Everyone knows Utah is a conservative bastion whose residents deny climate science, right? Well, perhaps not.
Fully 71 percent of Utahns say climate change is real, according to a recent poll commissioned by The Salt Lake Tribune and the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics. A slightly lower percentage — 64 percent — believe climate change is exacerbated by human activity, and even that number represents a solid majority.
Because the questions and methodologies behind the latest poll differ from previous surveys on the topic, it’s difficult to say whether belief in climate change is a growing trend in Utah. But Peter Howe, an assistant professor of geography at Utah State University who studies attitudes toward climate change, said he was surprised by the results, which differ notably from other polls and from national perceptions of Utah.
“Because Utah is such a red state — and because political orientation is so associated with climate opinion — we would assume Utah would lead” the nation in climate skepticism, Howe said. “But it appears, Utah may be somewhat of an anomaly, though I think that we need more data to say that conclusively.”
The Yale Climate Opinion Map, a public-opinion project to which Howe contributes, found that 62 percent of Utahns believe climate change is happening, compared to a nationwide average of 70 percent. Beehive State residents were also significantly less likely to believe that global warming was caused mostly by human activities, at 43 percent.
Those numbers, according to the Yale map project, would place Utah among states whose residents are the least-likely Americans to believe in human-caused climate change. Only Wyoming has a lower percentage of residents who say they believe human activity is the major contributor to global warming.
However, the Yale map also found that Utahns strongly support political action to curb climate change, Howe said, a key indicator that Utah might differ from other states leaning to the nation’s political right.
According to the Yale polling, 79 percent of Utahns support government funding for renewable-energy research, and 67 percent said the government should regulate carbon dioxide — thought by a majority of scientists globally to be a key contributor to global warming — as a pollutant.
Utah politicians, many of whom have a track record of fighting regulations aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, may want to take note of that finding, Howe said.
Some state leaders do appear to be turning over a new leaf on climate change. While heralding the completion of the state’s 50-year water plan earlier this year, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert acknowledged that the state has “swings in climate,” though what exactly that revealed about his attitude on climate change is ambiguous.
“We have had drought in the past, and we will have drought in the future,” Herbert said during the water plan ceremony. “We need to anticipate what that’s going to be like in a fast-growing state.”
The water plan itself devotes an entire chapter to addressing climate change in Utah, though some of Herbert’s advisers involved in drafting the plan said discussion on the topic was contentious.
Utah’s elected leaders in Congress, all Republicans, have made similar statements.
“I agree with the majority of Utahns in this [Tribune-Hinckley] poll,” 2nd District Rep. Chris Stewart, said in a statement to The Tribune. “Climate change is happening now, it’s happened in the past, and it will continue to happen in the future.”
Sen. Mike Lee — who in June joined 21 other Republican U.S. senators in urging President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate accord — offered similar sentiments.
“Climate change is real,” Lee said in a statement to The Tribune. “The climate is constantly changing. To what degree human activity is causing it, I don’t know, but I have yet to hear a single proposal that would solve the problem but not devastate our economy.”
Fourth District Rep. Mia Love is a member of the House Climate Solutions Caucus, which seeks “economically viable and broadly supported solutions to measured changes” in the world’s climate. Love has challenged the notion that Americans must choose between a thriving economy and combating climate change.
“Our toxic political climate threatens our ability to effectively address our physical climate,” she wrote in an op-ed earlier this year.
All Americans, Love added in a statement to The Tribune, have a role to play in protecting the environment.
“It’s our responsibility to do everything we can to make sure that our children are not just inheriting an economically viable country,” Love said, “but an environmentally viable one.”
So which of these views most closely matches those of the Utah voting public? That may depend on which set of polls you believe.
Howe noted that the Yale Climate Opinion Map is based on figures from 2016, opening the possibility that the more recent Tribune-Hinckley poll — conducted Oct. 10 to 13 — may signal that Utahns, like other U.S. residents, are becoming increasingly convinced of climate change as time goes on.
But the Tribune-Hinckley poll also found only 8 percent of respondents in Utah said their opinion about global warming had changed after this summer’s hurricanes, wildfires and other weather-related events.
Fifty-six percent of respondents said they already believed the climate was changing before those extreme weather events, while 32 percent said the events had not changed their disbelief in climate change.
Howe noted that the Tribune-Hinckley poll reached 605 registered voters in Utah, while the national Yale Climate Opinion Map polling contacted fewer Utahns.
That, he said, could bolster the theory that although Utah remains a GOP stronghold, the views of large numbers of its residents have begun to diverge from those of their national conservative counterparts. It’s generally known, for example, that Utahns’ attitudes toward immigration differ from other Republicans; perhaps they have begun to see climate change differently, too, Howe said.
Beyond that, Howe said climate opinions captured by the Tribune-Hinckley poll largely mirror other national trends. For example, 43 percent of Utahns who described themselves as “very conservative” believed climate change is real, compared to 84 percent of self-described moderate Utahns and 96 percent of those who say they are liberal.
“That’s completely consistent with what we have seen,” the USU scholar said. “Climate change has become polarized over the past couple of decades…. Why that is is likely due to a combination of factors.”
Similarly, Utahns with more formal education were also more likely to believe in climate change — up to a point. While 70 percent of Utahns with a bachelor’s degree said they believed climate change was real, only 65 percent of Utahns with post-graduate education said the same. The Tribune-Hinckley poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.98 percentage points.
The education numbers are also consistent with national data, which indicate that people at both ends of the educational spectrum are more likely to dismiss climate change than those in the middle. However, Howe said, those with the highest levels of education, usually post-graduate education, tend to have stronger opinions about climate change, whether or not they believe it is occurring. Less-educated populations tend not to have strongly-held beliefs about climate change, he said.
It is a misconception, Howe said, that climate skeptics tend to be uneducated.
The Tribune-Hinckley poll also found that more active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were less likely to express a belief in climate change. Fully 63 percent of Mormon respondents describing themselves as “very active” said they believed in climate change, compared to 87 percent of Catholics and 83 percent of Protestants, the poll found.
Howe said this is probably because LDS Church involvement and political ideology are also correlated; however, he said, sociologists are still studying the impact of religion on climate-change attitudes.
Clarification: A prior version of this story was less precise about how education related to climate-change views.