Panel: Utah conservatives — yes, even the Mormon ones — ought to lead the nation on climate action

(AP file photo, Jonathan Hayward). A fisheye lens view of ice floes in Baffin Bay above the Arctic Circle, which in 2015 saw the lowest maximum coverage of sea ice in the Arctic since records began in 1979. In a Salt Lake City panel discussion Friday, scholars said action on climate change squares with conservative political and religious viewpoints.

Scholars say Utah — with its scenic landscapes, hard-working employees and conservative family values — could easily lead the nation in finding innovative ways to address climate change.

Trouble is, they say, too many Utahns, and the state’s opinion leaders in particular, are afraid to openly discuss the issue for fear of a political backlash.

But addressing the issue is “not a heresy,” said Bob Inglis, who served as a Republican congressman from South Carolina in the late 90s and early 2000s. “It’s actually very consistent with conservatism.”

At a Friday panel discussion in Salt Lake City, Inglis recounted how his thinking evolved over squaring personal beliefs with acknowledging climate change, a journey that ultimately led him to support a tax on carbon emissions. Inglis was voted out of office in 2010, losing in a Republican primary that year by more than two-thirds of the vote— in part, he believes, because of his climate change views.

Despite that experience, Inglis said the tide is changing. Before long, he predicted, Republican leaders will take up the climate cause.

“When this is all over,” he told his Utah audience, “we’re going to find out that what looked like powerful opposition to climate action is going to be pitiful and few, and we’re going to be amazed that a handful of people held the world back.”

Climate action and a carbon tax in particular, should be a conservative ideal, even a libertarian ideal, Inglis said. He challenged conservatives to put their professed beliefs in a free, transparent and accountable marketplace to the test. Apply the true costs of carbon to products, he said, and let capitalism take its course.

Several state lawmakers and representatives of Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, U.S. Rep. Mia Love and Sen. Mike Lee attended the discussion, co-sponsored by the Utah Citizen’s Counsel, a non-partisan group for politically involved seniors , and the Global Change and Sustainability Center at the University of Utah.

Dave Carrier, with the Utah Citizen’s Counsel, said in the past the group had balked at publicly broaching the topic for fear of upsetting its members. That changed, he said, when President Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the international Paris climate accord.

While many prominent Utahns want to push climate-related policies, Carrier said, “they’re afraid to have the conversation.”

Others pointed to an ongoing study from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, which last year found that only 34 percent of Utahns “discuss global warming at least occasionally.” That same survey found that the vast majority of state residents support regulating carbon emissions.

Steven Glaser, a Utah leader in the grassroots Citizen’s Climate Lobby, said he believes there is greater support for climate policy than Utah’s leaders may suppose. But many Republican leaders, he said, fear losing their jobs if they take a stand.

“A lot of Republicans in Utah support this issue,” Glaser said. “You’re not stepping out as far as you think you are.”

Addressing climate change need not require seismic societal shifts, either, according to Robert Davies, an associate professor of physics and critical science communication at Utah State University, and a former associate of the Utah Climate Center.

“Ten percent of people in the world consume 50 percent of the world’s energy,” he said. “We don’t need consumption limits on the whole world, just for about 10 percent, which includes those of us in this room.”

Mormons, with their unique beliefs and worldview, should be at the forefront of climate activism and environmental advocacy, said George Handley, a professor of interdisciplinary humanities at Brigham Young University.

He cited passages of Mormon scripture declaring the “uneven distribution of natural resources” to be a sin, and explained that Mormonism believes all plants and animals have living souls and an inherent right to life. The BYU professor also noted that Mormons, unlike many other Christians, believe Earth will one day become the Celestial Kingdom, the afterlife to which Mormons aspire.

“We’re aiming for the privilege to stay here,” Handley said, “not to go to another place.” Handley said.

To engage Mormons, Handley said scientists and others should avoid talking about the “doom and gloom” of climate change and focus on a positive message about “imagining a way of living that is much more full of meaningful activity.” He also called sustainability a Mormon value.

“We are responsible for taking care of the Earth so we can help the human family flourish, and that requires the redistribution of resources and reducing our impact so more resource are available to more people,” he said. “That’s at the heart of the message for me.”