In Utah, climate concerns are now motivating candidates

This story was originally published by Capital and Main.

Driving on Interstate 215 south of Salt Lake City in late January, I couldn’t help but notice the bumper stickers on the pickup truck in front of me. One featured a rattlesnake and the classic motto “Don’t tread on me,” which dates to the Revolutionary War but has been co-opted by many right-wing ideologues. And the other featured a map of a shrinking lake and the words “Keep the Salt Lake Great,” the motto of a local environmental group focused on protecting Utah’s rivers and ecosystems. 

Those dual views perfectly capture the ethos of Utah, a deep red state whose natural beauty is being threatened by more intense heat waves and extreme drought. A proud coal- and oil-producing state, it’s led by conservative lawmakers, and recent national surveys show it’s one of the most Republican states in the country. Back in 2010, the Utah Legislature even passed a resolution that essentially wrote climate change denial into state policy by urging the EPA to “cease its carbon dioxide reduction policies, programs, and regulations until climate data and global warming science are substantiated.”

But since then, Utah has been impacted by climate change more than most states — over the last 50 years, temperatures in the state have risen at about twice the global average, and it has faced worsening drought, wildfires, flash floods and extreme heat waves. The impact has been devastating on the health and well-being of residents, with decreasing productivity of farms and higher rates of respiratory disease and asthma, along with other heat-related diseases.

And climate change has seriously damaged one of the state’s natural wonders — that map on the truck driver’s bumper sticker reveals how climate change has shrunk the Great Salt Lake’s footprint by half in the last decades due to the reduced flow of mountain streams that feed the lake and higher demand for freshwater for new development and agriculture.

The crisis has also increased climate awareness in the state, with half of residents in a recent survey saying that climate change is an extremely or very serious problem and 64 percent saying they’ve noticed significant effects from climate change over the past 10 years. 

“For voters, climate has become a bigger issue than it has been in the past,” said Josh Kraft, government and corporate relations manager for Utah Clean Energy, a public interest group that launched a historic compact in 2020 that brought together more than 100 of the state’s political and business leaders to stimulate support for clean energy and energize conversations on climate action and clean air solutions.

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That bipartisan concern with climate change is now impacting politics in the state — where two self-professed climate candidates are running to replace Mitt Romney in the U.S. Senate. In total, there are five GOP candidates polling higher than 3 percent and three Democratic candidates running in the June 25 primary.

In the Republican primary, the frontrunner, U.S. Rep. John Curtis, is highlighting the need to address the climate crisis, pushing for more support for clean energy. He founded and leads the Conservative Climate Caucus in Congress and blames his party for not taking climate change seriously. 

“We want to work together as Republicans and Democrats, because at the end of the day, we all care about leaving the Earth better than we found it,” Curtis recently told the Sierra Club. “That’s how I talk about it — who doesn’t want to leave the Earth better than we found it?”

But climate activists are doubtful, claiming that Curtis is too reliant on industry-friendly solutions such as carbon capture and opposes some of President Biden’s signature climate accomplishments, including the Inflation Reduction Act. 

In the Democratic primary, mountaineer and environmental activist Caroline Gleich has made climate action and air quality a key focus of her campaign. She rallied lawmakers in the state to take action to increase water flow to the Great Salt Lake as part of a larger climate agenda that includes cutting subsidies for fossil fuels, taking advantage of Inflation Reduction Act funds aimed at increasing the use of renewable energy in the state, and protecting public lands. “Our mountains, our air, our rivers and lakes, our lives deserve respect,” Gleich has repeatedly said. 

Yet she sees a disconnect between public support for climate action and the policies pursued by the state’s political leadership, noting that the Legislature recently voted to increase the tax on EV charging and to reduce the tax on gasoline. “And when you look at who’s funding these candidates, you see there’s a huge amount of oil and gas and fossil fuel companies giving money to them,” Gleich said.

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Indeed, Curtis is a major recipient — his district includes an area known as Carbon County due to its abundance of coal and natural gas, and he has accepted $265,000 from oil and gas industry-linked political action committees since 2017. Curtis did not return calls from Capital & Main for comment.

Gleich’s view is echoed by Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council, an environmental group that distributes the Great Salt Lake bumper stickers. “We’re in a state of climate change denial — politicians might say that it’s real in an election year, but if we start asking them if we should embrace climate adaptive policies, they say no. They assume that any crisis is decades away.”

Frankel is encouraged by the growing public concern over climate issues, such as the shrinking Great Salt Lake — the largest remaining wetland ecosystem in the American West — and the growing frustration with the lack of action. 

“The state of Utah has refused to embrace any kind of meaningful policy plan to raise lake levels,” he said, predicting that “it will have to get worse before it gets better.”

As elsewhere in the country, younger voters in the state seem to be more galvanized than older voters about the issue and demanding action. At a climate strike on the steps of the Utah state house last year, activists condemned the Legislature for not making serious efforts to reduce emissions. A legislator’s move to slash emissions at U.S. Magnesium, which harvests lithium and magnesium from the Great Salt Lake, was scaled back to a mere study of the effects of pollutants created in the process. 

“Young people are disproportionately affected by eco-anxiety because it’s their future,” said Gleich, who at 38 is the youngest candidate in the Senate race. “That is what is on the line in this election.”


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