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Fired Up! 

Admitting global warming exists proves too difficult for some state lawmakers.

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click to enlarge DEREK CARLISLE
  • Derek Carlisle

Chilly but not biting, the air was pleasant enough midday on Feb. 13 that you'd have been smart to wear a sweater or light jacket but shouldn't've bothered with a winter coat. It was spring-like despite the season still a full calendar page away. That same morning inside the State Capitol, however, Rep. Raymond Ward's global-warming resolution got a frigid reception from his Republican colleagues.

Ward, a Bountiful-residing member of Utah's Legislature and a card-carrying Republican who looks like he appreciates sunnier days, isn't a stereotypical global-warming harbinger. But there he was, the primary sponsor of House Concurrent Resolution 1, expounding on climate patterns.

His bill isn't to impose carbon taxes or mandate a reduction in fossil-fuel use. It isn't a bill at all, in fact, but a resolution asking that the state publicly and officially acknowledge that the globe is sweating over here and humans—at least partially—are the culprit.

It's useful to remember that a concurrent resolution has no teeth. Put another way, a concurrent resolution states a position but has no enforcement mechanism. So had lawmakers passed the resolution, the state wouldn't be on the hook for any action. However, the measure also asks that when the state makes energy decisions, those decisions should be backed by the best available science.

Speaking to City Weekly days before the session began, Ward said he noticed that often when officials discuss climate change as it relates to policy, they talk past one another because their underlying assumptions are different.

Those principles, Ward added, should be rooted in scientific fact. In Ward's eyes, allowing data to help one reach conclusions shouldn't be alienating. To that end, he was careful to avoid inflammatory language.

"I tried as hard as I could to choose result clauses that no one would find controversial," he said, adding, "I think everybody in the Legislature would say, 'Yes, if we're making a decision, of course we want to base it on the best scientific evidence available.'"

In measured terms, Ward laid out the case in a committee hearing last week: The planet and the state have warmed over recent decades; the temperature of a planet is set by the greenhouse gases in its atmosphere; carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere has risen; and there is a consensus among the scientific community that emissions are linked to the warming planet.

Then, like a prepared professor, he pulled out the data in a presentation with charts and graphs and figures and numbers. Data, by the way, that is backed by groups with authority on the subject. Worldwide scientific organizations, including NASA and NOAA in the U.S., confirmed the planet's temperature had ticked up 1.5 degrees over five decades, he noted. And to the lawmakers who are less concerned about global implications, Ward mentioned that during the past 50 years, Utah's average temperature jumped 2.5 degrees.

"Let me move into my next point, and I'm veering into math and science..." Ward warned at one point before he displayed a graph showing an upward, jagged line indicating the CO2 in the atmosphere is climbing as well.

But the graphs and data weren't enough. That much was clear when board members started asking about the earth's natural climate cycles and whether we weren't simply on a hot upswing.

The public who commented were mixed, many in the medical field asked for support while others expressed skepticism.

One member of the public, who identified himself as a geologist, claimed global warming data is manipulated, and those who are trying to propagate that it is anthropogenic do so because they have a vested interest in making people believe a falsehood.

Reid Ewing, a University of Utah professor and chair of city and metropolitan planning, co-authored a book titled Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change. He says the record is beyond convincing. Scientists can measure soaring temperatures and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and he argues predictive models seem to be spot on. Ewing calls natural disasters the "unmistakable fingerprints of climate change."

In a phone interview, he agrees that he is vested in the global warming debate—as should all humans, he adds, who don't want to see the cataclysm that is anticipated when creeping sea levels start sinking many of the world's densely populated shoreline cities.

"We have an interest in getting people to believe it's real because if we don't do anything about it, it's going to be catastrophic," Ewing says. "But I don't think we have a vested economic interest, if that's the point. As a professor of city and metro planning, I won't gain financially to get people to acknowledge that climate change is real, but we all gain as a society."

Ewing contends that those who stand to gain a buck in the debate are usually from the camp denying global warming.

A representative of the Utah Mining Association, in fact, testified against the resolution, contending that fossil fuels have energized the world and propelled significant industrial revolutions throughout history.

When it comes to whether they side with the fossil-fuel industry, many Utah lawmakers are unequivocal. The state's rock is coal. And legislators are so protective of that industry, they're willing to put a considerable amount of taxpayer money—an estimated $2 million—to defend it. On Feb. 12, a legislative subcommittee considered suing California for implementing new energy policies that could affect Utah's coal producers.

In the committee hearing last week, Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, demonstrated how intuitions, at times, can lead a person to faulty conclusions. The sun is big and hot, he stated, and if anyone should be blamed for hot weather, look no further than the fiery ball in the sky. "The sun is 1.3 million times larger than the Earth," Owens said. "Would that not be a dominant cause and have more effect possibly than man? I can't go there, [to the idea] that man is the substantial reason."

Ward had earlier explained that gases in the atmosphere are more telling than things like distance from the sun. Compare Mercury and Venus, he asked the committee. Despite being closer to the sun, Mercury has a colder nighttime temperature than Venus, which has an atmosphere that retains heat. (The difference, by the way, is enormous—approximately 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit!) Similarly, the average nighttime temperature on the moon is much colder than Earth's because of the atmosphere.

Even if the resolution was destined to fail in committee, supporters asked that it be put on the record with a vote. Instead, Rep. Timothy Hawkes, R-Centerville, offered a substitute motion to move on and drop the issue. Global warming, he reasoned, is a "highly politicized issue that's impossible to divorce from that context. So often it's just used as an argument for social and economic engineering."

The chairman can revive the bill later. It seemed more probable, though, that like a chunk of glacial ice that's plopped into the sea, the resolution has disappeared for good.

But citizens hoping the state will recognize climate change might be in luck. Two days after the hearing where Ward's bill was all but killed—a much colder day, as it was—another concurrent resolution went before a legislative body—this one backed by students. House Concurrent Resolution 7 on environmental and economic stewardship passed its first hurdle in an 8-3 vote. One component of that bill asks that the state recognize "the impacts of a changing climate on Utah citizens."

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