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Utah's politics on global warming

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SALT LAKE CITY — As Barack Obama and Mitt Romney campaign, the warming climate and problems linked to it, from drought to wildfires, aren't top of the talking points. That's a noticeable change from the 2008 presidential race.

According to former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman the recession changed everything, including the national debate about climate change.

"It broke in 2008, 2009, and with unemployment that skyrocketed," said Huntsman, "this whole conversation was crowded out."

In 2007, concerned the warming climate was making western states "hotter and drier," two GOP governors, Utah's Huntsman and California's Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a pact aimed at reducing pollution from gases thought to be behind climate change. Breakthroughs might come, they said, by investing in cleaner technology, as Huntsman told KSL just last week.

"It's an economic opportunity to get us ahead, in embracing a new economy, embracing a new energy economy," Huntsman said.

As Huntsman's party swung to the right at the end of the last decade, with Republicans taking the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, many in the GOP expressed doubts about climate science.

Case in point, Huntsman's own former chief of staff Jason Chaffetz. At the state GOP convention in 2008, as he stormed to victory, on his way to a a seat in Congress, Chaffetz said "by the way, Jon Huntsman, as much as I like him, you're wrong on global warming. It's a farce."

In a recent interview, he called the science of human-caused global warming inconclusive, though he changed the target of his skepticism.

Global warming as it was presented by Al Gore, I still maintain that that's a farce. I don't buy into that.

–Jason Chaffetz

"Global warming as it was presented by Al Gore, I still maintain that that's a farce," said Chaffetz. "I don't buy into that."

A year ago, as a presidential candidate, Huntsman, the former U.S. ambassador to China, tried to inject climate change into the national debate. After Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then one of the other candidates, suggested he had doubts about evolution, Huntsman wrote on his Twitter account: "To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."

It earned him little traction with many GOP primary voters or the Republican establishment. In one televised exchange with Fox News shortly after that tweet, Huntsman said, "let's get serious about the issues of the day." Fox News Anchor Brian Kilmeade shot back: "tell the scientists to get serious and stop making things up."

Utah's state climatologist Robert Gillies finds the politicized debate over the science frustrating. "To say it's farcical is somewhat insulting," ?Gillies said. Climate researchers spend years analyzing data, that is then subjected to rigorous peer review.

"It's an easy word to throw out, without consulting the scientists who do the work."

With his 2012 campaign now in the rear mirror, Huntsman said he wants the political world to study the science. "The politics are impossible today," Huntsman said. "It's become a completely irrational conversation."

Hinckley Institute of Politics Director Kirk Jowers said the dynamics of the issue have changed considerably.

"In 2008, it was a big issue in the presidential election and down ticket," Jowers said. "This election it's been a complete non-issue."

Jowers said with much of the public worried about the economy, and confused about the causes and possible responses to global warming, the issue hasn't gained much prominence, according to polls.

"I almost think this is a case where the confusion and ambivalence is why it's not moving rather than it's just too hot to handle," said Jowers, noting President Obama hasn't made the issue a major priority, so there's little for Republicans to attack.


For some local leaders, like Salt Lake City mayor Ralph Becker, a Democrat, global warming is a real threat, requiring serious planning, now. "It's happening," said Becker. "It takes someone with their head in the sand to believe it's not happening."

One significant concern for city leaders, especially with mountain snowpacks shrinking, is water. "How do we protect our water supply?" Becker asked. "We may have to change our basic infrastructure for water supply to be able to address the effects of climate change."

Recent polls show more Americans do believe the world is warming, but many people have doubts and questions, as demonstrated by a recent visit to a farm in Orem. There, on 25 acres, Richard Wilkerson, Jr. and his father, Richard, Sr., raise an organic cornucopia of vegetables, from corn to squash, to sell at Salt Lake's Downtown Farmer's Market.

Growing crops on fine, sandy soil near Mt. Timpanogos, this season has been brutally dry. Water, irrigation from mountain snowmelt, is the lifeblood. "If it snows, we have water," said Wilkerson, Jr.. "And if it doesn't then we don't. Simple as that."

Worries about a changing climate are more distant. "I don't really have time to worry about it, to be honest," he said. "I'm the type of guy that, I don't count anything out. I'm a farmer after all, so I kind of have to be that way."

"I don't know much about it," said his father. Over a lifetime of farming, much of it in British Columbia, Wilkerson, Sr., has seen the trends. Overall, the weather seems slightly warmer, he said and "it doesn't seem like the winters are as cold as they used to be."

Within Utah's scientific community there appears to be strong consensus on climate change.

For example, in 2009, a group of 18 Phd scientists from BYU sent a letter to Utah lawmakers saying the changing climate is "significantly influenced" by human activity, and "poses risks to humanity."


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John Daley


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