With a little tenacity and a lot of lobbying, a group of Utah teens got lawmakers to acknowledge climate change and the role of human fossil fuel consumption. Environmental advocates are calling it a first for a conservative-leaning state.
The legislation, House Concurrent Resolution 7, titled “Concurrent Resolution on Environmental and Economic Stewardship,” calls for using sound science when it comes to the environment. It recognizes the consequences of climate change for Utah citizens and encourages innovation to reduce emissions while also growing the state’s economy. And it reached Gov. Gary Herbert’s desk because of the efforts of hundreds of high school students.
Seven of those students met with the governor for a closed ceremonial signing Wednesday (although he officially signed the bill back in March) to celebrate the milestone.
“The main message of the resolution is that economic viability and environmental stewardship aren’t different things,” said Mishka Banuri, a junior at West High School. “Obviously not everyone in the Legislature believes climate change is human-caused or even real … but what we did is start a conversation around it, which is how change is made.”
Logan High senior Piper Christian decided to get involved two years ago when she learned about a very different climate bill state lawmakers passed in 2010. That legislation, sponsored by then-Rep. Kerry Gibson (R), called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to end policies reducing greenhouse gas emissions “until climate data and global warming science are substantiated.”
In fact, according to climate.nasa.gov, 97 percent of climate scientists agree the planet is warming and the trend is “extremely likely due to human activities.” Students like Christian wanted lawmakers to reconsider their stance.
“Many told us that trying to push the resolution was a lost cause within the capitol’s partisan environment,” she said. “But as students, we believe through respectful dialogue and unwavering persistence we could convince our representatives to look past politics and come together on shared priorities in support of our resolution.”
The students found an advocate in Rep. Rebecca Edwards (R-North Salt Lake). She helped them draft a resolution during the 2017 session. Although it deadlocked in committee, she told the high schoolers not to lose hope.
“I went out in the hall with them and said, ‘This bill didn’t make it this year. But let’s work. This is not the end,’” she said.
At the beginning of the 2018 session, a coalition of students hosted a panel on “Climate Solutions for a Healthy Future.” While only around 20 of the state’s lawmakers attended, the students sensed they were gaining momentum. They showed up to speak in favor of their resolution in the House Natural Resources, Agriculture, and Environment Committee. They showed up again for the Senate committee hearing.
The resolution passed on the Senate floor with only three “no” votes and in the House with nearly 70 percent voting in favor.
“It’s gratifying to see that next generation come up and to see their influence,” Edwards said, “and it leaves me with a tremendous sense of optimism for the future.”
The student-led movement at the Utah Legislature came around the same time students from Parkland, Florida, led their own movement for national gun reform.
It came just months after Utah State University published a study on school kids’ power to influence their parents and other adults to take action, from the Smokey Bear forest fire prevention campaign to pestering their parents to stop idling during Utah inversions.
“The power students have to create positive change is unmet not just in Utah but across the entire nation,” Christian said. “We are proud to lead the student movement for improving environmental policies and hope other students both in Utah and other states can use this resolution as a stepping-stone to keep making changes.”
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In this case, teens certainly helped catch the ear of Utah lawmakers, Edwards said. But policymaking also requires some give-and-take.
Edwards told the Standard-Examiner she agrees with the evidence pointing to humans’ role in climate change. While many of her colleagues still question that science, Edwards said the resolution plants the seeds of change.
“It was a compromise,” she said. “We see it as first steps. In 2019, 2020, 2025, we’ll see legislation that builds on this foundation and acknowledgment of economic and environmental stewardship marching forward, hand in hand.”
Michael Shea of HEAL Utah also helped lobby in favor of the resolution. He even gained the support of Rocky Mountain Power, despite his organization being at odds with the utility giant in the past.
“We worked with them on the language. They were the first business to sign on,” he said. “I was blown away.”
Lobbyists with HEAL Utah and Action Utah both called the resolution a “first-of-its-kind” for a red state. Still, the document doesn’t overtly use the term “human-caused climate change.” As a resolution, it also has no teeth to initiate change. But those praising the students’ efforts Wednesday said it lays the groundwork for future policy aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
“For the first time, legislators are having serious discussions about climate change and Utah’s contribution towards it,” Shea said.
For Banuri, meeting with the governor Wednesday had special relevance. It fell on the second day of Ramadan and her motivation to work with representatives to protect the planet is rooted in her faith.
“I’m a Muslim. Protecting the Earth and stewardship of the land is important to my religion,” she said. “I think all religious people should be more inclined to take care of the Earth because it’s what’s given to us by God.”
Sophomore Andie Madsen, who attends West High with Banuri, said meeting Herbert helped a larger-than-life public figure feel a little more tangible. Working with lawmakers and speaking for Utah’s environment made solutions feel a little more within reach, too.
“Climate change hit me personally. It’s really overwhelming,” she said. “As a student, I can’t do anything until I’m 18 and I can vote. But I think this has provided a really great outlet for students to exercise the power that we don’t know we have. We can use it. We’ve seen what it can do. It’s empowering for me.”