Changes In Attitudes At Higher Latitudes: Utah Reconsiders Its Response To A Hotter Planet

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All politics is local, and what gets local people riled up is usually money. Ideology is one thing, but when you start taking money out of people’s pockets, they tend to sit up and pay attention. That’s exactly what’s happening in Utah, a certified red state where the full conservative mantra as preached by Faux News is de rigeur. So why is Utah beginning to talk openly about the risks associated with an overheated planet? It’s the money, stupid, same as it always is.

Alta ski area in Utah
Alta ski area in Utah. Image credit:

It seems Utah’s pristine mountain valleys are experiencing smog, a thing once reserved for places where Democrats live, like Los Angeles. But recently, temperature inversions over the mountains in Utah have led to smoggy conditions, enough so that well heeled tourists are looking elsewhere for their winter recreational activities, according to a report by The Guardian. That pollution also has a negative impact on the health of Utah citizens, especially young children and the elderly.

Recently, the Republican-controlled legislature asked the University of Utah to create an emissions reduction plan that addressed not only local air quality but global climate changes as well. That represented an abrupt shift for a legislature that just a few years ago passed a resolution urging the EPA to “cease its carbon dioxide reduction policies, programs, and regulations until climate data and global warming science are substantiated.”

Thomas Holst, an energy analyst, was selected to lead the Utah Roadmap project. He tells The Guardian, “The economist Adam Smith talked about an invisible hand that guides the economy, and in this particular case, the cost of renewable energy, whether it’s wind or solar, has gone down so rapidly and made itself so market efficient versus fossil fuels, that there is a change, and the change can’t be ignored,” Holst says. “So now is the opportunity for a state like Utah, which is rich in both renewables as well as fossil fuels, to embrace that change and get out ahead of it.

“Is there an opportunity for a red state to take a leadership role?” Holst asks. “We believe that there is. And by composing a road map, by encouraging our legislative leaders to embrace this, we believe that there can be a change, and that Utah will be willing to take a leadership role,” he said.

The Guardian says the shift in attitude began with the state’s youngest residents. High school students drafted a resolution that recognized the impacts of the climate crisis and encouraged emissions reductions, then persuaded two Republican lawmakers to sponsor it. Environmental advocates say it was the first measure of its kind to pass in a red state. After the resolution passed, the legislature responded by appropriating money for experts to provide policy recommendations.

Natalie Gochnour is the head of the economic policy institute that drafted the Utah Roadmap. She says its proponents managed to turn a hyper-partisan issue into a shared priority by emphasizing the local impacts of the climate crisis. Research suggests that framing policy around economic benefits and sustainability allows local leaders to respond to climate change without getting caught up in political divisions. “That tends to pull some of the politics out of it – not for everybody – but for many. I think enough to create momentum on Capitol Hill,” she says.

The primary objective of the Utah Roadmap is to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% over the next decade — a challenge for a state with a growing population. The plan focuses on energy efficient buildings, clean transportation options, expanding the state’s EV charging network, providing incentives for EV buyers, and working with auto dealers to increase the supply of zero emissions vehicles in the state. It’s pretty much the same list any regular reader of CleanTechnica would put together if given the chance.

Utah’s per capita carbon emissions are higher than most states, mostly because it relies primarily on coal to generate electricity for its residents. But utility companies in Utah are already planning to shutter many of those coal generating plants over the next ten years and transition to wind, solar, and natural gas instead. There is also a novel 1 GWh energy storage project underway in the state.

“What I’m interested in is a viable future for the state of Utah,” Republican state representative Stephen Handy tells The Guardian. “There are still a number of Utah legislators who don’t want to look at the science that’s very obvious on climate change, but we’ve come a long way.”

Similar shifts in attitude are occurring in other traditionally Republican states. Former Florida governor — now Senator — Rick Scott famously prohibited anyone in his administration to use the hated words “climate change.” That changed after Florida’s Gulf Coast was hit with massive red tides that left tons of dead, rotting fish on its beaches. Tourist reacted in horror and took their money elsewhere. Now the state has taken an interest in preventing future algae blooms, although things may already be too late for the Sunshine State.

After a year of disastrous flooding last spring, Nebraska lawmakers pushed forward a bill to develop a climate change plan for the next legislative session. It is one thing to heap scorn on Democrats, liberals, socialists, and anyone else who doesn’t worship at the temple to Tucker Carlson, but quite another thing to ignore a tide of bankrupt farmers, some of whom have committed suicide as they watched generations of sweat and toil turn to ashes.

All politics is local. Hardly a day goes by when you don’t hear someone say the weather today is much different than it was when they were a child. Climate change is beginning to sink in, despite the howling mob of jackals saying nothing has changed. In Utah, some legislative leaders are now willing to talk about a topic that was taboo until recently. It’s a start.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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