive cuts in EPA funding, and the EPA this weekend pulled its web page information on climate change. An EPA spokesman said that the site was being updated to reflect the views of the leadership of the agency.
The Trump-appointed EPA chief, Scott Pruitt, has frequently opposed EPA actions and has expressed skepticism about human-caused climate change. Those actions did not go unnoticed by demonstrators in Billings, one of whom carried a sign reading “Global warming is real: Trump & Pruitt are the hoaxes.”
Kate French, chairman of the Northern Plains Resource Council, told the crowd, “We are rallying for climate, but we also are rallying for jobs, and we’re rallying for justice.” She said there are more jobs in the solar and wind industries than in coal, oil and natural gas combined.
Mary Fitzpatrick of the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council was gathering signatures on petitions calling on Montana’s elected officials to face the facts on climate change squarely and to act as quickly as possible to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.
It could be a hard sell. Of Montana’s congressional delegation, only Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, has spoken out strongly about climate change. During a discussion of the effects of climate change on agriculture, Tester said in Bozeman in February that the planting season has moved up a month on his farm, and the harvest has moved about three weeks.
“This is a critically important topic because it impacts everybody — not only in Montana, but on this Earth,” Tester said, according to the Bozeman Chronicle.
Sen. Steve Daines, a Republican, was asked about climate change this week in a telephone town hall meeting. He did not dispute that human activity is causing the climate to change, but he said, “The question is, how much?”
Daines defended his position on the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which he said would cost 7,000 Montana jobs while having only a tiny effect on carbon dioxide emissions. President Trump has proposed defunding the plan, and Daines did not specify what steps he would take, if any, to combat climate change.
Daines also has signed the No Climate Tax Pledge, which says, “I pledge to the taxpayers of my state, and to the American people, that I will oppose any legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue.”
Montana’s U.S. House seat has been vacant since Ryan Zinke was confirmed as secretary of the Interior. Zinke said during confirmation hearings that climate change was not a hoax, a position that Trump has taken at times, but he also has outlined no vigorous plans to deal with the issue.
The candidates running to fill Zinke’s seat seem to have opposing positions on climate change. Democrat Rob Quist told the Campus Election Engagement Project that climate change is real and is affecting Montana farmers and ranchers and the outdoor industry.
Quist expressed support for “clean coal” technologies and for the Clean Power Plan, but his Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, has called for its elimination. “The climate is always changing,” Gianforte has said.
If action on climate change may be a hard sell to Congress, those at the rally said it was important to get the message out. Sally McIntosh, art gallery director at Rocky Mountain College, said the rally was her first participation in political protest since the People’s Park protests at the University of California Berkeley in the 1960s.
“I’ve got to be responsible,” she said. “I can’t rely on somebody else to do it for me.”
With efforts to protect the environment in recent years, she thought we were OK, she said. But the Trump administration’s policies have cast that in doubt.
“It’s a big deal,” she said. “It’s a big deal for all of us.”
Andy Owenreay of Huntley, carrying a sign with a drawn-on stop sign and the words “Fossil fuels fascism Trump,” said, “Climate change is an existential threat to humankind.” His wife, Kristen, said, “Climate change is the most pressing issue of our time, especially for young people.”
David Omen, a retired U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs employee, said his concern for the environment goes back to the woods that grew behind his house when he was a child in Wisconsin. After retiring, he came up with his own plan for a degree in environmental art from Montana State University Billings.
“Artists have a responsibility to try to improve the world,” he said. They do that, he said, by showing people things that they otherwise do not see.
Others took a lighter approach. One sign said, “Save our planet: It’s the only one that has chocolate.” Another said, “the Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones.”
As demonstrators lined North 27th Street and some banged on drums, Julius Ostby of Billings used a megaphone to shout out slogans such as, “When the air we breathe is under attack, what do we do?”
“Stand up, fight back,” the crowd replied in unison.
“What do we do?”
“Stand up, fight back.”
“What do we do?”
“Stand up, fight back.”
It was one small shout on one street, but the message was unmistakable: This fight has a long way to go.