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

By Carter Williams

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

And while the topic 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 policy and proposing business solutions aimed at improving 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, plan to donate $20 million to help get the new center off the ground.

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

The center will follow an interdisciplinary model that makes it “easier to conduct high-impact research and provide science-based recommendations to decision makers,” said Peter Trapa, dean of the US College of Sciences. William Anderegg, 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 estimated to include over 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 around 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 that he believes the topic is “absolutely critical” to the future of human civilization. Climate impacts are already being felt in Utah and the West, such as prolonged severe drought and more wildfires. There is also growing concern about toxic dust from the drying up of the Great Salt Lake blowing into many Wasatch Front communities.

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

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

Randall said he was interested from the start, explaining that his top priority is getting the U.S. 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 intersects the university’s future needs and assets.

“We have the most extraordinary scientists who are talented, passionate, insightful and who bring world-class expertise to this venture that I don’t think is very comparable to any other institution,” he said. “We will do this … with innovation, agility (and) collaboration.”

The new center will not 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 in late 2021. Both centers aim to provide science-based policy solutions from which Utah governor Spencer Cox says Utah will benefit.

Wilkes said climate scientists in Utah will have the ability to lead the way in more efficient ways to heat or cool homes, the way people travel and much more. That’s why he believes his gift — and the work of the university’s researchers — will eventually pay big dividends.

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

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