Can Utah Show Conservative States a Path on Climate?

January 23, 2020

Inside Climate News:

When Utah lawmakers start their legislative session next week, they’ll have a roadmap waiting for them that could become one of the nation’s most aggressive climate action plans in a Republican-led state—and potentially a path forward for other conservative states looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

That the proposal even exists signals a major shift in thinking in a state where legislators for years have publicly questioned—and sometimes ridiculed—climate science.  

Led by a University of Utah economics think tank, proponents of the seven-point strategy managed to dodge political potholes by emphasizing widely supported goals like cleaning up air pollution and stressing economic benefits, an approach some policy experts say could provide a model for bipartisan action on climate change in other conservative states.

“That’s the sort of framing that can help change the conversation in a way that does bridge partisan divides,” said Jay Turner, an environmental politics and policy researcher at Wellesley College and co-author of the book “The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump.”

Conservatives in the State Capitol haven’t abandoned fossil fuels. They actively support lawsuits to open up West Coast shipping terminals and maintain a $53 million fund to help build export capacity for shipping Utah coal overseas. But widespread public concern about air pollution has also made them more receptive to emissions reductions.

Utah’s shift started with high school students raising their voices. In 2018, they succeeded in persuading lawmakers to pass a resolution acknowledging the risks of climate change that Republican Gov. Gary Herbert signed. Then, last year, the legislature voted to provide $200,000 for the University of Utah’s business school to report on the state’s air pollution and climate change problems and recommend solutions. 

“I really think that this is a great indicator of the progress we’ve made as a state,” said Piper Christian, one of the students who lobbied the legislature and is now a University of Utah sophomore majoring in politics and environmental studies. “I want to stress that this is one more step, definitely not the end of the road. Now we need to see these actions through.”

The draft proposal, “Utah Roadmap,” was released in early January and suggests reducing carbon dioxide emissions 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. Another of the 7 points presses state leaders to step up participation in “national discussions about how to harness the power of market forces and new technologies to reduce carbon emissions in a way that protects health, sustains economic development, and offers other benefits to Utahns.”  

The roadmap focuses heavily on the state’s air pollution problems, proposing ways to cut that pollution in half over the next three decades by taking steps that will at the same time reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That includes dramatically reducing coal-fired power, which supplies nearly two-thirds of Utah’s electricity, and replacing it with renewable energy, as well as increasing the number of electric vehicle charging stations to boost EV use in the state. 

The state’s major utility companies and climate and health scientists were involved in helping shape the plan, and the response so far has been mostly positive.

Rob Davies, a Utah State University physicist who has been warning about Utah’s climate change vulnerabilities for more than a decade, said that, although the roadmap itself gave climate risk too little attention, he’s not aware of any conservative state with stronger emissions-reduction goals than the roadmap proposes. 

“The one missed opportunity in this report is the acknowledgment that we are in a genuine emergency, a genuine crisis,” he said. “This still doesn’t get us to where we need to go, but it’s quite possible that it puts us on a track that could get us to where we need to go.”

Utah’s approach reflects a national trend: Climate action, spurred by young Americans, that ties economic benefits to better health while minimizing polarizing political debates.

As recently as 2017, Utah lawmakers turned away the students who sought state-level action to rein in climate change. The state legislature had passed a non-binding resolution a few years earlier implying climate change was a conspiracy and demanding that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “immediately halt its carbon dioxide reduction policies and programs.” 

The students retooled their proposal in 2018, framing it as support for “environmental and economic stewardship,” and garnered enough support not only to win passage but also to spur lawmakers to request the roadmap the following year.

“I don’t think I will ever be fully satisfied with the amount of work we do to address the climate crisis just because the scale of the problem is so immense,” Christian said. “Instead, I try to focus on the enormity of the progress that this [roadmap] is providing.”

One Response to “Can Utah Show Conservative States a Path on Climate?”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    LOL—-“I try to focus on the enormity of the progress that this [roadmap] is providing.” What BS—it’s a freaking ROAD MAP of “goals”, and it won’t “provide” any ENORMOUS progress unless it’s implemented.

    Here’s some real truth in the piece—-“Conservatives in the State Capitol haven’t abandoned fossil fuels. They actively support lawsuits to open up West Coast shipping terminals and maintain a $53 million fund to help build export capacity for shipping Utah coal overseas”.

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