Commentary: Coronavirus response is how we should be facing climate change

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.

We live in frightening times. Shelves stand barren in grocery stores, whilst an invisible enemy threatens our lives and the lives of our loved ones. Yet, the COVID-19 pandemic is not the only catastrophe affecting Utah right now.

We are 11 students from the University of Utah’s Honors College studying the climate changes that Utah is experiencing. Our class met with the Kem Gardner Institute’s director, researched climate displacement and worked to assist the university’s ongoing efforts toward carbon neutrality. Now we find ourselves in a pandemic that has surprising parallels to the climate emergency that motivated us in the first place. Speaking as students, youths and concerned community members, we want to say that the coronavirus has changed the world seemingly overnight, and it offers a new perspective to understand the culture surrounding climate change.

In the past decade, climate change has played a role in disastrous global events, posing a threat to Utah’s youth, economy, and environment. Fortunately, our current response to COVID-19 has provided two lessons that can be used to address the climate crisis: the remarkable power of working together and the benefits of a swift response.

We are capable of coming together to benefit their community. The CDC warns that the number of COVID-19 cases will rise dramatically in the coming weeks, thereby overwhelming the current medical infrastructure. To prevent this, Utahns have been asked to participate in social distancing. By and large, we have successfully implemented this collective task relatively early in the crisis.

Acting in the collective interest is a lesson Utah should apply to the impending climate crisis. Currently, we are acting to protect our families and friends, but when the coronavirus subsides this energy can be dedicated to carbon neutrality and global warming. Investing in renewable energy, purchasing carbon offsets and supporting environmental legislation are ways we can help mitigate the effects of the climate crisis and create a healthier future for all of Utah.

The coronavirus pandemic shows the importance of quick and decisive action in the face of catastrophe. Our leaders mobilized our infrastructure, and proved the state can protect its citizens. In preparation for future crises, these practices should be taken to heart, particularly the need to mitigate before issues bloom into threats. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius will reduce global environmental and economic threats to all our futures. To achieve this, large-scale collective responses are required.

Utah can create the building blocks to prepare for the climate crisis. The 2019 Utah Legislature, at the request of students from across the state, asked the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute to create solutions for Utah’s air quality and climate crisis. The result was the Utah Roadmap. This policy recommendation formally recognizes the impacts that poor air quality and climate disruption have on local and global communities. It provides expert-recommended solutions to make Utah a leader in environmental and economic stewardship. It was introduced as a bill this past legislative session and enjoyed widespread support from students, businesses and Utahns. Despite the support, it was blocked by the House Rules Committee.

Climate change will affect Utah snow, air quality, agriculture and water. Innovative, bold solutions need to be implemented to transition our state towards sustainability and resilience. This virus emergency shows we can cooperate for the broader good and cooperate at all levels of government. Utah needs to respond to the long-term threat of climate change with the same seriousness as the imminent threat of COVID-19. We students hope the momentum of solving coronavirus can also carry us to climate solutions.

The Anthropocene Now Praxis Lab is a group of 11 Undergraduate Honors College students at the University of Utah working to promote sustainability and climate resiliency within the Utah Communities. They are Alex Anderson, Anna Garcie, Blayze Ashurst, Ben Jordan, Daniel Anderson, Kari Stoddard, Kaylara Benfield, Madeline Houghton, Nick Halberg, Rae Patten and Rory Weeks