Sebastian Nicholls: In a Utah library, quiet progress on climate change

Forum shows how Republicans and Democrats can agree that climate is changing.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) U.S. Rep. John Curtis leads climate scientists and constituents on a hike in Rock Canyon in Provo, Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

On September 26, at a modest auditorium tucked away in Salt Lake City’s Main Public Library, two congressmen and their opponents gathered for a climate discussion, striking for its divergence from politics as usual.

The discussion was civil, informed and pragmatic, focused on ways to move forward, with few of the partisan jabs that have become, to the detriment of our country and communities, expected of many of our politicians. This town hall was more remarkable still for facilitating a productive discussion on a topic that has been polarizing — climate change, and what we and our elected leaders can do to mitigate its accelerating and potentially catastrophic impacts.

Republican Reps. John Curtis and Blake Moore and their Democratic challengers, Glen Wright and Rick Jones, engaged earnestly, answering questions from local high school students. They talked about how they have personally felt the effects of climate change, what they have done about it in their personal lives and the challenges they see to crafting lasting, bipartisan policy solutions that sufficiently address the causes of climate change.

Though there were disagreements, candidates were respectful and even expressed appreciation of the perspectives shared by their opponents. Some of the candidates thanked the organizers, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, for providing the impetus and opportunity to deepen their knowledge about climate change and potential solutions.

Sitting in the audience, I felt this was a significant turning point. I have been deeply concerned about climate change since learning in 2002, when I was 8 years old, that warming temperatures posed an extinction threat to tropical coral reefs, which support 25% of all marine life and in turn, billions of people who rely on ocean ecosystems for food.

Since then, I have sought to learn more about the causes and impacts of climate change — on agriculture, wildlands, communities under threat of displacement and human health. I became increasingly frustrated with an apparent deadlock among U.S. politicians, who, it seemed to me, couldn’t even agree if climate change was a real issue, human-caused, or if we should do anything at all to avoid what I saw as hugely concerning impacts.

I am a dual citizen, and I have had the opportunity to live in multiple countries throughout my life. The acute polarization of this environmental issue is uniquely American. In other countries, people may disagree about how to reduce emissions, but not whether reduction should be done at all. This failure to agree that we should, as a society, reduce our contributions to climate change, stalled our progress on creating solutions in the United States.

Curtis and Moore spoke candidly about the challenge of getting Republican politicians to become comfortable speaking about climate change, given perceptions of climate as solely a liberal concern. They are proud of creating the Conservative Climate Caucus, in Curtis’s case, and participating in both single party and bipartisan working groups on climate policy in Moore’s case, to advance policy solutions to both mitigate climate change and address its impacts.

In the town hall, the Democratic opponents challenged Curtis and Moore to move more urgently from talk to action, but also recognized and thanked them for the significant progress their engagement on climate change represents.

I was left with the impression that all the candidates have political will to work with members of the opposing party to develop lasting solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change. This is huge progress. As a 28-year-old who has spent much of my life deeply worried about climate inaction, I was relieved to see their focus on pragmatism and their political will which, before the town hall, I was skeptical that the candidates shared.

We are lucky in Utah’s 1st and 3rd congressional districts to count on candidates who understand climate change is with us, is caused by humans and that there’s a need — and a tremendous opportunity — for Utah and the United States to be global leaders in mitigating these challenges. Those who are elected must move from the conversation facilitated by Citizens’ Climate Lobby to action — and champion specific climate policy solutions, working to garner support within their own party and across the aisle to enact those as soon as possible.

In the meantime, those of us frustrated by federal inaction on climate can breathe a sigh of relief knowing there’s space for common ground, and that at least four candidates running to represent Utah districts want to work on solutions to the biggest challenge we face.

Sebastian Nicholls

Sebastian Nicholls, Summit Park, holds a degree in international politics focused on energy and environment issues from Georgetown University and works as an environmental policy professional.