What inspires environmental action?

There’s nothing like a crisis to motivate people to change their behaviors.

But when it comes to improving Utah’s air quality and slowing down climate change, action can be taken now to protect the state’s public health, economy and quality of life, according to a panel of University of Utah professors speaking on environmental change.

The panel was one of several presented at the symposium “The Air We Breathe: A Multidisciplinary Perspective on Air Quality.” The symposium took place Oct. 3, 2019, at the U.

Utah has serious air quality problems that “many people try to ignore on a day-to-day basis,” says Tabitha Benney, assistant professor of political science. She said behavioral studies show that a crisis can be “very useful in bringing about environmental change…. Do we want to get to that point? Hopefully, we won’t have to before we make decisions that help us in the long run.”

She is studying what would motivate Utahns to make changes to improve air quality by surveying almost 1,000 people across the state. The goal is to better understand perceptions and misperceptions about air quality, to explain behaviors Utahns take or don’t take to reduce air pollution, to motivate environmental actions and spur policy.

Benney has hypothesized that political orientation, socioeconomic background, religiosity and other factors affect Utahns’ environmental values and beliefs. Preliminary results show that roughly one-third of respondents believe air pollution in Utah isn’t caused by human behavior. And about half of the respondents were unsure if the government should implement policies to solve environmental problems.

While individual actions are important, government policy is seen as key to improving Utah’s air quality and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why the U’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute is studying science-based solutions to both those problems at the request of the Utah Legislature.

Logan Mitchell, U research assistant professor of atmospheric sciences and a member of the institute’s technical team, said the three drivers of air pollution emissions are electricity production, vehicles and buildings. The community should be focused on implementing policies in those three areas, including accelerating the transition to renewable energy and building homes and offices that run on electricity instead of natural gas, he said.

Mitchell said the advisory panel’s final recommendations are due Dec. 13. For individuals who want to take action, he said: “The most important thing as a citizen is to look at those things and let your legislator know you care … and that you’d like to see urgent action that will engender systemic change.”

Panelist Cheryl Pirozzi, a pulmonologist and assistant professor of internal medicine, said the health effects of air pollution would worsen as the temperature climbs due to an increase in wildfires and because warmer temperatures lead to more ground-level ozone. These effects should factor into the cost-benefit analysis of changing policies. She and other U researchers have found that during typical inversions, older adults are about 2.5 times more likely to have pneumonia and three times more likely to die in the hospital with pneumonia.

Still, it was the economic figure in her study that made an impact. The study estimated that reducing air pollution to healthy levels would save more than $800,000 in direct medical costs. The dollar amount “caught more attention than the health outcomes,” she said.

Stephen Bannister, associate professor (lecturer) of economics, agreed that economics is a good motivator for spurring change. “The one incentive that really changes everybody’s behavior is large price differentials,” he said, adding that there needs to be a massive decrease in the cost of clean energy technologies to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Selling the public—and the auto and petroleum sector—on the money to be made by moving to clean energy would be a good motivator, according to the panel. Benney said her survey has shown that Utahns, regardless of their age or political party, are more willing to take environmental action when they know one key element: the positive economic benefits of change.

Panelists: Stephen Bannister, associate professor (lecturer), economics and director of the MIAGE Program, College of Social and Behavioral Science; Tabitha Benney, assistant professor, political science, College of Social and Behavioral Science; Logan Mitchell, research assistant professor, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, College of Mines and Earth Sciences; Cheryl Pirozzi, assistant professor (clinical), Division of Pulmonary Medicine, University of Utah School of Medicine.

Moderator: Brenda Bowen, associate professor, Department of Geology & Geophysics, College of Mines and Earth Sciences, and director of the Global Change and Sustainability Center.