Josh Fisher: Utahns have an untapped advantage in the fight against climate change

The fact that we see the impact of climate change should move us to do something about it.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A grass fire burns between Saltair and the Great Salt Lake Marina off I-80 on Saturday, April 30, 2022.

If you took a walk outside last Saturday evening, you may have been treated to some midsummer flurries. Only instead of snow, the white flakes drifting through the air were ash, blown in from one of several active wildfires in the state.

To some extent, wildfires are routine and expected. In fact, they can play an important role in the natural ecosystem of a region. But with wildfire season growing longer and more extreme, it’s hard not to feel as though we’re being given a front-row seat to our pending climate disaster.

As someone who relocated from the east coast three years ago, I’m still not used to smoke-filled summers here in Utah. Or the intense smog in winter. In fact, I’m confronted almost year-round with environmental conditions that would alarm nearly anyone outside of the American west.

But while these conditions are no doubt serious, they have at least one thing going for them — they are visible, often viscerally so. And at a time when climate change can often feel like a far-off abstraction, Utahns are exceptionally positioned to both understand and reckon with its impacts.

Of course, I don’t mean to say that people outside of Utah are ignorant to the crisis or aren’t also impacted by it. By the time I moved cross-country, my coastal city of Norfolk, Virginia, had garnered the nickname Nor-flood, with portions of the city projected to be underwater by 2040 without serious intervention.

But living here is different. Whereas I could adapt to occasional flooding by parking on high ground and planning alternate routes to work, poor air is unavoidable. And while the flooding was likewise visible, it was much more sporadic and isolated. When merely stepping out my front door confronts me with the consequences of climate change, it’s a different matter entirely.

Needless to say, my time in Utah has helped open my eyes to the severity of the climate threat, as I suspect it has for locals and transplants alike. And to the extent that our experiences cause us to shake off any lingering apathy, it also provides a hidden opportunity.

For one, this first-hand encounter can help motivate us to action. It’s much harder to raise the alarm when an issue is not happening directly in front of us. Frequent exposure to climate change has potential to get people moving in ways they otherwise might not.

In addition, our experiences of climate change make for powerful testimonies about its real-world impacts. Personal stories tend to leave a stronger impression than mere statistics, and we sure have plenty to draw from.

But as Utahns, we need to be honest about the threats we face.

Recently, I explained to a Utah native how foreign these threats are to my friends and family back east. I worried that, as they aren’t confronted with the effects of climate change as often, they may not fully grasp the direness of the situation.

Her transparency was refreshing. “To be honest, I don’t think I can wrap my head around it either,” she told me.

I suspect this is the case for many who call this place their home. Denial is a natural response, especially in the face of something as large and terrifying as climate change. And after years of experiencing severe conditions, I’m sure the issue has become normalized to some extent.

But by choosing to look away, we risk missing out on an untapped strength, all while creating an even bigger vulnerability. By ignoring the severity of the crisis, we downplay our ability to make a difference and protect this place we call home.

My hope is instead that we lean into this awareness. Let it awaken you. Let it radicalize you. Just whatever you do, please don’t avert your gaze.

The situation is certainly dire. But Utahns have a tremendous opportunity to bear witness to the rest of the nation — not only about our problems, but about our commitment and ability to solve them. Let’s make the most of this opportunity, so our beloved state can have a safe and healthy environment for years to come.

Josh Fisher

Josh Fisher, Midvale, is studying education and social movements as a graduate student at Westminster College, Salt Lake City.