Two Utah universities are tackling climate change in search of practical solutions

The U. and USU have new centers focused solely on helping the state adapt to a rapidly changing world.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Bear River flows into an increasingly dry Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022. Climate change poses a major threat to Utah's agriculture, air quality, water supply and future growth, so much so that two universities have established new centers to help Utahns and policymakers adapt to an uncertain future.

With a shrinking Great Salt Lake, dwindling Colorado River water supply, escalating wildfire danger and mushrooming population, climate change has unleashed an environmental rampage that Utahns no longer can afford to ignore.

That’s why two of the state’s major institutions — the University of Utah and Utah State University — are making big investments in climate and environmental research, with the goal of helping us adapt to a rapidly changing world.

On Wednesday, the U. unveiled its Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy, which seeks to link its expertise in business and climate research to better develop and promote practical solutions.

“This is a center that is not investing in studying a problem as it evolves,” U. President Taylor Randall said in an interview. “It is an investment in the future and making it better.

The U. received a $20 million donation from the Red Crow Foundation to create the center. Those funds will help pay for more climate research, new degrees in environmental science and engagement with the business community. The center also will host an annual summit for politicians and entrepreneurs focused on climate policy.

“That’s what this is going to take in order to solve this problem,” said Utah businessman Clay Wilkes, who formed the Red Crow Foundation with his wife, Marie. “It’s not going to come about because of a single investment or even a single government action. It’s going to require, really, a mind shift in humanity that’s monumental in its size and scope, and Utah can play an important role in this.”

Many students and young scientists enrolling in classes or conducting research for the center Wilkes helped form will deal with the brunt of climate change’s impacts.

“They are also the generation that will come up with solutions,” Wilkes said. “... You’re going to see a lot of great entrepreneurship focused in this area, and that’s exciting to me.”

The center’s founders note Utah’s geography makes it a “living laboratory” for studying environmental fallout, from the Salt Lake Valley’s surrounding mountains that suck in smog to the “megadrought” sucking Lake Powell dry and forcing hard conversations about Western water supplies.

The region’s dwindling resources combined with its growing population is why Utah State University recently announced a climate and environment-focused center of its own, called the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute for Land, Water, and Air, formed with the help of a $7 million endowment.

Like the U., the Logan-based university seeks to equip Utah’s elected leaders and decision-makers with the best science and policy proposals to adapt to a hotter, drier and more disruptive future.

“I love the opportunity to work with researchers on the cutting edge, solving some of the biggest societal issues in the West,” said Brian Steed, who left his position as executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources to helm USU’s new institute in July. “Ultimately, I’m an optimist that many of these problems can be improved — if not solved outright.”

In December, the institute presented Gov. Spencer Cox with a sweeping “Report to the Governor on Utah’s Land, Water, and Air.” The document covers a plethora of environmental and climate challenges for the state, from skyrocketing participation in outdoor recreation to humanity’s role in desiccating the Great Salt Lake to new threats to air quality, like wildfires and drying lakebed dust. USU plans to issue similar reports to lawmakers every year.

“It’s a little daunting,” Steed said. “[But] we’d love to be a clearinghouse of data for these types of things.”

Last year, the Utah Legislature approved HCR20, a resolution in support of USU’s Land, Water and Air Institute.

The legislation didn’t specifically mention climate change, and some Utah lawmakers continued to question the reality of the climate crisis as recently as 2018. But whether it’s the Great Salt Lake hitting a record low, forests turned to tinderboxes, water wars ramping up in the Southwest, or two of the state’s major research institutions forming centers to help politicians take meaningful action, reality appears to be sinking in across Utah.

“It’s an excellent question — why it takes a perceived catastrophe before people sit up and take notice,” Steed said. “... But I’m glad people are noticing it matters.”