Alex Veilleux: Utah’s emergency drought declaration is an emergency climate declaration

Instead of just reacting to ongoing drought, we must start taking action to protect the climate.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Stan Jensen walks through an alfalfa field left dry due to drought conditions on his farm in Centerfield on Monday, Oct. 4, 2021.

Last week Gov. Spencer Cox declared a state of emergency over the drought conditions in the state of Utah. It is important that the governor’s office is recognizing the dire outlook for water this upcoming summer, but we need to treat this declaration for what it truly is, an emergency climate crisis declaration.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report states, “human-induced climate change has contributed to increases in agricultural and ecological droughts” and “more regions are affected by increases in agricultural and ecological droughts with increasing global warming.”

Reports like these have pushed scientists worldwide to protest outside financial institutions to make their voices heard. NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus broke down earlier this month as he begged, “We’ve been trying to warn you for so many decades” he continued, “We’re going to lose everything.”

The international effects of intensified drought are becoming clear. Extreme water scarcity leads to groundwater depletion, killing crops and trees and resulting in low crop yields. Scarce yields exacerbate hunger around the globe, which can lead to rising geopolitical tensions.

It’s not just your lawn dying or a few degrees warmer in the summer. This changes everything.

People tend to recognize climate change as a real issue, but something far away that won’t affect them. A recent opinion poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication showed that while 72% of people think global warming is happening, only 47% believe it will affect them personally.

The fact of the matter is that this is not some far-off phenomenon. Not only is climate change happening here, but it’s happening now. Utah has been in a drought eight out of the last ten years. Our snowpack is well below average, at only 74% of the 30-year median average.

With less water available to melt and flow downstream, and even lower projections in the coming months, it’s clear that we’re in trouble.

Drought leads to drier vegetation, which is more susceptible to wildfires, putting homes and humans at risk and clouds our already delicate airshed. During the last wildfire season, Salt Lake’s air was polluted by smoke for over two months, and over 50% of the days in June and July were “unhealthy for certain groups.” This ongoing drought is also affecting The Great Salt Lake at an alarming rate which will continue to expose our communities to toxic materials found in the lakes exposed lakebed.

We must consider the entire equation to address this emergency drought properly. Water conservation is a reactionary measure to our situation, and we must address the root cause to develop a long-term solution. This summer’s proposed legislative interim session study items include community renewable energy programs, rural energy diversification, natural gas leakages in the Uinta Basin, energy storage, power plant decommissioning, energy tax incentives, electric heat pumps and federal de-carbonization policy.

These items are imperative to stemming the effects of climate change and are at the root of our drought emergency. These meetings are public, and citizens can speak directly about drought and climate change.

Climate change is here, affecting Utahns, and happening now. Reacting to our drought emergency via water conservation measures is a good first step but not enough.

Our lawmakers must act on climate solutions to address the root cause of this emergency.

Alex Veilleux | HEAL Utah

Alex Veilleux is a policy associate for the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah (HEAL Utah).