Don’t get me wrong: Those 23 town hall meetings that Gov.-elect Tim Walz and Lt. Gov-elect Peggy Flanagan conducted last week and the week before were well worth doing. The issues they reportedly discussed with some 2,500 Minnesotans — education, health care, transportation, child care, housing — are all deserving of gubernatorial attention. Walz and Flanagan are well-versed on those topics and ready to respond.
But I’ve observed that often, governors are not granted the luxury of choosing their policy priorities. Circumstances have a way of choosing for them.
Minnesotans are on notice about a circumstance that urgently needs government attention. The best climate scientists the United Nations could assemble plus a separate team that reported to a recklessly skeptical Trump White House both warned in recent weeks that humanity has only a few years to avert climate catastrophe. Both reports call for dramatic action to cut carbon emissions to the atmosphere, ASAP.
The U.N. report says that what happens in the next 12 years will decide whether the effects of man-made climate change are “inconvenient” (Al Gore’s understatement) or devastating — not on some far-off date, but within the lifetimes of today’s children.
Minnesota voters have just given a former high school football coach license to lead their state government for a third of that 12-year span. Reducing carbon emissions in Minnesota might not be the issue Walz would prefer to tackle. But if he doesn’t, it looks likely to tackle his grandkids, and yours and mine, too.
That circumstance inspired my visit last week with Michael Noble. He’s a founder and the executive director of Fresh Energy, a St. Paul-based nonprofit advocacy organization that’s been telling governors and legislators for nearly 30 years that emission-free energy is the right choice for Minnesota.
It hasn’t been an entirely futile pursuit. This state’s Legislature has its share of climate change deniers — to my knowledge, all in Republican ranks. But not every Republican rejects what scientists say. It was a Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, who signed into law the landmark 2007 legislation requiring that 25 percent of retail electricity sales be generated from renewable sources — wind, solar, hydro, biomass. That goal appears well within reach.
But even when DFLers have been in charge, Fresh Energy and its allies have struggled to get their issue out of the Legislature’s second or third tier of priorities.
Noble believes that’s about to change. The most recent scientific warnings have “stuck” with the public in a way their earlier iterations never did, he said.
“I’m hearing stories like, ‘My father-in-law tells me we have 12 years to cut global carbon emissions in half.’ I never heard those things before,” he said.
Awareness is also growing that with Donald Trump in the White House and his fossil fuel industry allies in charge in the U.S. Senate, any near-term American effort to curb carbon emissions will be orchestrated by state governments, not the federal one. That’s the argument that Fresh Energy will take to the new governor and Legislature in 2019.
What can one state do about a global problem? Quite a lot, Noble contends — especially if one becomes many through multistate compacts.
For example, Minnesota can join 12 other states plus the District of Columbia to become a “clean car state.” Those states have adopted California’s vehicle emission standards, which are more stringent than the Trump-era federal ones. It’s a move to accelerate the electrification of the state’s private-vehicle fleet — as Noble puts it, “getting more cars powered by wind and the sun than by oil.”
That’s one of a raft of ideas that Noble and other advocates have for implementing what is essentially a two-part strategy: Convert electricity generation to zero-emission sources and electrify everything — both as quickly as possible.
Some will say that’s a job for the private sector. And — to their credit — many private-sector players in Minnesota are doing their part. Only last week, Xcel Energy’s CEO, Ben Fowke, announced that by 2050, the company plans to provide 100 percent carbon-free electricity to its customers in the eight states it serves. 3M announced that it would require every new product it introduces to have what it called a “sustainability component,” made with the lowest possible environmental impact and/or intended to help consumers reduce their own toll on the planet’s resources.
But with time a’wasting and so much at stake, allowing private players alone to decide how and when to reduce carbon emissions seems like a reckless choice. Every tool in society’s toolbox needs to be deployed now. And for 160 years, it’s been in Minnesota’s civic DNA to look to state government whenever a big problem needs solving.
State government can update its 2007 goals for renewable electricity generation. It can set new efficiency standards for vehicles, buildings, appliances and even factories. It can encourage prairie restoration for the sake of carbon sequestration. Noble described a possible twofer: Require that mass solar-panel installations become “solar prairies,” situated on fields seeded with deep-rooted, carbon-trapping plants. Those fields would have the added benefit of being a boon to another species threatened by human activity: bees.
The state can also ease some of the pain that this transition might otherwise bring. Communities that have been home to coal-fired electricity-generating plants ought to receive special state assistance. Workers displaced from such plants should get state help with retraining. Schools — especially sprawling districts in greater Minnesota — should get state help converting to electric school buses. Cities and counties should get help electrifying their public safety vehicle fleets and retrofitting public buildings.
Those ideas weren’t discussed in any detail at the Walz-Flanagan town hall meetings. But concern about the climate did arise frequently, Walz spokesman Kayla Castaneda told me. That may have been a surprise to the transition team after a campaign in which — again — candidates in both parties relegated climate change to second-tier status among issues discussed with the voters.
“The governor-elect responded by saying, climate change is real,” Castaneda reported in an e-mail. “It is an existential threat to our society, and Minnesota must be a leader in finding solutions.” Walz believes that a green energy conversion will be a net plus, not minus, for the state economy, she added.
That’s more likely to be true if state government plays its role well, I’d submit. But for that to happen, the Minnesotans who have been served a heaping helping of climate-change baloney by the fossil fuel industry for the last three decades need to be sold on an emerging truth: Reducing carbon emissions isn’t as economically risky as doing nothing.
Walz may not have set out to be Gov. Climate Protector. But assuming that role could be the best response he could make to the circumstance he’s been dealt.
Lori Sturdevant is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.