Utahns on Climate Change

Over the last year numerous extreme weather events fueled by climate change hit Utah. Last September, a massive windstorm felled thousands of trees around Northern Utah and killed a man. This summer, all counties in Utah were either in a severe or extreme drought. At the same time, on the first of August, Utah was inundated with sudden and heavy rainfall, causing flash flooding in multiple southern counties and leaving the streets of Salt Lake City flooded. In late July, a sandstorm caused a car crash in Millard County, Utah, that killed 8 people. Scientists say that as climate change-caused droughts become more common, so do sandstorms—like the one that caused the car crash. And though Salt Lake residents have come to expect perennial air pollution during the winter (due to the inversion effect caused by the mountains that surround the Salt Lake valley), recent wildfires around the West cause hazy skies and poor air quality in summertime as well. 

Despite Utah’s extreme weather events, it is not known for its climate change solutions or action. This summer’s drought was so dire that Governor Spencer Cox issued a state-wide emergency and released a video message with a plea for Utahns to take individual action to conserve water by: “avoiding long showers, fixing leaky faucets and planting water-wise landscapes.” In this same video and in a declaration posted to his Twitter account, Governor Cox declared a weekend of prayer, asking Utahns of all faiths to collectively pray for rain for a couple days this past June. The nation-wide response to the weekend of prayer was largely negative, but the declaration symbolizes the impact that Mormonism has on Utah politics and society, and its potential to harness personal and public action.  

The Latter-day Saints (LDS) Church has a big influence ideologically and politically in Utah, including on the state’s climate policy. Utah is the undisputed center of the LDS faith: roughly 61% of Utah’s population is Mormon. More than simply the dominant religion in the state, the LDS church has an outsize influence on the political scene in Utah. In the Utah legislature last year, 86% of lawmakers were LDS and “100% of the state’s congressional seats and statewide political offices” were Mormon too, the Salt Lake Tribune reports. Since the majority of the state’s population is LDS and dissent isn’t encouraged, leaders in the faith heavily influence public behavior and state politics. Recently, the church and state government—which has strong LDS representation—face criticism for their inaction against climate change. 

It didn’t use to be this way. The LDS church was once openly pro-environment. In the 1970’s, when climate action was more bipartisan, LDS church leadership emphasized walking to church on Sundays when possible and taking care of the environment. Lip service is still paid. The official LDS Church website currently states that “all humankind are stewards over the earth and should gratefully use what God has given, avoid wasting life and resources…Approaches to the environment must be prudent, realistic, balanced and consistent with the needs of the earth and of current and future generations, rather than pursuing the immediate vindication of personal desires or avowed rights.”

At odds with this concept of environmental stewardship is the Republican party’s anti-climate action platform. Nationwide, the LDS church and its members have been historically conservative, with 67% of Mormons voting Republican in the 2018 Midterm election. Utah has voted red consistently for over half a century. Some who study environmentalism and the LDS Church point to the increasing polarization of the political parties as a part of the reason that Mormons don’t tend to identify with climate activism. 

The conflict between religious and political ideology hasn’t often been addressed by the LDS church. Despite their environmentally-focused teachings, the Church has been largely silent on specific policy issues. The website states that “though the Church does not typically take a stand on specific governmental or regulatory proposals for dealing with environmental challenges, it teaches these important principles of stewardship and reverence, hoping they are remembered and applied in the lives of members as they care for God’s creations.”  

According to the Yale Climate Opinion Maps, Salt Lake and Summit Counties are the only two counties in Utah that over-index on concern about and belief in global warming relative to the national average. One factor accounting for these outliers is that both have a smaller proportion of  Mormons than other counties in the state. Statewide, a Tribune-Hinckley survey found that only 63% of self-identified Mormons believe in climate change. In contrast, more than 80 percent of Catholics and Protestants say they believe climate change is happening.

In addition to voting and policy choices, these attitudes may also impact individual habits like water consumption. In a desert, water use is often foremost in climate concerns. According to a 2015 Water Census, Utah County, which boasts the highest proportion of Mormons of any county, has a much higher public use of water than any other county despite its relatively small population. Religion is a powerful factor in determining views on climate change and their behaviors, since it’s intricately linked with a person’s moral codes.

Religion doesn’t have to divide those who support climate action and those who don’t. Mormons have a disproportionate influence in the Utah legislature and could follow their doctrine and advance their beliefs while also positively affecting the state and the world. As Mormons like Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman take prominent positions in national government, it’s important that the LDS church have an environmentalist outlook to take action on the national stage. They could follow in the footsteps of other local Mormon environmentalists like Ty Markham, an active LDS woman who is a co-founder of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance (MESA). MESA is a grassroots movement started in 2013 that pushes for action on stewardship goals, including environmental justice, disaster resiliency, and farm preservation. Mesa has held conferences, planned political rallies and testified at local environmental policy hearings, using their faith to spur, fuel, justify their environmental advocacy. It’s clear that Utah and the rest of the world are already feeling the effects of the climate crisis and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events it causes. Organizations like LDS Action Group (also known as “The Carbon Relief Society”) and MESA are working to raise awareness of climate change and take action throughout the state. It will take bold leadership to forestall the worst effects of climate change. These groups hold promise to help lead the powerful Mormon community to become the “wise steward[s]” that the LDS Doctrine and Covenants call for and that the world needs.


Wilhelmina Graff is a prospective Political Science major with an interest in human rights and immigration issues. She is a staff writer for the YDN Magazine and is a captain of Yale’s Ultimate Frisbee team.