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University of Utah announces new climate science policy center with $20M gift

By Carter Williams

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    SALT LAKE CITY (KSL) — The changing climate continues to play a significant role in Utah, U.S. and world policy, as evidenced by the Paris Agreement or the growing regional dispute over how to handle water cutbacks in the Colorado River.

And while the subject will continue to be at the forefront of future policy discussions, the University of Utah hopes to be a model when it comes to crafting public policies and proposing business solutions aimed at bettering the climate.

The university announced Wednesday the creation of the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy, named after Utah philanthropists Clay and Marie Wilkes. The couple, founders of the climate change education charity Red Crow Foundation, plan to donate $20 million to help kickstart the new center.

“This has been, for me on a personal level, one of the most exciting gifts I’ve ever worked on in my entire career,” said University of Utah President Taylor Randall, standing atop the Natural History Museum of Utah. “If we want to take pride in leaving a legacy for the next generation, we’re going to have to address the issues that we see.”

The center will follow an interdisciplinary model that makes it “easier to conduct high-impact research and make science-based recommendations to decision-makers,” said Peter Trapa, dean at the U.’s College of Science. William Anderegg, a climate researcher and associate professor with the university’s School of Biological Sciences, will serve as the center’s first director.

The center is estimated to include over 75 faculty and 350 students in its first year. It will also host an annual summit that brings in international experts to Utah to discuss climate issues throughout the world, according to Wilkes.

The idea for the center first emerged in conversations Wilkes had with Randall during a football game last year, adding he believes the topic is “absolutely critical” to the future of human civilization. Climate impacts already emerging in Utah and the West, like prolonged severe drought and more wildfires. There’s also the growing concern over toxic dust from the drying Great Salt Lake blowing into many Wasatch Front communities.

“I can’t think of a more important topic than the climate,” he said. “It’s things like the inversion that comes every winter, it’s the smoke-filled valleys that we’ve had over the last three or four years. It’s things like the Great Salt Lake. Are we going to leave an atmosphere full of arsenic? We might, and if we don’t change the way we’re behaving, we’re going to.”

Wilkes also insists it takes a collaboration of business, science and others to find solutions to all of the issues.

Randall said was interested from the beginning, explaining that his top priority is bringing the U. closer to the top of the list of public universities that are making a difference in the world. And in his mind, climate change is one of the main issues that blends the needs of the future with the assets of the university

“We have the most incredible scientists that are gifted, passionate, insightful and bring world-class expertise to this venture that I don’t think is very comparable at any other institution,” he said. “We’re going to be doing this … with innovation, with nimbleness (and) with collaboration.”

The new center won’t be alone in this research. Wednesday’s announcement follows a similar launch at Utah State University, which opened the Janet Quinney Lawson Institute of Land, Water and Air at the end of 2021. Both centers aim to provide science-based policy solutions, from which Utah Gov. Spencer Cox says Utah will benefit.

Wilkes said Utah climate scientists will have the ability to lead the way in more efficient ways homes are heated or cooled, the way people travel and so much more. It’s why he believes his gift — and the work of university researchers — will ultimately pay off in large dividends.

“I would like to see the impact of this gift be well over a billion dollars,” he said. “And I believe it will be.”

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