Bad news for the West in a new international climate change report

Utah, the West face more fires, less snow, and an uncertain water future

A blistering international report on the global effects of climate change says action is needed now to cut emissions and chart a new path for humanity.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which represents nearly 200 member nations, made clear the planet is warming at an even faster rate than scientists previously thought and those warming trends are causing chaos in every corner of the world.

Utah’s Salt City Lake International Airport, as an example, experienced the warmest July on record since records first started being kept in 1874, and the state, like the entire West, is in the grip of a protracted drought.

If you think the weather’s been the driest you’ve seen in your life, you’re right
Extremely low water levels are seen in this aerial photo of Starvation Reservoir near Duchesne on Monday Aug 9, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

U.N. Secretary General António Guterres described the report released Monday as “a code red for humanity.”

One of the U.S.-based authors of the report, Kim Cobb, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said the report’s findings are dire.

“There’s really one key message that emerges from this report: We are out of time. And this report really provides compelling, scientific linkages between the headlines that we see today and what we know about the physics of the climate system and how it’s being impacted by rising greenhouse gases.”

Some key takeaways include:

  • Climate change is intensifying the water cycle. This brings more intense rainfall and associated flooding, as well as more intense drought in many regions.
  • Climate change is affecting rainfall patterns. In high latitudes, precipitation is likely to increase, while it is projected to decrease over large parts of the subtropics. Changes to monsoon precipitation are expected, which will vary by region.
  • For cities, some aspects of climate change may be amplified, including heat (since urban areas are usually warmer than their surroundings), flooding from heavy precipitation events and sea level rise in coastal cities.
Extreme drought, urban heat and the Utah killer targeting the vulnerable

Logan Mitchell, an atmospheric scientist with the University of Utah, echoed Cobb’s concerns.

“The thing that really strikes me is I thought that many of these climate impacts were going to hit us in a few decades in 2040 or 2050, but we are seeing them today with the wildfires, the smoke, these extreme heat events.”

Jessica Tierney, associate professor of geosciences at the University of Arizona and one of the authors of the report, noted the widespread impacts in the West.

“So we keep hearing more and more in the news about these extreme events, and the takeaway message from this new report is that these events are just going to occur more and more often as global temperatures rise. And they may get more and more intense. And so in the western U.S., for example, we need to think hard about issues like water conservation and water storage in order to sort of weather through these increasingly extreme events.”

Snow dusts the foothills above Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Tierney went on to add that snowpack in the western United States is almost certain to decline in the future.

“And that has implications for water availability, because a lot of the stream flow in the Western United States — for example, the Colorado River — depends on snow. So we have increased confidence that we’re going to see less flow through our river systems in the western U.S., which means that we’re going to be even more prone to drought. And in fact, if emissions continue, then there is a very good chance that we’re going to see a level of drought and aridity that we haven’t seen in at least a thousand years.”

How bad is Utah’s drought? Water managers dipping into emergency supply

The IPCC is comprised of 195 governments and is deemed one of the most credible sources of climate science. The Walton Family Foundation, which works to protect water resources in the era of climate change, issued the following statement in response to the report.

“Climate change becomes crystal clear for most people when viewed through the lens of water. Droughts, floods, megastorms, wildfires, warming oceans, and even having the ability to keep growing crops all make climate change painfully real in everyday life,” said Moira Mcdonald, director of the Walton Family Foundation’s Environment Program. “This report is a wake-up call — there are practical reasons to both take action and still be hopeful.”

Polling by the foundation shows that climate change is a bipartisan issue of concern to everyone.

The survey taken by the foundation shows:

  • Most Americans (84%) agree that protecting the health of our water is essential to address climate change. 
  • There is also a broad consensus that the U.S. needs to take more action to address climate change. 
  • Finally, at a time of deep partisan division, 88% of Democrats, 73% of independents, and 55% of Republicans think humans can take action to reduce the impact of climate change. 

The National Wildlife Federation says the report is a “clarion call” for Congress to prioritize climate resilience and natural climate solutions.  

A wildfire on Traverse Mountain threatens homes in Lehi in2020.
A wildfire on Traverse Mountain threatens homes in Lehi on June 28, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“We are living through exactly what the climate models predicted: more frequent and more intense extreme storms, floods, wildfires, drought and heat waves that threaten lives, livelihoods and communities. This report drives home the reality that there is absolutely no time to waste. We desperately need to invest in zero-emission 21st-century infrastructure, while bolstering the resilience of communities across the country,” said Collin O’Mara, president and chief executive officer of the federation.

Mitchell, from the University of Utah, said the difficulty is translating the science so the public understands what is at risk.

He said Utah has the opportunity to be a leader in this arena with its geothermal demonstration project called FORGE and the transition of the Delta power plant from coal to natural gas — but it can do more.

“This is Utah’s opportunity, it is everybody’s opportunity. If Utah wants to compete on a global stage, that is what Utah needs to do.”

Inaction, like the report stressed, is not the path forward, Mitchell emphasized.

“What we are seeing in the West is the vision of the future and the challenges we face,” he said. “This is going to get worse. The big question is how much humans are going to let it get worse.”