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Climate Change: One Utah Candidate Makes An Issue Of It In Uphill U.S. Senate Campaign

Bill Barron tuned into last week’s debate between Republican Sen. Mike Lee and his Democratic challenger, Misty Snow, just like a lot of other Utahns.

“Climates change,” Lee said in response to an audience question. “It’s what they do.  They always have and they always will.

“Thank you very much for this question,” said Snow. “The issue of climate change is a very important one.”

The U.S Senate race is Barron’s, too. And climate is his top issue --really, his only issue. But Barron didn’t make the cut. He wasn’t polling high enough to earn a seat on the debate stage. So, instead he listened on the radio in his pickup on the way to make his own campaign pitch at the Sandy Library, where the Sandy Hills Community Council offered candidates a few minutes to speak.

“Well, hello, everybody,” Barron says, speaking to the dozen people sitting around the library conference table. “My name is Bill Barron, and I’m running as an unaffiliated candidate for U.S. Senate.”

Bill Barron’s an unlikely candidate running an unusual campaign. He’s trying to win a U.S. Senate seat in Utah to put climate change on the nation’s election agenda.

He’s doing it one conversation at a time.

At the Sandy library, resident Clark Hendry announced during introductions that he doesn’t believe in climate change, but he had a question after Barron made his pitch.

“You’ve got one primary subject, and that’s, that’s… global…you know, the emissions things,” Hendry began. “On your web site, do you list your views on other things?”

“Good question,” said Barron, “I don’t, because my specific focus is on the need to address climate change, and I’m trying to create the opportunity for people to use their vote to make that statement.”

Barron believes American voters have the power to make Washington get serious about tackling the problem.

“Good luck with motivatin’ them,” said Hendry.

“Thank you,” the candidate said. “I’ll take it. It’s about driving change.”

Barron runs his campaign out of an addition behind his Salt Lake City bungalow. He economizes by living in the basement and renting out the upstairs.

“This is a way that I get to do things that I really believe in,” he says.

He used to live a quiet life as a carpenter and ski-patroller. But Barron’s concern about a warming world has pushed him beyond his comfort zone and, eventually, into politics. It started after he joined a national interest group called the Citizens Climate Lobby and took part in a meeting with aides to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in Washington. Barron’s natural shyness almost unnerved him.

“It was one of those deals where, you know, your hands are completely out of control shaking,” he says, “and you feel like your heart's going to burst out of your chest.”

Two years later, he was running against Hatch so he could talk about climate.

Now in his third bid for a seat in Congress, Barron’s seeking attention even featuring himself this summer in campaign videos on how a changing climate threatens the future. And he takes every opportunity to meet with voters, no matter how small.

“To be able to walk away with a handshake and appreciation for the conversation,” he says.

“And I probably won't get that person's vote, but they appreciated that I was willing to have a civil dialogue on the issue. And my bet is that they'll think a little more about the issue than they might have in the past.”

Handshake-by-handshake, Barron’s making progress. This year he’s polling at around six percent. That’s significant – for him and for an issue that’s fumbling for traction with the average voter.

“I think it’s pretty fair to say that climate change has not been a primary issue,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, who leads the climate communication program at Yale University.

His research has shown that Americans are not talking about global warming even though two-thirds of them say they’re interested in it. It’s become too touchy to talk about because of partisan politics and an outspoken minority. Leiserowitz says it’s like other subjects people avoid at Thanksgiving dinner.

“You don't talk about religion or politics,” Leiserowitz says. “And now, for some people, they've added climate change to that mostly because they just don't want to piss off Uncle Bob or whomever is extremely vocal with a very contrary view.”

Issues that catch hold with voters, he adds, are often driven by focused organizations -- like the National Rifle Association or the Right to Life campaign. And, so far, there’s no comparable group fighting global warming.

But efforts like Bill Barron’s could be a sign of change.

Back at his bungalow, Barron opens his mail-in ballot.

“Right there,” he says, “It says: ‘Bill Barron, unaffiliated.”

Then he starts talking about last week’s Senate debate and how, if he ’d been on that stage, he could have made his case for the little-known fee-and-dividend approach to reining in greenhouse gasses.

“I wish I could’ve been there because I'd have the perfect answer,” he says. “But, you know, I think that in the end, to be positive and keep plugging away, that's what people want.”

Some people might say Barron’s campaign is unrealistic -- or maybe even a wasted vote.

But, the way he sees it, the cause inches forward every time he shakes another voter’s hand.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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