February 17, 2022

When I lived in Beijing, people would always ask me how the pollution was. I told them two things: The Communist Party planted trees to stop sandstorms from entering the capital. They also moved factories away from the city, but didn’t shut them down. Despite all this, the Chinese Capitol still experiences terrible air quality for periods of the year. This past summer I moved home to Minnesota and was amazed to watch everyone taking pictures of the smoky haze drifting east from California, Washington, and Oregon and south from Canada.  While this was new for them, Minnesota generally has very good air quality, I was reminded of Beijing. A picturesque lake, glazed over with a harsh bite of reality: the wildfire smoke had finally reached that the boundary waters of Northern Minnesota.

I recently graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) with a master’s in Environmental Politics. As grad students, we were preoccupied with international summits and the carbon reduction pledges made by governments at the national level. However, we were left wondering: what can cities do to combat climate change? Especially, those cities that may not have support from the larger government bodies under whose jurisdiction they fall. Little did I know that I would soon move to the largest EPA superfund site in the United States! I’ve landed in Butte, Montana as an AmeriCorps VISTA, and now have an opportunity to answer those questions. 

Montana’s climate scene is unlike any other that I have come across. Great people are doing projects all over the state, and I have never felt more welcome as I got plugged into the network.  Every person that I have talked to is genuinely excited about my service mission and in every conversation I get referred to talk to even more people. 

In my new home, Butte residents have been so welcoming. I had been a bit worried about more skepticism, as you tend to get with most environmental topics, but everyone has been so receptive to anything that will help Butte develop and grow to a place equal to its history. At the turn of the 19th century, at the height of the mining boom, Butte was the largest city between Chicago and the west. Now, it is blooming again from being hit hard by the shutting of mines in the ‘80s. Thus, our project was born—Resilient Butte.

This year, Butte-Silver Bow County, Montana Technological University and the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) are partnering to create our Butte sustainability, health and resilience plan. Unlike us Minnesotans, Montana has been battling drought and wildfire risk for years. Concerns of having to shut a municipal watershed due to dead tree debris caused by drought plugging the water treatment filters is just one example of associated problems from wildfire and drought we need to plan for. Many Butte residents live in old buildings, which need proper insulation and weatherization, that increase the risk for health problems from rising temperatures and wildfire smoke. Those are just a couple issues we want to tackle with this new plan. But our plan isn’t just about the negatives.

Butte has a rich history. It is well-positioned and has the essential elements to become a fantastic renewable energy hub. With silicon and copper being two Butte products, they are essential for solar energy. In recent years, Butte has been approached by several large-array solar and green hydrogen energy projects but didn’t know where to place them at the time. This plan will serve as a guide for the city-county. Renewable energy would be a great economic development opportunity for Butte and Butte residents.