07.15.14

Climate Change in Utah

As delivered on the Senate floor

My original topic for being here before I got into that subject was that this is my seventy-fourth visit to the floor to urge my colleagues that it is truly time to wake up to the threats of climate change. 

The reports just keep rolling in.  The latest one for coastal states like ours, Madam President, is  a study called “Risky Business,” that was commissioned by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who knows something about coastal issues, having been flooded by Sandy; former George W. Bush Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson; and former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer.  This report calculated the economic effects of climate change throughout the United States.  And it found that along our coasts, between $66 billion and $106 billion worth of existing property—property that Americans own right now—will likely be below sea level by 2050.  And by 2100, $238 billion to $507 billion worth of Americans’ hard-earned property will be underwater. 

Now, everything doesn’t happen just as you guess.  Sometimes you get bad news that there are long odds of.  And you need to be prepared for those long odds.  The report found that there are 1 in 20 odds that by 2100, the end of the century, there would be around $701 billion of infrastructure below sea level, and nearly $730 billion more of infrastructure that would be potentially in trouble during high tides.  So, our landlocked colleagues may laugh this off, but if a similar threat were looming at their state’s door, they would, I submit, be paying attention.  And for coastal states like ours, Madam President, this is deadly serious, and the Atlantic Coast, including Rhode Island—a coastal state named the Ocean State, the second most heavily populated state in terms of population density in the country, we have a lot of people living along that coastline—and our coast will see the worst of it.      

Climate change, unfortunately, has become mostly since Citizens United for reasons I have elaborated on before, a taboo subject now for Republicans in Congress.  So, the discussion here of climate change is somewhat one-sided, but Americans who are witnessing climate change’s effects firsthand in every state around the country know, and if they don’t know they are learning, that climate change is a real problem.  

I have discussed my travels to Florida, to Iowa, to North and South Carolina, to Georgia, to New Hampshire, and of the action that these people are taking in their home states to stave off the worst effects of their changing oceans and climate.  But at the local level, folks truly aren’t denying climate change.  That’s something that’s unique to Congress and the peculiar world we inhabit.  They’re not denying, they’re paying attention, and it’s not just in coastal states that people are paying attention.

This week I am going to look at Utah.  Utah is right here on this section of the map of our southwest part of our country, and this is a map of temperature trends.      

[Observational Temperature Trends]

Temperature is not complicated; it’s not some difficult theory that people have to try to get their minds around, we measure it with thermometers, it’s pretty straightforward stuff.  On this chart we see that average temperature over the last thirteen years, compared to the long-term average over a century, shows that there has been an increase in temperature across the entire state of Utah.  Down here, this region, the average has increased two full degrees Fahrenheit.  In the southeastern part of the state, down here, there are actually spots where the temperature has risen as much as 4.5°F. 

Southern Utah, this area, is home to iconic national parks, including Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches National Parks.  In Utah, park officials aren’t denying climate change.  Just last week, the Park Service released a report called “Climate Exposure of U.S. National Parks in a New Era of Change.”  This report studied dozens of climate variables in 289 national parks.  In Bryce, Zion, and Arches, the report shows higher year-round temperatures, hotter summers, and warmer winters.   Such significant shifts in temperature can mean less snowpack, worse wildfire seasons, and abnormal conditions for the plants and animals that reside in those parks.   

[Trends in Flood Magnitude]

Utah is getting warmer, and it is getting drier.  The United States Geological Survey shows a significant drop in the size and scope of floods in rivers and streams, all across the Southwest, in this area, from 1920 to 2008, and that of course includes Southern Utah.  Indeed, here are the symbols for the negative trend, and the biggest symbol for a negative trend in river and stream flooding is this one.  And if you can’t see the map very clearly, that is Southern Utah.  Here is the State of Utah right here, and there’s the location where the highest drying trend in rivers and streams is taking place.  Again, not complicated.  This isn’t a theory.  This is based on simple rainfall measurement, simple flooding measurement.  And if you look at it you’ll see actually there are other places where it’s going up a lot.  We New Englanders are seeing an increase, although in the Southwest they are seeing a substantial decrease.

So when those characters come in to our hearings and give testimony saying, “oh, you don’t have to worry about this, because there isn’t an overall increase in flooding, or anything,” yeah, because they offset each other.  But go to Utah and you see a very distinct trend.  And it’s drier.

Other factors, such as population growth and water management policies, play a role, but Lake Powell in Utah is about half full right now.  Lake Mead, further down the Colorado River in Nevada, has drained to just 39 percent of its capacity, it’s the lowest level Lake Mead has ever been since it was first filled up behind Hoover Dam.  Scientists at Colorado State University, at Princeton, and at the U.S. Forest Service predict that, unless we take major action, climate change may lead to water shortages so severe that Lakes Powell and Mead dry up completely.

The drying of the western United States, and of Southern Utah, means less water for drinking, fighting fires, farming, wildlife, and recreation.  Salt Lake City gets 80 percent of its water supply from snowpack in the Uinta [you-IN-tah] and Wasatch Mountains.  If predictions hold true, local water managers in Utah will no longer be able to depend on historical data to predict and manage how much water the mountains will yield.  Utah will be in a brave new world—a dry new world.   

The Western United States’ prolonged drought conditions, compared to the last century, make it ripe for forest fires.  And indeed, a recent study of western wildfire trends, led by Dr. Philip Dennison of the University of Utah, found that from 1984 to 2011 fires have become larger and more frequent.  The total area burned by these fires is increasing over this time period at roughly 90,000 acres burned per year.  That’s the rate of increase.

The recent National Climate Assessment similarly shows that “between 1970 and 2003, warmer and drier conditions increased burned area in western U.S. mid-elevation conifer forests by 650 percent.”  And that report is quite clear about the link between climate change and these forest fires in the region, noting that, I’ll quote again: “[c]limate outweighed other factors in determining burned area in the western U.S.”

These changes in temperature and precipitation are putting Utah’s iconic desert sagebrush at risk according to Peter Alder, an ecologist at Utah State University.  Sagebrush is grazed by livestock, and it is important to Utah’s ranching industry.  Dr. Alder is working with faculty and students from seven area universities to better understand the vulnerability of sagebrush ecosystems to climate change. 

These Utah scientists aren’t denying climate change, and neither is, for instance, Utah State University.  Utah State has entire new courses of study to train the next generation of students to predict and combat climate change; Utah State has its own climate action plan; and Utah State has an active climate center.    

And it’s not the only one.  The University of Utah has an active sustainability center, and an army of students and researchers working on addressing climate change.  Each year, the University of Utah publishes an annual report on climate change.  Members of Utah’s delegation may be pretending climate change isn’t real, but Utah’s universities aren’t.  They’re not denying.  They are acting.

Utah’s capitol city is not denying climate change.  There may be a barricade of polluter influence around Congress, but mayors all across the country are taking action, including in Utah, as you saw with the unanimous resolution of the Council of Mayors recently.  That United States Conference of Mayors ranked Salt Lake City, Utah, and its Mayor Ralph Becker, first place in the Mayors Climate Protection Center rankings, because of the impressive work being done in Salt Lake City.  For example, the Salt Lake City Public Safety Building will be the first public safety building in the nation to achieve a Net Zero rating (meaning it generates as much electricity as it uses). 

Utah also has energy investors who are awake, building a growing number of solar installations.  Community Solar has a pilot project in Salt Lake that allows homeowner groups to purchase solar energy.  It’s estimated that over its 25-year lifetime, this installation will avoid over 5500 tons of carbon dioxide pollution.

[Electricity for Utah]

Renewable energy is integral in Utah’s energy portfolio moving forward.   In this chart, you can see this display showing that by 2050 Utah will rely mostly on wind, solar, geothermal, and natural gas, to achieve carbon dioxide emission reductions of 80 percent compared to 1990 levels.  And as you see, this is the yellow, which is solar.  Solar is projected to account for more than half of this shift.  

Utah-based businesses like eBay are enhancing renewable energy.  eBay built a data center in South Jordan, Utah, and wanted to make sure it used only clean energy to run that facility.  To accomplish this, eBay worked with GOP State Senator Mark Madsen, Rocky Mountain Power—the state’s largest electric utility—and a local renewable energy generator on Utah legislation to make renewable energy available to Utah electricity consumers.  None of them were denying climate change.  

And the renewable energy bill was unanimously passed by the Utah State Senate and House of Representatives, and signed into law by Republican Governor Gary Herbert.  eBay employs 1500 people in Utah, including its 400-member group in Salt Lake City known as the “Green Team,” dedicated to making the company environmentally responsible.  They are not denying climate change in Utah.  eBay is actually looking to add another data facility and more jobs using that same clean energy framework.    

The faith community in Utah is taking action as well.  Utah Interfaith Power and Light is a network of nearly thirty Christian, Jewish, and nondenominational congregations, representing thousands of Utahans, seeking “to promote earth stewardship, clean energy, and climate justice.”  In addition to conducting free energy audits for new member churches and offering plans to increase energy efficiency in their buildings, Utah Interfaith and Power and Light also works to educate its members about climate change, and advocates at the local and state level for moral and responsible climate policy. 

Then, of course, there is the famous Utah ski industry. The operators of Utah’s great ski resorts have been outspoken about the threat climate change poses to their business. Five of them—Alta Ski Area, Canyons Resort, Deer Crest Private Trails, Deer Valley, and Park City Mountain Resort—all signed the BICEP coalition’s Climate Declaration in support of national action on climate change.  For sure, they’re not denying.

Indeed, the Park City Foundation in Utah issued a report explaining that as drought and increasing temperatures reduce the snowpack in the Cascade Range and the Rocky Mountains, the future of skiing and snowboarding in those ranges is at risk.  This Utah report predicts a local temperature increase of 6.8°F by 2075, which could cause a total loss of snowpack in the lower Park City resort area.  Beyond the loss to the skiing tradition in Park City, this will result in thousands of lost jobs, tens of millions in lost earnings, and hundreds of millions in lost economic output, according to this Utah report. 

In Utah, like in other states, there is a groundswell coming from local communities asking for action on climate change.  There are scientists, public health advocates, business owners and corporate leaders, outdoorsmen, faith leaders, state and local officials, and countless others demanding action on climate change and leading the charge. 

David Folland is a retired pediatrician, and he is co-leader of Salt Lake Citizens Climate Lobby, which recently joined seven other Utahans and 600 volunteers from around the country to come to Congress to push us for swift passage of a proper carbon fee.  In a Salt Lake City Tribune op-ed last week, Dr. Folland wrote that “[p]lacing a fee on carbon sources and returning the proceeds to households would create jobs, build the economy, improve public health, and help stabilize the climate.”  I ask unanimous consent to submit Dr. Folland’s op-ed into the Record at the conclusion of my remarks.  Thank you, Madam Chair.

Outside these walls, climate change is an issue Republicans can actually discuss.  Outside these walls, 2012 Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, who won reelection as Utah’s Republican Governor in 2008 with almost 80 percent of the vote—this is a popular guy in Utah—he wrote a New York Times op-ed this year, titled “The G.O.P Can’t Ignore Climate Change.”  That’s the title of Governor Huntsman’s article.  In it he wrote, and I’ll quote him, “While there is room for some skepticism given the uncertainty about the magnitude of climate change, the fact is that the planet is warming, and failing to deal with this reality will leave us vulnerable—and possibly worse.  Hedging against risk,” he said, “is an enduring theme of conservative thought.  [And] it is also a concept diverse groups can embrace.”

That’s from Utah’s former governor.  And, by the way, when he ran for reelection and won by that near-80 percent margin, he was actually running on a pretty good environmental platform, he was not denying.  But in Congress, in Congress there is silence from the Republican Party.  Except those who come and say that climate change is just a big ol’ hoax.  It would have to be the most complicated hoax in the world, with most of our major corporations, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NOAA, and innumerable other groups all involved in it.  And it would be pretty impressive to actually raise the level of the seas 8 to 10 inches as a part of that complicated hoax, but I guess that’s their notion of why that’s happening.  But here, other than that hoax argument, there is silence.  No Republican comes to the floor to say “you’re right, this is a problem, we should do something about it, let’s work together, we may not agree on the solution right now, but let’s at least work on it as a serious problem.”   They won’t do that.  The Republican Party has taken the position, and followed the direction, of the polluters; it’s as simple as that.  I, for one, believe they will be judged very harshly for that choice.  Because Americans know better.  Utahans know better.  More and more people across America see what’s happening before them and they are no longer fooled by the phony campaign of denial.  I hope that this Congress will listen to the people in our home states, to the people across this country, and wake up to what has now become a clear and present danger.  And do what the people who elected us sent us here to do, which is face reality, make sensible choices, work together, and solve problems.  Not stick our heads in the sand and pretend that problems don’t exist. 

I yield the floor.