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Gov. Gary Herbert says the scientific jury is still out on climate change and he has promised an honest-to-goodness debate on one of the major policies of our time.
While the new administration is beginning to move on the pledge first made in August, the shape and nature of the forum has yet to crystallize.
Scientists at the state's leading universities -- Utah, Brigham Young and Utah State -- have offered to help the governor untangle the technicalities of climate change. So have members of the Blue-Ribbon Advisory Committee on climate change, a multifaceted group that studied the issue for a year and advised former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. on the subject.
But no one has yet received invitations for Herbert's forum because the organizers haven't decided who should participate.
"It's very much in the formative stage," said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and one of the organizers of the event.
And, while it is unclear who will play a big role in the meeting -- tentatively slated for April, around Earth Day -- what will be up for discussion is certain.
"Science will be the place to start," said Jowers. "All sides will be presented fairly. That is absolutely the single most important thing."
Ted Wilson, Herbert's new environment czar, echoes the idea that balance is essential. As the forum's lead organizer, he has been fielding ideas about recommended speakers from science, economics and other disciplines. The panels will include "rainmaker-type featured speakers," who will not debate, and scientists, who will.
It's unclear whether the governor's forum will be a replay of the Legislature's Public Utilities Committee climate change hearing last month.
The panel invited scientific experts for their input. But it created what some criticized as a false balance by giving equal weight to University of Utah Atmospheric Science Department Chairman Jim Steenburgh, who represented the consensus view of climate scientists, and Roy Spencer. Spencer is an atmospheric scientist from the University of Alabama who has been one of the most vocal skeptics of the prevailing view that humans are largely responsible for global warming.
Wilson said Herbert is interested in getting to the truth in order to form responsible policies.
"This is a governor who wants his departments to do all they can to prepare for the future," said Wilson, a former Salt Lake City mayor and past director of the Hinckley Institute.
The discussion is expected to be still another step in the evolution of the Republican governor's handling of a climate change policy to help Utah deal with what scientists expect to be hotter temperatures statewide and deeper droughts in southern parts of the state.
Last summer, Herbert told the Western Governors Association he is not convinced climate science is conclusive and questioned the state's continued involvement in the Western Climate Initiative, a regional organization focused on responding to global warming.
In a September report released with U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, Herbert said Utah's economy and people would be devastated by cap-and-trade legislation aimed at coping with climate change. In October, he restated his view that "the debate is raging" about the human impact on climate change.
"Maybe the scientists, maybe they feel good," he told reporters during a televised news conference. "But they are not getting the word to the public because the public is very confused on the issue."
Jon A. Krosnick has been studying the disconnect between climate science and personal actions for more than a decade as a professor of communication and political science at Stanford University.
Citing opinion surveys, he said the public overwhelmingly believes that the Earth's climate is changing, the impact to society will be bad and that government should take action. But they are "not buying" that a disaster is on the horizon, as some scientists suggest.
One reason: The mass-media practice of representing the science as two-sided creates confusion. Another: Scientists do a lousy job of offering plausible solutions for dealing with climate change.
He said a forum based on simply presenting opposing views without providing context is unlikely to clear up the confusion.
"It will increase uncertainty," Krosnick said, unless organizers also "tell people the prevalence of those views and the preponderance of evidence supporting them."
More than 70 of the world's scientific associations have published statements affirming that climate is changing most likely because of human activities and that it is a growing threat to human societies.
Kelly Patterson, a BYU political scientist, said he doubts a single forum like Herbert's will do much to affect public opinion. On complex issues like climate change, people form their views based on what they see, hear and read in the media, as well as what they learn from associates, he said.
"Rare is the individual who sits down and weighs the evidence," he said. "In these kinds of situations, people tend to side with trusted sources."
Gov. Gary Herbert announced in August that he plans to convene experts on both sides of the climate change issue to debate the science and help shape the best policy for the state.
Herbert said his goal is to, "for the first time, have a legitimate debate with civility, have discussion on climate change, man's impact on the climate and global warming: what it is, where it is and what you do about it, including cost-to-benefit analysis and making sure we have good science that dictates and leads us toward good policy."
The governor said it has not taken a position "on man-caused global warming or the impact it has."