Weber State Professor Makes Climate Change A Campaign Issue In Small Town Race
When President Donald Trump said he would pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord in June, Stacy Palen decided it was time to step out of the classroom and into the political arena.
Palen, a physics professor at Weber State University, is running for mayor in the town of Marriott-Slaterville, just north of Ogden. Like other scientists across the U.S., she's become increasingly engaged in politics since the election of President Trump — who has expressed skepticism about climate science.
She says that if the fight against climate change isn’t going to happen at the highest levels of government, it’s time to take the message to her local community by way of a small-town, nonpartisan race.
“Even on this block, in this small town, in this rural area of Utah, this is going to affect you, and here is what we can do about it," she says.
But when she’s talking to voters in this conservative town, Palen rarely uses the words climate change.
“Part of this divide that’s happened now has put people in a position where they feel like the other side looks down on them, and so I think that makes it impossible for them to actually hear the message that you have to bring," she says.
When you're talking to farmers and you tell them you want to save all the diesel fuel so it's available for tractors as long as possible, they will actually stand up and cheer for you.
Palen talks instead about population growth, preserving open space and planning for the future.
“When you’re talking to farmers and you tell them you want to save all the diesel fuel so it’s available for tractors as long as possible, they will actually stand up and cheer for you," she says. "If you tell them you want to do that, by taking all the small cars that people use to just run to the grocery store and turning them into electric cars, they will stand up and cheer for that.”
Palen is a political newcomer compared to her opponent, Scott Vanleeuwen. Vanleeuwen has served on the city council and the planning commission, and has much wider name recognition in Marriott-Slatersville.
“I have a pawn shop and a sporting goods store, so we sell a lot of jewelry a lot of diamonds, and a lot of guns. So most of these guys are customers of mine," he says.
Vanleeuwen says most voters in this town of less than 2,000 care about property taxes and maintaining the rural feel. He says climate change is not on the list of issues that people talk about, but he acknowledges it is a concern.
“I know that it’s warmer than it used to be, seems to be," he says. "I think the mayor should think of everything they can do to help the people that got him elected. If making it easier to get solar panels for their house is what they ought to do, that’s what he ought to be doing.”
I think the mayor should think of everything they can do to help the people that got him elected. If making it easier to get solar panels for their house is what they ought to do, that's what he ought to be doing. - Scott Vanleeuwen
But Vanleeuwen knows he wouldn’t be talking about solar panels if it weren’t for his opponent raising these issues about energy and the environment.
“When you run a campaign where you talk about issues you’re passionate about, you bring something to the discourse whether you win the actual election or not," says Shaughnessy Naughton.
Naughton is the founder of 314 Action, a national organization created to encourage and help scientists run for office.
She says the organization has heard from 6,000 scientists around the country this year who are interested in getting politically involved.
“I think that’s one good thing to come out of this situation is that people are realizing - scientists in particular are realizing that it’s not someone else’s problem, that they need to get involved and try to do something," she says.
For physics professor Stacy Palen, seeking political office doesn’t mean giving up her role in the classroom, she’s just expanding her audience.
“You know, running for mayor may be the greatest science outreach program I’ve ever run," she says.