High schoolers forced Utah to admit climate change is real

A group of students convinced state lawmakers to acknowledge the warming planet.

 

Jack Greene is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a retired high school teacher who works with students around the state of Utah on environmental issues. High school student Piper Christian contributed to this opinion.


It sounds completely improbable: The Utah Legislature recently adopted a resolution that moves the state from denial of global climate change to the recognition that finding a solution is crucial.

An obvious question is how this flip-flop occurred in a legislature with a Republican super-majority of 83 percent, in a state that produces more than 90 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels. Students at Logan High School can tell you the answer: For nearly two years, they have been working to make the Legislature budge. They educated themselves about the science of climate change and formed alliances with other students and business leaders throughout the state.

Most of all, the teenagers never stopped. They simply refused to give up.

The Utah State Capitol, where legislators recently passed a resolution recognizing the importance of addressing climate change.

Their efforts began in 2016, when they learned that, six years earlier, the Utah Legislature had passed a resolution declaring that climate change should be ignored until the science was more convincing. Some Logan High School students found this incredible. They’d witnessed firsthand how climate change was contributing to longer and more intense fire seasons, and they experienced Utah’s dwindling snowpack and increasing water scarcity.

“My generation and generations to come will inherit the many threats that climate change poses,” said Piper Christian, one of these students. She decided to take action.

With the help of key legislators, she and other concerned students drafted a legislative resolution, “Economic and Environmental Stewardship. Local business leaders who supported the students also wrote to state legislators, saying, “We need Utah’s policymakers to help us prepare for the potential effects that a changing climate could have on our state.”

Elected officials responded by claiming there was virtually no chance of getting the resolution introduced, must less passed. “Don’t waste your time,” they were told. “Try something less ambitious.” That response discouraged some students, but Christian decided: “We will persist, primarily to see this as something that does not have to be divisive.”

Their persistence paid off. Through a combination of networking and building more alliances, things began to move forward. To the students’ amazement, a Republican legislator — Rep. Becky Edwards of Bountiful — sponsored their resolution in the 2017 legislative session. When it was time for a hearing in her committee, the students spoke out forcefully and, some observers said, movingly.

Yet their initial resolution died after a 5–5 split. The students realized that they needed to do more work educating state legislators and also getting feedback on their resolution. They partnered with a coalition of advocacy organizations, whose volunteers met with representatives from nearly every Utah political district.

The six Utah chapters of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby were a major force, along with at least five other organizations that combined with the student network. At the start of the 2018 legislative session, the grassroots groups partnered with Edwards to create an evening program at the Capitol. It brought together high school students, legislators and a five-member “climate solutions” panel. The panel included a physicist, the director of the governor’s energy office, a student from Brigham Young University and two city mayors.

As the students said that night, “We, as youth leaders of Utah, have assembled with you, our state leaders, to address what we consider to be the paramount issue of our generation — that of a changing climate. We hope this dialogue will … ultimately lead to action to address this challenge on all levels — local, state and national.”

Adding to their public support was a business coalition that included Rio Tinto, Rocky Mountain Power, Mark Miller Subaru, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, Utah Technology Council, the ski areas of Alta, Snowbird, Solitude, Deer Valley and Park City, and various other major businesses.

The 2018 legislative general session began with Edwards again filing the students’ climate resolution. The students were forced to wait with patience as the resolution moved slowly through the committee process. They learned the importance of compromise as they watched the wording of the resolution change to accommodate various interests. 

Once again, testimony from the students about the seriousness of climate change made an impact. Opinions started changing. The bill was reported out of committee by an 8-2 vote. Then, at last, came success as the House passed the resolution 51-21 and the Senate 23-3. A surprising 75 percent of Republican legislators voted in favor of the bill, which Gov. Gary Herbert, also a Republican, signed on March 20.

Now, many people in Utah are grateful to these Logan High School students and their allies, who never gave up despite the odds against them.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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