'Dark cloud' of pollution may lead to climate change, experts say

Published: Wednesday, May 14 2014 6:35 p.m. MDT

Scientists and Salt Lake City officials talked about the need to reduce carbon emissions Wednesday.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Air pollution is a "dark cloud" looming over Utah, even on a sunny day in May, according to city officials.

Pollution affects the quality of life and economy in Utah, according to Salt Lake City sustainability program director Debbie Lyons.

"We still have a dark cloud hanging over us," Lyons said Wednesday during a news conference at the Salt Lake City-County Building, referring to the recurring smog in the state.

She was joined by others who said pollution is contributing to climate change, a reduction in the state's snowpack levels, and could bring about dangerous results in the coming decades.

"Climate change isn't just some distant, far-off problem," said Michael Mann, Penn State distinguished professor of meteorology.

Barry Bickmore, a geologist at BYU; Court Strong, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah; and HEAL Utah's Matt Pacenza also spoke at Wednesday's news conference.

The group set forth climate change as inevitable based on recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Climate Assessment.

The National Climate Assessment, released in May, was created by 300 experts and reviewed by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences and federal agencies. It is part of President Barack Obama's Climate Action Plan designed to reduce carbon pollution.

But some critics see the assessment as an attempt to stoke fears rather than display scientific research.

Others, including Mann, Bickmore and Strong, saw a bleak warning and renewed their efforts at reducing carbon emissions locally and nationally, and moving to renewable energy sources. They estimate it will be a matter of decades before the damage to the environment is irreversible.

Mann is known for his Hockey Stick graph that illustrates the sharp rise in temperatures over the past century. On Wednesday, he spoke of the need to end the "fake debate" about whether climate change exists and instead focus on the "worthy debate" over what to do about it.

Other factors, such as agricultural patterns and deforestation, also contribute to high CO2 levels, Mann said, but not to the same extent as carbon emissions. Technology exists that would allow for the pre-emptive capture of CO2 before it goes into the atmosphere or for existing CO2 to be "scrubbed out" of the environment, but they are costly and time-consuming, according to Mann.

While climate change and pollution are not going to go away without a global effort, the United States has a moral imperative to set an example, Mann said. He said he sees most change in the states happening through executive orders or on a local level.

Salt Lake City has made efforts toward making the city more energy efficient and reducing its carbon footprint, including improving public transportation, promoting recycling and making sure new and existing buildings are energy efficient. The city's efforts can be seen Salt Lake's Sustainable City Dashboard.

The state's snowpack is one area of concern for city officials. A study conducted by scientists in Utah and Colorado determined there is a 3.8 percent reduction in stream flow in the Wasatch Mountains for every 1 degree gained.

Some doubt the efficacy of these efforts, including officials from the Institute for Energy Research.

"Actions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by the city of Salt Lake will have no impact on climate change," Daniel Simmons, director of the institute's regulatory and state affairs, said in an email. "There's no need to debate the science. The (United Nations International Panel on Climate Change) models show small reductions by Salt Lake or even Utah as a whole would have minimum impacts, but the costs of their actions are real. We believe that the benefits of government action should outweigh the costs."

While the city does not "have a firm number" to show the costs of its sustainability efforts, it has seen instant savings with energy-efficient measures such as changes in lighting, and heating and cooling of buildings, according to Tyler Poulson, Salt Lake City sustainability program manager.

City officials do not dispute that there are costs associated with renewable energy efforts such as solar panels, but they say the expense will even out over time.

Email: wevans@deseretnews.com, Twitter: whitevs7

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