The University of Utah has announced a new Climate Science Policy Center with a $20M gift

By Carter Williams

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SALT LAKE CITY (KSL) – A changing climate continues to play an important role in Utah, U.S. and world politics, as evidenced by growing regional disputes over how to handle the Paris Agreement or Colorado River water cuts.

And while this topic will remain at the forefront of future policy discussions, the University of Utah hopes to be a model in shaping public policies and offering business solutions aimed at improving the environment.

The university announced Wednesday the establishment 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 is one of the most exciting gifts for me, on a personal level, that I’ve worked on in my entire career,” said University of Utah President Taylor Randall, standing at the Natural History Museum of Utah. “If we want to leave a legacy for the next generation to be proud of, we’re going to address the issues we see.”

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

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

The idea for the center first emerged in a conversation Wilkes had with Randall during a football game last year, and he believes the topic is “absolutely critical” to the future of human civilization. Climate impacts already visible in Utah and the West, such as longer droughts and more wildfires. There is also growing concern over toxic dust blowing from the dry Great Salt Lake into many Wasatch Front communities.

“I can’t think of a more important issue than climate,” he said. “It’s the reverse of things that come every winter, these smoky valleys that we’ve had in the last three or four years. It has things like the Great Salt Lake. Are we leaving an environment full of arsenic? We can, and if we don’t change the way we behave, we’re going to.”

Wilkes emphasizes the need for business, science, and others to find solutions to all problems.

Randall said he was interested from the start, saying his top priority was to move the U. closer to the top of the list of public universities making a difference in the world. And in his mind, climate change is one of the key issues that aligns future needs with university assets.

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

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

Wilkes said Utah climate scientists will have the ability to lead on the way homes are heated or cooled, the way people travel and many other ways. That’s why he believes his gift — and the work of university researchers — will eventually pay off in big dividends.

“I want to see the impact of this gift exceed one billion dollars,” he said. “And I believe it will.”

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