The fight against global warming is about to get more personal for Utahns, with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. joining forces with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
On Monday, Schwarzenegger will be in Utah as Huntsman signs the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative, a pact enacted earlier this year by Schwarzenegger and four other Western governors.
The agreement calls for an overall regional goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all six states collectively and calls for a cap and trade program whereby emission credits could be sold. In addition, a tracking registry for emissions would be implemented.
Global warming has moved to the forefront of public debate recently, drawing red and blue states together in an effort to combat climate change which has been blamed for prolonged droughts, reduced snowpacks and more severe forest fires.
Huntsman's signing of the initiative is a bold move that sends a national message to conservatives that global warming demands attention, according to Dan Schnur, a political science instructor at the University of California Berkeley.
"This has the potential to be the energy version of Nixon going to China," Schnur said. "A lot of cold warriors felt much more comfortable establishing relations with China once Nixon was on the issue. A governor like Huntsman from a state like Utah provides cover for conservatives in other places."
Aaron McLear, press secretary to Schwarzenegger, said global warming is something that transcends partisan politics. "This is more about being pro-environment, pro-economy, pro-national security and creating jobs," McLear said. "I think this is a good thing for the people of Utah and California."
Utah, which relies almost entirely on fossil fuels to generate its electricity, will become part of a pact that was signed in February by Schwarzenegger and the governors of Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington. British Columbia also has agreed to the pact.
Huntsman said he is less interested in what political slant one might put on the problem, instead expressing concern about taking steps toward a solution.
"I think most Americans and most Utahns are coming around to a view that we must take action," Huntsman said. "All I know is that our air is less clean than it was in the past. We have more red days than ever before. We have water quality problems. These are issues that we all need to get behind."
Dan Skopec, undersecretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, called Utah's signing of the initiative significant.
"For Gov. Huntsman to do this we recognize is a really bold move," Skopec said. "Utah provides a lot of power to other states in the West. As you seek to reduce emissions at the state level, one of the big criticisms is that you get leakage people just move out of state and keep emitting and you haven't done anything to solve the climate problem. You can address the leakage issue when you have Utah joining this initiative."
The Center for Climate Strategies a nonprofit group specializing in climate issues estimates that Utah's annual carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in 2005 totaled roughly 68.8 million metric tons, a 4 percent increase from 65.9 million metric tons in 2000 and a 40 percent increase compared to 1990, when state emissions totaled 49.3 million metric tons.
Jim Steenburgh, professor and chair of the Department of Meteorology at the University of Utah, said there is strong scientific consensus that Earth's climate is changing.
"There's no scientific doubt any longer that the Earth has warmed over the last 100 years," Steenburgh said. "Particularly in the last 50 years the rate of warming has been accelerating."
Carbon dioxide acts like glass in a greenhouse, allowing sunlight through to heat the planet's surface but trapping the heat as it radiates back into space, according to the Young Peoples Trust for the Environment.
"The levels that we have now, though, because of fossil fuel use are substantially higher than the natural levels of carbon dioxide over the last several hundred thousand years," Steenburgh said. "We've basically added all of this carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the planet is just beginning to respond, and the way it's responding is through warming."
Huntsman's signing of the initiative, however, is largely symbolic. It will require more persuasion to put a plan in action in a state like Utah, where coal is abundant and electricity rates rank among the cheapest in the nation.
Last week, Rich Walje, president of Rocky Mountain Power, warned that potential federal and state mandates regulating carbon emissions could penalize Utahns more than citizens in other states.
But Huntsman downplays those concerns.
"We will have to move faster and more vigorously toward lessening our carbon footprint, and ultimately that is going to have to be carbon sequestration technology," Huntsman said. "Those who want to wait on the development of that sequestration technology, they are probably going to find that we all have to move aggressively toward that end. And it means probably more in the way of investment in research and development."
The initiative at this point is only policy and does not require that businesses, industry or consumers comply. That, Huntsman believes, will take some time and likely involve future legislation.
In the meantime, Huntsman said he will push for a state renewable energy standard, which will establish a minimum threshold of how much of the state's electrical energy generation comes from renewable sources like wind."Teddy Roosevelt came here in 1903 and had kind of a rally downtown, and his message was to thank the citizens for being good conservationists," Huntsman said. "We were known at one time for being good conservationists, good stewards of the land. I think that is an ethos that is going to return."