Commentary: Climate change places life in the West in danger

This summer, Salt Lake City has already suffered a dozen days over 100 degrees with August still to come. This spate of hot, stagnant air has left us breathing ozone and fine soot that are twice the health limits set by the EPA.

If you think this weather is nothing to worry about because it is atypical, think again. This summer is a preview of the new normal for Utah and the American Southwest.  Currently, Salt Lake City averages six 100-degree days per year. Climate scientists estimate that Salt Lake will average 58 100-degree days per year by the end of this century if CO2 continues to build up in the atmosphere at current rates. The resulting heat and drought predicted by the year 2100 will turn the Salt Lake and Utah valleys to blowing dust.

The media used to be filled with claims that our climate is not actually warming.  Because the last 19 years include 17 of the hottest years on record, few now deny the warming trend. However, many still deny that the trend has a human cause.

Climate scientists have a different view as 99.5 percent of them now say that the predominant cause of climate change is the massive amount of fossil fuel that been burned since the world began to industrialize in the mid-19th century. 

The basics physics that explains why rising CO2 warms the climate is simple.  Sunlight is mostly short-wave radiation (visible light). When it reaches the earth’s atmosphere, CO2 molecules scatter it, rather than absorb it. When this short-wave radiation strikes the surface of the earth, however, it converts to long-wave radiation (infrared, or “heat”). When heat is reflected back into space, CO2 absorbs it like a sponge.

This is the physics in a nutshell: The CO2 molecule holds two oxygen atoms loosely on either side of the carbon atom. The two oxygen atoms are able to flex around the carbon atom like the wings of a bird. This flexing allows the CO2 molecule to absorb infrared radiation. This greenhouse effect is powerful. Without it, climate scientists agree that the earth’s entire surface would be freeze solid. 

As carbon dioxide accumulates, it puts those who live in the American West in great peril. In 2015, scientists from NASA, Cornell and Columbia University applied a 1,000 years of climate-history data to 17 independent climate models. Those models consistently predicted that at current rates of CO2 build up, increased heat and reduced precipitation in America’s Central Plains and Southwest will drive much of the remaining moisture out of these regions’ soil.

The study calculates that there is an 80 percent chance that, before the end of this century, Utah and the American Southwest will experience a drought deeper than the 10-year Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but lasting three times as long. 

Such a drought will cripple agriculture in the nation’s breadbasket, cut the flow of the Colorado River in half, transform the forests of the Rocky Mountains into dead kindling, and increase their burn area by 500 percent. In other words, it will bring both environmental and economic ruin to America’s Central Plains and Southwest.

President Trump only appoints people to federal policy positions who ignore or deny the basic physics of climate change described above. He is hastening the day that Utah becomes uninhabitable because he plans to extract and burn every last ton of America’s dirty energy reserves, saying that this will make America great again.

One has to wonder how great America will be when its western half becomes an uninhabitable dust bowl and most of its residents have become climate refugees.    

Malin Moench, Holladay, has degrees in law and economics from the University of Utah. After 37 years of legal analysis and econometric modeling work for the federal government, he now volunteers for the Citizens Climate Lobby.

Return to Story