Commentary: Earth Month is a good time to advance climate change solutions

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune Michael Dowd, aka "Reverend Reality" sings as environmental activist demonstrators blockaded this Exxon station in Murray with red lines meant to symbolize Exxon's closure, which the activists demand as retribution for the company's alleged role in denying climate change, Saturday, December 12, 2015.

According to hydrologists quoted in Bryan Maffly’s Tribune article, “It’s official: Utah’s snowpack is fantastic this year!” Does this mean we can ignore the longer-term trends of warming temperatures and less snowfall?

The answer is a resounding no!

We quickly forget that 2018 was the driest year ever recorded in Utah and wildfires burned a near-record number of acres in the West. Lake Powell sits at 37% of capacity. Globally the last four years were the warmest in human history. Add to this the extensive lag between the time we stop adding greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere and the time that global warming diminishes, and you see the scope of the problem.

Why is there such inertia in our climate system? At the risk of oversimplifying, I’ll highlight two processes.

The first concerns the ocean, which absorbs 93% of excess heat trapped from human-derived greenhouse gasses. It takes years or even decades for this heat to equilibrate with the atmosphere. The second is feedback loops, which play out over decades or centuries. For instance, bright white arctic sea ice reflects energy back into space, but as our climate warms and sea ice melts, the dark ocean water absorbs heat and adds to the warming caused by greenhouse gasses.

Unfortunately, there is also a stubborn lag in the political process that will bring about energy transition. This lag is much more obvious. Beyond the time needed to create the political will for a policy, it takes time for a new law to take effect, for it to stimulate innovations, and for our behavior to change. Also, an enormous infrastructure is already in place to support the use of fossil fuel energy.

So what can we do this Earth Month? Action must occur at all levels of society. As President Obama’s Science Advisor John Holdren has said, “There is no silver bullet. We need silver buckshot-we need to do a lot of things at once.”

On an individual basis, perhaps no clearer direction exists than that given in the Provo Clean Air Toolkit, created under the direction of Rep. John Curtis when he was mayor. Check out https://provocleanair.org to learn what individuals, business and cities can do. From walking or riding a bike for short trips to adopting “Meatless Mondays,” many personal actions will be healthier for you and for the air we breathe.

While we can all take personal responsibility, the scale of this problem demands federal action. Properly designed federal policy will stimulate innovation and create ripple effects throughout the world. Fortunately, such legislation is now within our grasp with the bipartisan Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, which now has 30 sponsors. This legislation will put a steadily rising fee on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. It will return the proceeds equally to Americans with a monthly dividend to spend as they see fit. The Republican cosponsor, Rep. Francis Rooney affirmed, “When you think about a carbon tax, that’s the most free-market, least intrusive way to price carbon.

This policy will be effective, reducing greenhouse gas production by 40% over the first 12 years. It will be good for people, as it improves health by reducing air pollution. It will protect those with lower incomes, as most will receive more in the dividend than they pay from increased costs. It will be good for the economy by creating 2.1 million jobs, thanks to economic growth in local communities across America. It will be revenue neutral, meaning the government will not keep any of the fees collected, so the size of government won’t grow.

Here’s where personal action comes back in during this Earth Month. Our elected officials work for you. Ask Sens. Mike Lee and Mitt Romney, and your representative — Rob Bishop, Chris Stewart, John Curtis or Ben McAdams, to support the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act now. Only by responding to the challenge of climate change, can we create healthier and more resilient communities.

David Folland

David Folland, M.D., is a retired pediatrician and volunteer with the non-partisan Citizens’ Climate Lobby