Utah politicians eye solutions following U.N.’s dire climate report

Droughts, fires and heatwaves will become more common in Utah, as climate change’s effects take hold

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Pack Creek Fire started on June 9 from an unattended campfire and burned over 8,000 acres in the first week. An example of the extreme effects of climate change is highlighted in the U.N. report.

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Industrialization led to irreversible climate change, according to a report from the world’s top scientists, but cutting carbon emissions can still prevent some of the worst outcomes of global warming.

The recently-formed Conservative Climate Caucus — spearheaded by Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah — sees innovation in the private sector as the way to combat global emissions.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change definitively pointed the finger at humans for the Earth’s warming and said carbon emissions need to be cut drastically in the next few decades to prevent the worst of climate change’s repercussions.

It’s too late to prevent all the effects of climate change — worse forest fires, catastrophic storms and persistent droughts — as we are already living through those events. But reaching net-zero carbon emissions — meaning any carbon put into the atmosphere is offset by carbon removal efforts — can keep the world in a livable condition.

Droughts, heat waves and forest fires are the future of Utah without intervention, as scientists in Utah have been saying for years.

“We obviously have seen all of those three in spades this summer already,” said William Anderegg, a University of Utah professor who researches forests and climate change.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Extreme drought conditions pushes Steinaker Reservoir near Vernal to drop to 21% capacity as seen on Monday, Aug. 9, 2021, as west coast fires blow heavy smoke into the state.

This is the sixth comprehensive IPCC report, the last being issued in 2014. Each declared humans had some involvement with the rising temperature, but the certainty and urgency detailed in the newest report surpasses the previous five.

Representative Curtis formed the Conservative Climate Caucus to promote solutions to climate change. Not engaging in conversations around climate change has “been a mistake” for Republicans, he said.

The report serves as an “affirmation” of his work to raise the issue, Curtis said.

“It’s important that we move to a productive dialog as lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, going in and implementing solutions and moving forward in a thoughtful, methodical approach rather than a hyper-political [approach],” Curtis said.

State Representative Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, who is a founding member of the Utah Legislature’s Clean Air Caucus, said the report was “not surprising” but “stunning” with its definitive terms and urgency.

While he said federal action will need to be taken to cut emissions, states can influence congressional office holders by passing their own legislation. Politicians will need to take a firm stance and prioritize combating climate change.

With the report’s predictions of more extreme weather in the western United States, Briscoe is putting emphasis on preparing infrastructure that will keep Utahns safe from droughts and heatwaves.

“The minimum is that we need to plan,” Briscoe said. “We need to have a serious conversation about resiliency.”

Climate change’s effects on Utah

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The California and Oregon fires are carried into the state by the jet stream as smoke fills the Salt Lake Valley obscuring the sky on Friday, Aug. 6, 2021.

The report “dropped in the middle of the summer where we are sweltering with heat waves, 99% of Utah’s in a severe drought or more and we have this massive air pollution problem from major wildfires burning across the West,” said Professor Anderegg.

Predictions from the report detailed some of what Utah experienced this month, the day it was released -- bad air quality from blazing wildfires on the West Coast and a severe drought across the state. This summer, Utahns also saw the reality of heatwaves with temperatures in the triple digits.

“I can’t imagine much more of a wakeup call that climate change is here and this is what it looks like,” Anderegg said.

The release of the report led to news outlets sounding the alarm about the damage humans are causing to the atmosphere with each ton of carbon emitted. McKenzie Skiles, a snow hydrologist at the U., said she tries to remain hopeful that the world can stem the effects of climate change, but she noted that the previous five reports didn’t lead to the cutbacks required to stop us getting to this point.

“I certainly hope that we’re at a sort of critical-mass moment where the science is strong enough to influence policy,” Skiles said, “but we haven’t necessarily gotten to that point, at least not in the U.S. yet.”

Climate change legislation

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Limited snowfall has led to a diminished snowpack as small trees that would normally be covered in snow poke up through the runs at Solitude Ski Resort on Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2020.

More people should celebrate the strides the U.S. and businesses have made in the past decade, said Representative John Curtis. Businesses in particular have set their own goals, but those goals weren’t regulations set by Congress.

“It’s driven by shareholders, it’s driven by consumer demand and these things that aren’t legislated,” Curtis said.

The Conservative Climate Caucus — which all four Utah representatives are part of — will call for increased support for innovation into clean energy, Curtis said.

“It’s incumbent on U.S. technology and innovation to say, ‘Let’s get busy on making green the low-cost provider,’” Curtis said.

There’s an economic incentive for this plan, Curtis said. If the U.S. can create low-cost energy technology, the country could export it to other countries around the world and “win in that game” by creating more U.S. jobs.

Briscoe sees governmental regulation as a key way to cut emissions, but he agreed that supporting innovation, particularly through public-private partnerships and other incentives, is necessary to developing clean alternatives to our current polluting technology.

The report is clear that humans, who caused this increased climate change, will also need to find a solution to the problem of carbon emissions. Briscoe believes it can be done.

“When humans want to, we’ve got a lot of ingenuity, and Americans have a lot of grit,” Briscoe said. “We can do well if we want to.”