Commentary: Global Climate Action Summit to highlight local initiatives

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Participants rally while holding their 'Student Resolution on Climate Change the Governor's Mansion during the Utah People's Climate March Saturday, April 29, 2017.

Hope springs eternal. So does Action, as state and local governments across the country and around the world prepare to tout their climate change initiatives at the Sept. 12-14 Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco. They’ll be joined by representatives from several of the 196 countries endorsing the U.N. Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

Despite the Trump administration’s threat to officially withdraw the U.S. from the accord, community leaders from Utah to Uganda are transforming the global consensus on climate science into real-world action plans and programs.

Utahns can get a sampling of statewide efforts to address climate change at a public forum on Thursday evening at the downtown Salt Lake City Library. “Utah’s Sustainable Communities in Action” will feature representatives from Salt Lake City government, Rocky Mountain Power, Utah Clean Energy and Logan High School’s Environmental Action Force (LEAF), highlighting their achievements and next steps. The free event is co-sponsored by Utah Sierra Club and the Utah Climate Action Network.

Utah’s direct connection to GCAS events in California is Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski, who will lead a local contingent to promote SLC’s Climate Positive Plan for transitioning to 100 percent clean energy. Biskupski chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Alliance for a Sustainable Future and co-chairs the Sierra Club’s Ready For 100 Campaign.

The GCAS will demonstrate how much progress has been made on climate action since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015. Summit organizers will seek new commitments by multi-level governments and non-government organizations in five key areas: healthy energy systems; inclusive economic growth; sustainable communities; land stewardship and transformative climate investments. These topics will also be discussed at the Thursday Salt Lake City forum, which is an official GCAS affiliate event.

The Paris Agreement focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) worldwide so that the current global temperature rise is capped at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), achieving this goal will require a dramatic shift away from fossil fuels. IPCC climate scientists warn that the current trajectory of carbon dioxide and other GHG emissions could exceed the agreement’s global warming goal by 3.3 degrees C, which would “increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts.”

For the American Southwest, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) reports that “increased heat, drought and insect outbreaks, all linked to climate change, have increased wildfires.” This year’s direct costs to Utah taxpayers for fighting wildfires is up to $75 million, expected to grow. NASA says there will be “health impacts in cities due to [increasing] heat.” That’s why construction of urban cooling centers and water stations is part of Salt Lake County Health Department’s new Climate Adaptation Plan.

These efforts to mitigate the impacts of global warming are going to cost a lot of money.

Fortunately, young Americans are rising to meet the challenges. In Utah, student members of LEAF put the “Think Globally, Act Locally” credo into practice by convincing state legislators to acknowledge climate change through the body’s first resolution on the topic. That 2018 resolution “recognizes the impacts of a changing climate on Utah citizens” and “encourages the responsible stewardship of natural resources and reduction of emissions.” Moving forward, LEAF is helping organize Utah’s second annual Youth Environmental Summit to help students engage with ongoing environmental initiatives and learn skills to find new solutions to protect their future. LEAF members are working with state representatives and environmental organizations such as the Jane Goodall Institute to promote sustainable climate policy at the Utah Legislature.

Many hurdles remain in Utah, which boasts a county [Emery] tied for the nation’s highest percentage of climate change deniers. Working at cross-purposes to the Paris Agreement, Utah’s carbon-friendly Office of Energy Development wants more Utah coal emissions exported to the atmosphere via Mexico.

But local officials and state legislators increasingly see the writing on the climate wall, as do young Utahns who combine climate science literacy with youthful energy to achieve globally significant results. Their initiatives will be showcased at the climate action event Thursday in Salt Lake City. Details at the Utah Sierra Club Facebook page Events section.

Piper Christian was a leader of LEAF’s legislative team and is now a freshman at the University of Utah.

Stan Holmes is a board member of the Utah Sierra Club and serves on its Utah Needs Clean Energy Team.