Climate Change is Happening in Utah

Over 50 million dollars were spent fighting wildfires in Utah just last year while thousands were forced to evacuate their homes. And the number of wildfires is expected to increase. It is fitting, then, that the first bill in two years that dares to openly discuss climate change would focus on wildfire suppression efforts.

HB 77, sponsored by Rep. Kraig Powell, was designed to empower the Division of Forestry, Fire, and State Lands to draw directly on climate change data to direct its own efforts in preparing for and preventing wildfires. But the bill failed to leave committee, gaining only four affirmative votes to an imposing 11 negative votes. It’d be easy to see this as a defeat.

But of the hundred or so people present, more than a dozen people voiced support for the bill, and only three people testified against it. Those numbers correspond surprisingly well with national attitudes toward climate change.

Around 70 percent of Americans now believe that our climate is warming. We don’t have good data on how Utahns specifically feel about the issue of climate change, but here’s what we do know: that key values such as shared responsibility and sustainability are important to Utahns, and that these values inform how many of us feel about the earth.

Care for the land has informed the livelihood of my own family for generations. Like much of Utah, water is scarce in Sanpete County and the surrounding counties. But judicious use of water resources provided my family with the ability to farm an otherwise arid landscape. Though most of my cousins live in more urban areas, we’ve still kept close the belief that we are stewards of the land.

That’s why comments by those speaking against the bill didn’t resonate with me. Two of the three opponents were from the Utah Eagle Forum, an organization that prides itself on adhering to traditional values. But my family’s very traditional value of caring for the land was absent from either of their testimonies.

Rep. Mike Noel pointed to January, the coldest month in decades in Salt Lake City, as a data point for why climate change is scientifically unsound. But what Noel actually did was point out why global warming is such a poor term to describe what is happening to our earth. The effects of increasing greenhouse gasses are such that the weather is bucking trends that have occurred for centuries. Yes, January was unusually cold, but 2012 was still the hottest year on record.

And Rep. John Mathis, in an attempt to demonstrate how powerless humans are in the face of climate change, twice pointed to the fact that if the committee meeting had happened 14,000 years earlier, we’d all be snorkeling in Lake Bonneville.

But Noel, Mathis and the Eagle Forum are of the old guard, and their opposition to the bill was unsurprising. More consistent with Utah attitudes were the many youth, the future of our state, who stood up to voice their support for the bill. One young woman talked about wanting her children to be able to enjoy Utah’s outdoor recreational opportunities. Another student simply expressed her desire for blue skies and beautiful mountains.

These testimonies suggest there is a change of generational proportion occurring in Utah, one that demonstrates a return to the care of the land that allowed my family to prosper in central Utah.  Yes, the bill ultimately failed, but not before an unprecedented two-hour long discussion on climate change and its effects. And not before young people stood up to make their voices heard.

Call it what you like, but the climate is certainly changing in Utah.

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