Climate change remains a divisive issue in the Utah Legislature. So why did lawmakers put away $200K to study it?

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Students gather to call for action on climate change at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday March 15, 2019.

Earlier this year, Utah Rep. Ray Ward presented a wildfire prevention resolution that drew a straight line between human carbon dioxide emissions and the blazes that consumed about 400 structures and hundreds of thousands of acres in 2018.

Greenhouse gases, his resolution said, are heating up the planet, which causes hotter, drier summers in Utah, which, in turn, increases the risk that a spark will land on parched terrain and burst into flames.

For many of his colleagues, the climate change wording tainted an otherwise laudable measure. It raised “complicated and difficult questions of causation” and seemed “tangential” to the overall resolution on reducing wildfire damage, Rep. Tim Hawkes said. Later, he explained he was trying to save Ward’s measure by deleting deal-breaking language.

“Climate change remains a hotly contested and highly divisive issue in the Legislature,” Hawkes, a Centerville Republican, said in an interview last week. “His bill would likely have failed if it had moved on with that language intact.”

Yet, even as state lawmakers shied away from Ward’s explicit description of global warming last session, they quietly socked away $200,000 to study the issue further.

Ward, R-Bountiful, said those two decisions aren’t inconsistent — in fact, he said, asking for data from the trusted Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute could be an important step in building confidence for future climate action.

“I don’t think there is any one single thing that by itself would change a bunch of legislators’ minds," the physician said. “But I do think that a bunch of little, tiny things over and over again ... I do think it all adds up.”

The University of Utah institute will likely begin the study sometime in July, when the state releases funding for the review, and is scheduled to report back to the Legislature by mid-December.

House Speaker Brad Wilson said there’s no particular agenda behind the research and that lawmakers just want some Utah-specific data on air quality and climate change.

“Once we get good information,” the Kaysville Republican said, “we can start to discuss policy decisions that could help us manage the state’s growth.”

The Legislature has formally recognized the existence of climate change with the 2018 passage of a resolution mentioning the global trend and its connection to increased risk of wildfires, water scarcity, flooding and extreme weather events.

But dozens of Republican lawmakers voted against it, with former Rep. Mike Noel arguing that the “whole issue of climate change has been used by organizations to fool people.” Noel, R-Kanab, also said carbon dioxide is not a pollutant because it feeds plants.

Despite broad scientific agreement that human activity is driving planetary temperatures upward, global warming has become a partisan fault line in U.S. politics. Benjamin Abbott, an assistant professor of ecosystem ecology at Brigham Young University, said he was still unpleasantly surprised to watch these political forces drive the conversation on Ward’s resolution earlier this year.

Abbott, who headed to Capitol Hill in February to testify in support of the measure, said Utah is especially sensitive to climate change because of its elevation and geographic location. Mega-fires, invasive species, loss of snowpack and droughts of increasing severity all could be in store for the state if the warming trend continues, Abbott said in a phone interview.

However, scientific data didn’t seem to carry much weight with lawmakers during the February committee meeting, he said.

“It was very clear the committee had already made up their minds, not based on scientific evidence, but on political positions,” he said. “In my field, if you bring evidence to the table, that’s what brings you credibility. ... And I was assuming that the same paradigm held in the political realm.”

While that’s discouraging to Abbott, his experience hasn’t been totally negative; state lawmakers have been willing to parse through the issue in lengthy private conversations, the type of open communication that he believes is central to progress.

Wilson said he personally believes in climate change, but “what percent of its changes are due to man-made effects is up for debate.” Hawkes said he accepts that the Earth is warming and that “human activity is playing an important role in that warming.” Beyond that, Hawkes said, consensus begins to break down, especially when the conversation turns to finding solutions.

Natalie Gochnour, who directs the Gardner Institute, said the forthcoming study will consider the current body of research on air quality and climate change in Utah and examine the effects on state residents and industries.

“I definitely anticipate that we will be putting forward to the Legislature potential strategies that could help with air quality and a changing climate,” she said.

Those could involve anything from incentives for eco-friendly behavior to new and emerging technologies, Gochnour said.

Some have suggested a carbon tax could go a long way toward lowering emissions in the state. One of them, a Salt Lake City economist named Yoram Bauman, is leading a campaign to put a carbon tax question on the ballot next year.

The Clean the Darn Air campaign for the carbon tax initiative is about to enter its signature-gathering phase and will focus mostly on air pollution, which Utahns see and feel with every winter inversion, according to Bauman. But a tax could also significantly cut greenhouse emissions, he said.

“It’s the single most important thing we can do to tackle climate change,” he said. “It’s a market-based approach.”

State policymakers have not warmed to the carbon tax concept; Democratic Rep. Joel Briscoe’s legislation on a fossil fuels tax, for example, didn’t budge out of committee last session.

Wilson said he hasn’t seen Bauman’s carbon tax proposal but is generally cautious about levying new taxes and believes that the “market is going to come up with better solutions.” Hawkes similarly said he doubts legislators would be up for a carbon tax, given their fears about harming jobs and the economy.

Bauman contends that a carbon tax does allow the free market to operate unimpeded; it would simply require consumers to pay for the pollution generated by their energy use.