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Guest opinion: Are the California wildfires a harbinger of Utah's future?

In this aerial photo, a burnt out structure is visible through the smoke as a wildfire continues to burn east of Strawberry Reservoir, in Wasatch County, Utah, Tuesday, July 3, 2018. The Utah fire comes as hot, dry conditions are fueling blazes in several
In this aerial photo, a burnt out structure is visible through the smoke as a wildfire continues to burn east of Strawberry Reservoir, in Wasatch County, Utah, Tuesday, July 3, 2018.
Scott G Winterton

The 2017 wildfire season was particularly bad in Utah. The 2018 season was even worse, consuming five times the average acreage, doubling the firefighting cost and sending toxic particulate pollution drifting over the Wasatch Front for weeks.

Several factors contribute to the destructiveness of recent fires, but ultimately the elevated risk is tied to the drying climate of the desert Southwest. A year ago this month, the Southwest entered a drought, and for the past eight months the Four Corners region has been the epicenter of an “exceptional drought" — the most severe rating. Stunning examples of how dry the Four Corners region has become are this year’s springtime closures of national forests in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona — an attempt to protect the forests from human-caused wildfires. Significantly, since early summer, the vast majority of our state has been classified as being in a “severe drought.”

Within the context of global climate warming, recent massive and deadly wildfires, dying mountain forests and threatened agriculture raise the specter of a future Southwest landscape in which most of the trees are dead, toxic duststorms rage and agriculture is impossible. As the Utah Citizens' Counsel 2018 Report on Environmental Health states, "Unfortunately, this is the scenario predicted by a recent study published in Science Advances."

The researchers used state-of-the-art atmosphere “general circulation” models to simulate the variables that govern mega-drought risk. They defined mega-drought as "a multidecadal (35-year) period of aridity as bad as, if not worse than, the worst droughts of the 20th century." Their modeling indicates that by the end of the century, if our emission of greenhouse gases continues unabated, regional temperature increases will push the risk of mega-drought between 90-99 percent, depending on precipitation rate. Stated simply, this study suggests that before the end of the century, business-as-usual emissions of greenhouse gases would make a mega-drought a near certainty. It must be emphasized that a drought of this magnitude would negatively impact essentially every aspect of our ecosystem and every aspect of our way of life. Fortunately, the researchers found that aggressive reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions to keep regional warming below 2 degrees Celcius would cut the risk of mega-drought nearly in half."

This study is not an outlier. Many other investigations also indicate that in the near future climate warming will disproportionately impact the American Southwest. The Utah Citizens’ Counsel believes the forecasted regional consequences of climate warming require that Utahns take a leadership role in aggressively combating this threat. The future of our children and grandchildren is at stake.

The most effective way to combat climate warming is through a fossil fuel tax that would provide incentives for fossil fuel supply companies to invest in green energy and for consumers to reduce their consumption. Because resistance to a carbon tax is high in Washington, D.C., states, including Utah, can and must take the lead.

House Bill 403, introduced in 2018 by Rep. Joel Briscoe, Rep. Rebecca Edwards and Rep. Dixon Pitcher, was a revenue-neutral carbon tax plan that would have placed a modest tax on fossil fuels while at the same time reduced the state sales tax on grocery store food and several other taxes. In other words, the proposed bill created a new tax on pollution while reducing the tax burden on households and some relevant industry. The Utah Citizens’ Counsel supports the need for carbon tax legislation like HB403. We shouldn't wait any longer to take much needed action.