A new Yale University study says eastern Utah’s Emery County is one of just three counties in the nation where less than half of all adults believe that global warming is happening.
And that is out of 3,142 counties researched by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Joining Emery with less than half of adults believing in climate change are Heard County, Ga., and Grant County, W. Va.
Residents in the coal-producing county in southeastern Utah say it’s not that they don’t believe in climate change. Many just don’t agree with prevailing theories on what is causing it.
Nationwide, nearly 70.2 percent of U.S. adults believe global warming is happening, according to the Yale Climate Opinion Map 2018. In Emery County, about 49.6 percent of adults believe it is, based on the study, which also involved researchers at Utah State University in Logan and University of California, Santa Barbara.
Calculated at the state level, shares of adult residents believing in climate change ranged from a high of 82.2 percent in the District of Columbia to 58.6 percent of adults in West Virginia. And on that same scale, about two-thirds of Utahns age 25 and older — or about 65.6 percent — believed in global warming, placing the Beehive State 33rd highest among U.S. states for climate-change acceptance.
Reached at the county government seat of Castle Dale, Emery County Commission Chairman Lynn Sitterud said it was no coincidence that Emery’s numbers were on par with those in another rural, coal-producing county in West Virginia. He cites an urban-rural divide for differing views on the causes of climate change.
“Your people in Salt Lake would like to blame it on our coal-fired plants that have been rebuilt and modernized and are burning pretty darn clean,” said Sitterud, referring to PacifiCorp electrical-generation plants in Hunter and Huntington. “And we would rather blame it on your cars and pollution problems up there being self-inflicted, and not brought on by our plants that are being upgraded continually."
Mike Jones, owner-operator of Jones Ace Hardware store on Castle Dale’s Main Street, speculated that local residents may doubt the effects of human actions on climate based because where they live, there are few visible sources of human pollution.
For his own view, Jones said, "I do agree that humans are polluting and wasting the Earth in a way, but as far as climate change is concerned, I wouldn't know what to say."
The same Yale opinion mapping also measured shares of adults who believed global warming is “mostly caused by human activities.” Emery County’s share of adults holding that opinion was Utah’s lowest, at 39 percent — nearly 18 percentage points below the U.S. average — though in 20 of the state’s 29 counties fewer than half of adults shared that belief.
Only 27 percent of Emery’s adult population believe that most scientists think global warming is happening. Statewide, only four Utah counties — Summit, Salt Lake, Grand and Cache — had more than 50 percent of adults believing there is a majority consensus among scientists on global warming.
It’s important to note that numbers generated in the Yale Climate Opinion Maps for the state, congressional district and county levels are based on modeling, using advanced statistical and geographic methods to “downscale” national public opinion to the local level. Findings based on those methods were then validated by statewide surveys in California, Texas, Ohio and Colorado, and in two cities — Columbus, Ohio; and San Francisco.
Data scientists at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication said the modeling has an average margin of error of plus or minus 8 percentage points for county-level numbers.
Utah counties with the highest shares of adults who believed in global warming were Summit, at 74.4 percent; Salt Lake County, at 73.6 percent; and Emery County’s neighbor to the east, Grand County, at 72.9 percent. In coal-producing Carbon County to Emery County’s north, the number was 59.5 percent.
One veteran Emery County observer said she agreed that the Yale findings probably reflected a more nuanced doubt among residents about the causes of global warming, rather than disbelief that it is actually happening.
The issue has been the subject of several community meetings over the years and received “a lot of discussion all over down here,” said Patsy Stoddard, editor of Emery County Progress, a weekly newspaper based in Huntington.
Stoddard recalled one longtime resident taking a visiting reporter out to view layers in ancient rock formations to compare the geological scale of time with the potential effects of human activity.
“Humans weren’t even here when all of these other things were occurring,” Stoddard said.
“That’s kind of the premise of the people in the county," she said. "The opinion is pretty much, yes, there is climate change and it is occurring, but it’s more of a cycle that has been occurring for millions of years.”