Southern Utah University students join worldwide protest to better inform community on environmental issues

ST. GEORGE — Southern Utah University students stepped out of class to participate in an international strike at the local level.

The worldwide strikes began Sept. 20, three days before the United Nations Summit on Climate Change in New York City, and are scheduled to end Friday. According to a press release from the “Strike With Us” campaign, over 4 million people were expected to have participated in last week’s protest.

Organizers are hoping to use the event to better inform their communities. Strikes were organized in over 150 countries, calling for action that addresses climate concerns, such as the burning of fossil fuels and popularity of single-use plastics.

The Strike With Us campaign listed five demands it hopes lawmakers will meet as a result of the strikes: participating in environmental justice, protecting and restoring biodiversity, implementing sustainable agriculture practices, passing a Green New Deal and respecting indigenous land and sovereignty.

On the last day of the weeklong collective protest, students at SUU scheduled the only Strike With Us-endorsed strike in Southern Utah. SUU student Annie Weight — one of the two organizers behind the event — said climate change is an important topic that requires collective action to bring awareness to people and combat environmental pollutants.

Students walk out of class to join one of the thousands of climate strikes across the world, location not specified, September 2019 | Photo by Niels Jilderda, St. George News

“The power of young people who care about this has just been incredible to see in cities all over the world,” she said. “It shows world leaders and it shows companies and businesses that this is something that young people really value.”

Members of the university’s Sustainability Club presented the administration with a resolution that includes suggested steps the school could take, Weight said.

The first includes the founding of a Sustainability Council made up of faculty, staff and students to make recommendations for on-campus changes that could be made to ensure the university is operating in an environmentally friendly way. The second suggestion is to create a plan and set a deadline for when SUU will be completely carbon neutral by refraining from using fossil fuels.

Students behind the resolution will also be working with the student senate to draft university legislation. After the bill has been drafted, Weight said it will go to the student body for feedback and ultimately receive a vote.

“People my age are much more motivated and frustrated that nothing is happening,” she said.

Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-District 70, says the Utah Legislature has already taken action to promote sustainability. Albrecht sits on the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environmental Quality Appropriations Committee, as well as the Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee.

Rep. Carl Albrecht, R-District 70, profile photo. | Photo courtesy of the Utah House of Representatives, St. George News

In March 2018, Utah lawmakers recognized the impacts of a changing climate after passing HCR 007, which works to reserve natural resources, support technological growth that is economically and environmentally beneficial, and reduce emissions by using incentive programs.

Albrecht said air quality and emissions have considerably improved over the last 10-12 years, even as the population has significantly increased. Over time, as these changes have occurred, the biggest contributor to pollution has shifted.

“The big polluter now is not business or industry, it’s cars,” Albrecht said. “It’s all these people who have moved in.”

The state has been working to establish a Tier 3 fuel that would limit the total amount of pollutants from cars and yield in a decrease akin to taking two out of every three cars off the highway.

The Legislature has also considered converting diesel freight switchers to cleaner-burning fuels like natural gases.

“The low-hanging fruit for cleaning up the air has been picked,” he said.

The next generation of power offers an alternative to fossil fuels, Albrecht said, but wind, solar and geothermal energies only support 3-4% of the state’s needs. Over 65% comes from coal and 20% or more comes from natural gas.

Stock image, St. George News

Wind and solar powered sources of energy are also intermittent. Until someone can develop the technology of a utility-scale battery that works on the grid for renewable energies to be stored and used, Albrecht says coal-powered energy cannot be abandoned.

“We can’t do away with coal-fired power plants,” he said. “They’re the base load of the entire system for these utility companies.”

Albrecht said there is no doubt in his mind that climate change exists, but he is unsure if it has been directly caused by humans.

Dixie State University professor Jerry Harris, who earned his doctorate in earth and environmental science, said climate change is a politically and economically divisive topic.

“There is a lot of things that could be done, but there’s a lot of debate on how quickly to do them,” he said.

Shifting away from fossil fuels is a potential option that could have a significant benefit to the environment, Harris said. Fossil fuels, such as coal and oil, release carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere when they are burned, and the carbon absorbs the heat trying to escape via infrared energy. Methane produced from livestock has the same effect.

“While those are things that can naturally affect the climate, the climate change that we’re seeing happening now has been happening just literally over about the past 170 years or so since the Industrial Revolution when we started burning fossil fuels in a regular way.”

Stock image, St. George News

Renewable resources, like wind, solar and geothermal energies, are possible alternatives but they are not currently viable options, he said. Although these resources are becoming more efficient and inexpensive, they are not yet comparable to fossil fuels.

“There’s a question of how much money do we throw at doing those kinds of things,” Harris said. “The scientists would say that because of the rapidity of how much the climate is changing, the faster we do that, the better of we are. Economically, to do that, that’s a real hardship.”

Pushing funds toward technological development of a better battery that could store energy derived from sustainable resources would greatly benefit the environment, he said, but it would also result in an increase of taxes and government spending.

“It’s not all a dire forecast, it’s just that we need the politicians to work with the scientists on making those solutions actually happen. We just need to all start working on it together.”

The SUU Sustainability Club is petitioning the state to include the Clean the Darn Air Act on the November ballot. The petition requires a minimum of 115,869 statewide signatures; county clerks have currently verified 11,998. Club members are also creating an initiative for Cedar City to use completely sustainable energies before 2030.

The act suggests a $12 tax for each metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions in the state, which is about 11 cents per gallon of gasoline and one cent per kWh of electricity. The initiative offsets the risk of the costs being passed on to consumers by cutting the state sales tax on food and income tax credits for lower-earning residents.

In 2022, the carbon tax would bring in about $130 million and the state would lose $90 million in cuts to the state sales tax, resulting in a net gain of $40 million. This would cost the average household an additional $100 per year in taxes.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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