Is climate changing in Utah's Capitol on global warming?

Science » Lawmakers to hear from two witnesses: a U. expert and a notable 'denier.'
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When Utah scientist Jim Steenburgh steps up to a legislative witness table this week, he will be the first climatologist ever to testify to state lawmakers about likely climate changes in store for Utah.

But despite the University of Utah professor's landmark appearance, he's not attracting the most attention in advance of Wednesday's hearing:

Roy Spencer is.

A standout among the world's most prominent climate-change "deniers," the former NASA scientist is the only other climatologist the Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee has invited.

Spencer's appearance has some observers wondering whether the political climate has warmed appreciably on Utah's Capitol Hill toward what many regard as the most pressing environmental issue of our time.

State Sen. Steve Urquhart, R-St. George, and the committee's co-chairman, noted that his panel has a responsibility to track potential cap-and-trade legislation being considered to address climate change. Utah energy consumers, more than most Americans, are likely to feel the legislation's impacts in their energy bills, he said.

"This is an important discussion," he said of Wednesday's hearing.

Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, and the other committee co-chairman, did not respond to requests for comment. Noel, an ardent global-warming skeptic, sponsored a resolution in the 2009 Legislature that called on then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to withdraw Utah from a regional climate-change pact.

Steenburgh, a professor and chair of atmospheric sciences at the U., led a team of Utah-based climatologists who prepared the science report two years ago for Huntsman's Blue Ribbon Advisory Council (BRAC) on climate change.

The BRAC science panel concluded that warming is happening and that there is "very high confidence" human activities are responsible. The panel also warned the climate changes could shrink snowpacks and lead to more severe heat waves and droughts.

Steenburgh said in an e-mail he hopes for "a good dialogue" with legislators.

"The climate science report we prepared for the BRAC and will be summarizing on Wednesday," he said, "describes the strong consensus that exists in the climate community today."

The "consensus" Steenburgh refers to is described in a January 2009 study reported in Eos , the weekly newspaper of the American Geophysical Union. It surveyed active climate scientists and found 97.4 percent agreed "human activity is a significant contributing factor" affecting average global temperatures.

"Dr. Spencer," Steenburgh said, "is one of a few climate scientists who questions that consensus."

Spencer himself concedes that his view is a minority one.

"If science was a matter of voting, we would lose," said Spencer, a researcher at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

He is expected to testify about his work using satellites to help measure the effects of clouds on climate change. He says his research shows the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made "a major mistake" in its summaries of the scientific data and grossly overstated any human impacts.

"I predict the science of climate is going to turn," he said.

Spencer, who is listed as "personnel" on the conservative Heartland Institute's climate-change team, said his visit to Utah was arranged by Bob Ferguson of the Science and Public Policy Institute, a 2-year-old Washington think tank devoted to promoting the views of climate skeptics.

The Western Business Roundtable, a business group that advocates for pro-growth policies and "freedom of enterprise," sent out a news release last week that promised "conflicting testimony about the nature of climate change" even before a witness list for Wednesday's hearing became public.

"Dr. Spencer's testimony is expected to conflict with Dr. Steenburgh's on many aspects of climate-science fundamentals," the release said.

The hearing, no doubt, will spur more conversation on the issue.

Next Saturday, Utahns plan to rally at Salt Lake City's Library Square. Part of a worldwide event, the gathering is intended to send a message to negotiators at the upcoming Copenhagen climate talks.

And, early next year, Gov. Gary Herbert plans to stage a forum to "debate the science" on climate change and provide a cost-benefit analysis to guide Utah on how to handle it. Herbert has said he is not convinced by the science.

Meanwhile, Robert Davies, a Utah State University physicist and climate scientist, doubts Spencer's work can help Utah policymakers grasp potential climate-change impacts.

Spencer's computer models have been discredited in the scientific community and his analysis deemed "completely fringe," Davies said. None of the established scientific societies has echoed the Alabama scientist's findings.

"The only conclusion I can discern," Davies said, "is that they [lawmakers] are looking for cover to make decisions that go against what the scientific community has recommended."

Michael Mielke, a Salt Lake City climate activist, criticized Spencer's scientific conclusions, along with his belief in creationism and ties to Exxon-Mobil.

"To say that he is fringe is gross understatement," Mielke said. "Too bad that too many in Utah have their wallets obscuring the 95 percent likelihood that we face climate chaos."

Key findings of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Advisory Council on Climate Change:

According to the eight-scientist panel that looked at climate trends in Utah:

Warming is real and there is "very high confidence" human activities are to blame.

Utah can expect to warm faster than other parts of the world, resulting in fewer frost days, longer growing seasons and more heat waves.

If the trend continues, there will be a decline in snowpack and a threat of severe and prolonged droughts.

Utah's high elevation may be the reason why an 80-year analysis of snowpack showed no evidence of a clear, long-term trend; snowpacks have declined in lower-elevation areas, such as the Pacific Northwest and California.

Any reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions probably won't show up for decades.

Based on trends, global surface warming will increase by nearly 7 degrees in the next century.

If greenhouse gases are cut to levels seen in 2000, the temperature will increase about 1.1 degrees worldwide.

If there is no change in greenhouse gases, Utah can expect its temperature to jump by century's end by about 8 degrees, making the average annual temperature in Park City (44 degrees) roughly the same as the average in Salt Lake City (52 degrees).

Utah should expect less Colorado River water and, unless precipitation rises, lower lake levels and increased saltiness.

As long as there is enough water and temperatures do not become too high for the plants, Utah's irrigated agricultural lands can be expected to produce more per acre, although forage probably will decline in nonirrigated fields.

The state needs to know more about climate trends to prepare for future impacts of climate change.

Source: Science advisory panel's draft report of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Advisory Commission on Climate Change (2007)

Hearing set

The Legislature's Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee has scheduled more than an hour Wednesday to hear from climate scientists Roy Spencer and Jim Steenburgh starting at 10:30 a.m. in House Building Room 20 at the Utah Capitol campus.