SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. John Curtis, R-Utah, compared the politicization of a changing climate to putting a wall on the border between the United States and Mexico — issues that send both sides in the debate on the defensive or retreating to their respective corners.

“We have got to do this. We have to stop being so afraid of this conversation,” he said. “I don’t know why we are so afraid of it. We run and hide when someone says climate change. ... We have good answers that can be bipartisan.”

Curtis participated in a virtual town hall Wednesday night hosted by the Wasatch Back Chapter of the Citizens Climate Lobby that also featured Arden Pope, a Brigham Young University economics professor who has pioneered air pollution research over the last 30 years as a panelist.

“I am passionate about the fact that we have to show some leadership on this,” Curtis said, referencing his GOP colleagues in Congress.

The virtual hall on clean air and stewardship also featured a trio of mayors as panelists: Celeste Johnson from Midway, Kelleen Potter of Heber City, and Mike Kourianos from Price.

All spoke of the need to break down political barriers, both locally, nationally and on a global scale to reduce harmful emissions.

“I think the real mission for me is finding ways to talk about these kind of issues that don’t get one side or the other defensive,” Curtis said.

The tricky challenge of reducing carbon dioxide emissions rests with global partners who are willing to be collaborative in the effort, Pope stressed.

“It is a greenhouse gas and there’s no question that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contributes to global warming,” Pope said. “We could eliminate all the CO2 emitted in Utah entirely and you would not even be able to measure it on a global basis.”

India and China are heavily invested in coal and fossil fuels, so the United States must lead out with helping countries invest in pollution busting technology to change energy portfolios, Curtis said.

The conversation also has to change in Washington, D.C., around nuclear energy, he said.

“I would like to see us put nuclear into the mix. It is time for a conversation in the United States on nuclear and it does not have to be partisan,” he said. “This next generation of nuclear is going to be very different than we have expected.”

Potter, Heber’s mayor, described her city’s involvement in a small-scale nuclear modular reactor project being pursued by Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems to add nuclear power to its mix of energy — with an eventual eye for nuclear to replace base line coal at some point.

“The Department of Energy is putting a lot of money into it, but a lot of it will come down to cost,” she said. “I wonder if we are just missing the boat if we are just focused on costs. Do we really make or break it if it is going to cost a lot a little bit more?”

The carbon free project is under review by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and could come online in a few years, if it proves cost effective for ratepayers.

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Kourianos, the mayor of Price, agreed.

”We have to make nuclear competitive, but for little municipalities and little cities to be part of this project, it is way too much.”

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Pope said the coronavirus outbreak and its significant impacts on reducing air pollution — demonstrated locally with a study released Tuesday — is proof that behavioral shifts can effect change, but the world doesn’t need a pandemic to accomplish that.

“I think in the future we are going to have clean cars and have clean power generation but the only way we are going to do it is if we are rigorous in the science, rigorous in the engineering and rigorous in the politics,” Pope said. “And we don’t destroy what we love. ... We have dramatically improved our air quality in the last 40 or 50 years and it has not destroyed our economy.”

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