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Op-ed: Let's actually fix Utah's air pollution

Inversion fills the Wasatch Front on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017.
Inversion fills the Wasatch Front on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

At times, Utah cities along the Wasatch Front have the worst air pollution in the entire nation. Yes, we live in a bowl where our air pollution gets trapped by inversions in winter, but inversions are unavoidable and natural, and trapped pollution would not be a problem if there were no pollution to trap.

We can, should and must fix our air pollution problem, both here and worldwide. Air pollution is harming our health, killing people, shortening all our lives, blocking our view of the great beauty around us and hurting our state’s tourist-reliant economy. Who wants to visit, or live in, a polluted environment?

Air pollution causes changes to the environment, which in turn are causing extremely costly, harmful climate-related problems both here in the U.S. and around the world, including droughts, wildfires, famine, sea-level rise, species die-offs, severe weather events and a warming planet. Again, we can, should and must fix the problem. But how? The solution is obvious: Stop polluting.

The main cause of our air pollution here in Utah and worldwide is the mining, processing and burning of carbon energy: petroleum products, coal, gas and wood. We burn pollution-producing carbon to power our vehicles; heat, cool and light our homes, and power almost everything we do. To actually fix our air pollution problem we can, should and must replace polluting carbon energy and fuels with clean, safe renewable energy.

How can this happen when we are so dependent on carbon energy? In what we call a market economy and representative democracy, our leadership can and should take strong, effective steps to make clean, safe renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, sufficiently less expensive than polluting carbon energy.

This can be accomplished by (1) imposing an effective fee on carbon energy (think of it as a “sin tax” on harmful, polluting behavior, like the tax on tobacco) and (2) incentivizing the production and consumption of clean, safe renewable energy, such as solar and wind power. (The “sin tax” on carbon energy and fuels can be returned to the public equally in the form of household tax credits or checks.) If clean renewable energy is much cheaper and plentiful, the switch to clean power and clean air will happen relatively quickly.

The key to implement the switch to clean energy and clean air is the will of the public and the will and ability of our leadership to make this switch. That’s where we, the public, come in. We need to get the anti-democratic, anti-common-good influence of big money out of politics and elect good, smart, responsible, effective leaders who have the guts, motivation and ability to effect the switch to clean, safe renewable power. The majority of our current political leaders are lacking in those qualities and, because of the corrupting influence of money in politics, are beholden to those who benefit from our current dependence on polluting carbon energy and fuels.

If we want clean air, we need to clean up our own acts and vote for and demand effective leadership to do the same. Call your representatives today and make your voice heard loud and clear. Be sure to vote for clean-air and clean-energy candidates next November and in all elections. It also would help for religious leadership of all faiths to urge strong, effective action to stop polluting and switch to clean energy and clean air.

James Westwater, Ph.D., is the chair of Utah Valley Earth Forum.