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Theaters, prisons, and denial
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

According to Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, the mega-theater he has worked tirelessly to create will help revitalize downtown. Maybe.

According to Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, the mega-hotel to be built next to the convention center will keep big groups coming and attract even more big groups. Maybe.

According to state Sen. Scott Jenkins and the Governors Office of Economic Development, moving the state prison will create $20 billion in future economic activity. Maybe.

Politicians left and right like projects that promise to make money, and these three projects certainly qualify. If they're successful, they'll generate lots of money. If.

One thing's for sure, however: They'll cost lots of money. The priciest of the three, the prison relocation, will likely come in at over $550 million in public money.

Are our three politicians worried about that cost? Not really. Jenkins, for example, says that while we'll be spending a lot of money, we won't be taking that money directly from the state budget. It'll come instead from increased tax revenue on the development of the property. Well, that doesn't sound too bad, if the development works.

The big if in each case is if it will work. The reason I think all three projects will not work can be summed up in two little words: tipping point.

What is this "tipping point"? Well, for starters, it's something that few politicians in America today, Republican or Democrat, think much about. Certainly our three big project backers aren't thinking about it.

The tipping point is the moment when climate change ceases to be a problem we have created and that we can solve. Right now, Luddite claims by the right notwithstanding, climate change is 100 percent man-made. And there is good science to say that it is 100 percent solvable. In fact, we could solve it in five years if we put our mind to it. Indeed, that may be all the time we have to solve it.

Here's the deal: If Earth itself becomes a source of climate change, all bets are off, not only about the solvability of the problem but also about the future of a civilized life that includes theaters, hotels, and prisons.

What specifically is the tipping point? In fact, there are probably several such points, but perhaps the biggest is the melting of the Arctic permafrost, which contains as much carbon as society has put into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution began two centuries ago. If, as a result of present levels of climate change, we cause the permafrost to release its carbon, we lose the battle for climate change. Period. At that point, runaway natural cycles of change begin that we will be helpless to prevent.

How soon do we reach this tipping point? No one knows, but many scientists are concerned that we're very close, perhaps just five years away.

What our politicians have yet to internalize is the fact that we do not have a generation or two to address climate change. We have just a few years. And if we do not address it now, nothing else we do later will matter.

This includes our big projects. Our grand plans for the future of Salt Lake all hinge on the tipping points. And no politician in Utah, no business leader in Utah, no religious leader in Utah (outside the Unitarian Church, anyway), is talking about them, much less proposing to spend $550 million dollars to see that we never reach them. This is the great denial in which our "leaders" operate.

Ed Firmage Jr. is a Salt Lake-based writer and photographer.

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