A Minnesotans' guide to climate change

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 9, 2014 - 6:58 PM

New national assessment challenges common ideas.

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Photo: Gary Meader • Duluth News-Tribune/MCT,

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You say you don’t believe in “global warming” after the winter Minnesota just endured?

Neither do we. We’ve sworn off using that phrase to describe the climate shifts that are increasingly evident throughout the planet, and are explainable by increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. “Warming” poorly describes the cascade of weather-related adversity that has already begun, a new report says, and is very likely to continue for a century and more — particularly if humans do nothing to slow or avert it.

We’ll call the unfolding transformation “climate change” for now. But even that term is too benign to convey the worrisome forecast for Midwestern states in the National Climate Assessment, released last week. “Change” sounds potentially beneficial. The trouble the assessment forecasts is not. It’s more floods, drought, downpours, late-spring freezes, tornadoes, wildfires, summer humidity, insects and invasive species. It’s depleted forests, reduced yields of some crops, poorer air and water quality, fewer refreshing summer nights.

It’s also fewer moose, trout, walleyes and other iconic Minnesota species, the National Wildlife Federation warned in a separate report last week.

These new reports differ from their predecessors not as much in message as in immediacy. The previous two National Climate Assessments, in 2000 and 2009, spoke of changes yet to come as a result of rising greenhouse-gas quantities in the atmosphere. The new report describes events already unfolding. It calls on many Minnesotans to update their thinking about climate change, in several respects:

• Don’t think that climate change is decades away. It’s here, and has been for some time, the report says. For example, since 1991, the frequency of heavy rainfall events in the eight states between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes is up 37 percent compared with the 1901-1960 period. That’s among the changes that climate scientists have long predicted would result from rising atmospheric carbon dioxide.

• Don’t think it’s someone else’s problem. Minnesotans will likely be spared the direct impact of hurricanes, rising sea levels and persistent drought, though they’ll pay for those disasters in higher prices for food, insurance and more. But the direct hits will be bad enough — and already have been. For example, the report notes, 11 of the 14 U.S. weather-related disasters that caused damage of more than $1 billion in 2011 affected the Midwest.

Storms are only part of the regional story, and likely not the most economically threatening. The agricultural, forestry and public-health implications of climate change are bigger worries for Minnesota. For instance, consider the consequences for the tourism industry if northern lakes sit amid grassland rather than forests, and their fish populations no longer appeal to anglers?

• Don’t think it’s all bad news. A longer growing season for some crops and longer ice-free shipping season on the Great Lakes are also mentioned for the Midwest in the new national assessment, even though they aren’t evident this year.

Unmentioned, but much on the minds of local climate scientists and policymakers, is the potential for Minnesota to be a leader in the nation’s response to climate change. That’s what makes this the report’s most important takeaway for Minnesotans:

• Don’t think that nothing can be done locally to bend the trend lines. Minnesota already has, thanks to a series of steps by the Legislature. The state began requiring utilities to invest in wind power 20 years ago. Its goal-setting 2007 Next Generation Energy Act gave alternative energy sources another push. One marker of progress: Greenhouse-gas emissions from Minnesota-based utilities fell 13 percent between 2005 and 2010, the Pollution Control Agency reported last year.

One of the national assessment’s lead authors, Rolf Nordstrom, president of the Twin Cities-based Great Plains Institute, said those steps are already putting this state ahead of others in a region that was otherwise cited in the report as a disproportionate U.S. contributor of emissions. Heavy reliance on coal to generate electricity is a prime culprit, the report says.

“The real story in this report is the upside for Minnesota,” Nordstrom said. “We can be a disproportionately large share of the solution. We have the resource base and the capital here, and much of the policy framework required” to reduce consumption of fossil fuels, he said. The state is well-positioned to take advantage of wind, solar, biomass and hydro power for electricity generation. Minnesota can also be home to industries that help other states both reduce emissions and adapt to the changes that cannot be held back, he said.

For many Minnesotans, doubt and denial about climate change have given way to acceptance. But that ought not lead to resignation or despair. Rather, more Minnesotans should catch the vision Nordstrom describes, and resolve to make it real.

  • Heating up in Hibbing

    A New York Times account about the National Climate Assessment cited Hibbing, Minn., as among the U.S. cities with the biggest increase in average annual temperatures during 1991-2012, compared with 1901-1960. The increase: 3.1 degrees Fahrenheit.

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