The Question of Climate Change in Salt Lake City

In a Q&A with Mayor Ralph Becker, it's clear that perceptions about Utah's biggest city don't always jibe with reality.

city of salt lake
Salt Lake City, Utah.
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A self-described “unabashed advocate for climate action,” Mayor Becker has carved out a national role by signing on with Resilient Communities for America to champion leadership by local-government officials to create more prepared communities that can bounce back from extreme weather, energy and economic challenges. In 2013, he was invited by President Obama to be on a presidential task force to advise the administration on how the federal government can respond to the needs of communities nationwide that are dealing with the impacts of climate change.

In this interview with Bob Graves, associate director of the Governing Institute, Mayor Becker related his experiences as the leader of a progressive city nested in much larger regional metroplex and state that is decidedly more conservative on the subject of addressing the impacts of climate change.

Graves: There’s growing evidence that the nature of our contentious debate about climate change in America is shifting. An overwhelming majority of the American public — including not only 91 percent of Democrats but also 51 percent of Republicans — now supports government action to curb global warming, according to a January poll by the New York Times, Stanford University and Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan environmental research group. Does this reflect what you are finding in Salt Lake City?

Mayor Becker
(pictured): Well, first of all I have not done polling around climate change and I don’t recall seeing polling even in Utah around climate change. So I can only tell you anecdotally how other officials of the state are reacting both to the words and to the subject of climate change. A lot of people from the outside don’t know or certainly don’t appreciate that Salt Lake City is a very progressive city — particularly around social and environmental matters.

A lot of people live here because of this incredible environment. The landscape we live in, the access to recreation and the overall quality of life goes along with the environment here. And that translates not only to an appreciation of the outdoors and our mountains and deserts that we have, but also into a very strong environmental ethic within our city. I do believe that when I strongly advocate for and take strong measures related to doing our part to address the impact of climate change, it is reflective of Salt Lake City residents. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong because I’m in a re-election campaign year but I am completely unabashed in raising the issue and talking about the issue in very direct and concrete ways and taking firm action around things we can do in Salt Lake City around climate change. My sense is that Salt Lake City residents would be part of the vast majority of Americans who believe that climate change is real, that humans contribute to and are maybe primary causes of the current climate change effects we are seeing and that we should be taking strong measures to address it.

Graves: Utah state government is generally perceived as conservative, rather than progressive on this subject. How have your interactions with state government (leadership, policy, regulations) affected your work? What are the chief barriers you’ve run into?

Mayor Becker
: I find that most politicians in Utah either don’t talk about climate change, don’t want to talk about climate change, or completely discount climate change as an issue that needs to be addressed. And that is true I’d say almost everywhere outside of Salt Lake City and my own outspoken commentary and actions on the issue. So, Utah as far as I can tell is still living in this bubble, with this head-in-the-sand approach about the risks we are facing and the effects we are seeing in climate change. Maybe that is beginning to soften or change but I am not seeing it in a public dialog among elected officials and community leaders.

Graves: Well, that speaks a lot to your leadership. I have to say I didn’t realize that it was that discrete a boundary separating Salt Lake City from the rest of the state. So what is your feedback from citizens when you talk about it? What do they want you to do?

Mayor Becker: First of all I’ll say at the city level I think our residents expect us to take action around things that the city both needs and wants, and climate change leads into that. So we move quickly past the ideological dialog that I hear going on at the state level and national level because there are realities on the ground and in our water and in our air that we see every day and year after year that reflect the effects we are already seeing from climate change. So, in some circles we talk very matter-of-factly; in others it’s almost a taboo subject, and by taboo subject I’m not talking about for me. I’m talking about in the discussion. Climate change is such a serious matter for us to address I’m going to take it on aggressively, and as near as I can tell it is supported by our public in Salt Lake City to a very large degree. That does not mean there are not naysayers.

Graves: That goes to the point of what people will support to fight climate change. There are the two factors in climate action, mitigation and adaptation. How do you see that divide influencing what you do? Adaptation is the more visible part; it’s easier to see the need to deal with visible, infrastructure-type effects. I suspect there is more support for that.

Mayor Becker: I think it is almost a project-by-project approach. For example, we need to be changing our infrastructure around water to provide for our future. Where’s our future water supply in this the second-most-arid state in the country, which includes Salt Lake City? We have to make adjustments and to provide for increased storm intensities and what they means for stormwater and runoff. People nod their heads. That is the general reaction I get and they go, “Yeah, we need to do that.” On the other hand, when you are messing around with the street in front of somebody’s house or business, the reaction is pretty different. So in my mind it kind of varies. Some affects people in their day-to-day lives, those sort of behavioral changes or actions tend to bring a different kind of response and addressing some broader policy matters that aren’t affecting people quite as directly or in people’s faces quite as much.

As a mayor who believes strongly in being responsive to my constituents and to the people in our city, that is part of the balancing act of both what we do but how we do it. And that is where you raised in the first question about public engagement, that is where good public engagement is so critical in my mind and something we are always working to do as well as we can and improve. We are always going to get the people who don’t like something that show up at a public hearing when we are making a change. And in my mind we want to listen to everybody. But we also want to sort out, what I would call, more legitimate concerns, points people are making, from someone just saying, “Don’t mess with the street in front of my house.”

Graves: Well, this confirms my sense about how local government is where the action is. Salt Lake City is a study that is so different from cities in California. California, under Assembly Bill 32 and other legislation, has a very integrated policy framework from the state level down to its localities to align their efforts on climate change. You live on somewhat of an island in a region where overarching state policy is not in place. How much does this affect you?

Mayor Becker: I'll put it this way, it would be so much easier and we would get so much more done if we could align local, state and federal efforts and coordinate them. I've been to Germany, for example, where there's a national effort that's under way with some specific targets and it's carried out well at the regional and local level. And they're progressing in the terms of addressing climate change and energy matters so much faster than we are, and in such a more sensible way. I'm not trying to say Germany is better than the United States. I'm really not saying that at all. I'm just saying in response to your question about alignment I feel like we're doing everything we can in the city and are anxious to do more and if you've looked at things like our dashboard, we're trying to hold ourselves accountable in very specific ways and across the board when it comes to the actions we're pursuing. So much of what we are doing is an island environment and it's limited by a lack of actions with the similar orientation at the regional and state level. On the other end I'll say the Obama administration has been incredible in their responsiveness to try to support local governments like Salt Lake City. We saw that in the work and outcomes we're seeing implemented from the task force.

Graves: Well I applaud you for your efforts. I hope you are successful in having an influence on the rest of the state. Do you talk about California as an example of policy alignment?

Mayor Becker: Well I don't talk about it. I follow as closely as I can with what's going on in California because as you said there's both an alignment and a very strong combination of efforts going on around climate change. In fact, one of the things that was talked about during the presidential task force meetings was for some type of alliance and agreements amongst cities across the country. This would support a city like mine or cities like Houston or Philadelphia where we don't have an alignment necessarily between state and local governments. We can create benefits from working together and combining efforts. So I think we will see some of that hopefully unfold here in the next little while.