Has climate change provided a ‘net benefit’ to Idaho? That’s one skeptic’s argument.

Has climate change provided a ‘net benefit’ to Idaho? That’s one skeptic’s argument.

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Smoky skies

The Boise Foothills disappear in smoke behind the Downtown Boise skyline in this August 2018 photo. Wildfire smoke is now a regular presence in the Treasure Valley during late summer.

BOISE — Global warming has brought Idaho a longer growing season, less brutal winters and slightly more precipitation, according to the group that for the past 15 years has been the leading skeptic of rapid human-caused climate change.

James Taylor, director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy at The Heartland Institute, told the House Resources Committee on Thursday that climate change has been a net benefit for the state. But what the Illinois-based lobbyist did not talk about was how warmer temperatures in the winter were reducing the snowpack that is the major storage of water for agriculture.

“Almost all the warming has been in the coldest months of the year,” said Taylor, whose group is heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry. When challenged by lawmakers, Taylor — who repeatedly called the state Iowa — acknowledged that he had not talked to any Idaho scientists, industry officials or others on the ground when compiling his 16-page policy brief.

“I didn’t say there were no negative impacts, only a net benefit,” Taylor said.

Jeff Hicke, a University of Idaho geography professor and climate expert, isn’t ready to say that. Clearly there can be benefits, such as the longer growing season.

“From the citizens of Idaho’s perspective, I wouldn’t say that climate change has been a net benefit,” Hicke said. He pointed to the health effects of increased smoke from wildfires and the lower summer flows for irrigation, fish and wildlife.

Taylor also claimed there is less chance for drought now than in the historical record, and less chance of flooding in the future.

That should mean fewer wildfires except those started by humans or because of human management decisions, he said. But in fact the fire season has grown by 47 days annually over the past 25 years, according to Boise State University geology professor Jen Pierce, burning millions of acres and creating regular summer smoke across the state. Even the increased crop yields could drop if the lower snowpack forecast reduces the water supply, Pierce said.

“You can’t grow crops without water,” Pierce said. “We can’t have water without snowpack.”

Taylor and the Idaho scientists agreed that people need to pay attention to the changing climate.

Idaho’s largest industries are watching the trends closely and awaiting an economic assessment by the McClure Center of Public Policy at the University of Idaho. The center is working with scientists from all three of Idaho’s universities to examine the potential economic damages from climate change and the opportunities, such as payment for sequestering carbon by farming and forestry practices and renewable energy projects.

The assessment is more than a year away, Hicke said.

“Until that time it’s hard to get to any conclusions,” said Alex LeBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry.

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