Legislators told to act fast to slow global warming

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 30, 2007 - 10:37 PM

Science, morality and politics came together in a rare, bicameral session.

Minnesota could be a much hotter and probably drier place in the next 70 to 90 years, with an altered or dwindling forest, Kansas-like summers and Illinois-like winters.

But that's if Minnesotans don't seize opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now, three scientists and explorer Will Steger told a rare assembly of legislators Tuesday.

More than 90 senators and representatives from committees on the environment, energy and transportation -- nearly half the elected body -- gathered in the House chamber for an informational session on global warming that included state Catholic and Lutheran leaders casting the issue as a moral and ethical challenge.

House Speaker Rep. Margaret Kelliher described the event as "potentially historic."

Said Archbishop Harry Flynn of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis: "The entire human family needs to participate in solutions. We need to act for the common good today."

While both bodies of the Legislature come together in the House on occasion -- for speeches by the governor, to hear visiting dignitaries and for an annual arts tribute -- the joint meeting involving eight committees on a public issue was unheard-of to many Capitol watchers.

"What it says is that leadership has recognized that this is an issue that cuts across caucuses and regions and affects everybody," said Gary DeCramer, from the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute.

DeCramer, director of the Masters of Public Affairs program at the institute, served in the Legislature as a DFLer from 1983 through 1992. "They're stepping up in a way I would hope they would do more of."

Steger, dressed in a white shirt and tie, drew a standing ovation from the assembly after describing the shrinking of polar ice caps and permafrost in arctic lands, which he has witnessed.

'Smorgasbord' of strategies

David Tilman, director of the University of Minnesota's Cedar Creek Natural History Area and an internationally known ecology researcher, told the legislators that carbon dioxide -- regarded as the key cause of global warming -- is now concentrated in the Earth's atmosphere at higher levels than at any time in the past 400,000 years.

If increases continue as they have in the past 150 years, Tilman said, Minnesota's average daily temperatures could be 9 to 13 degrees higher by the year 2100 than they are now.

But Tilman then offered a brighter scenario: a "smorgasbord" of strategies that could result in no net increase of greenhouse gas emissions during that time.

That would include increased energy efficiencies in housing and transportation, more renewable energy sources, development of technologies to store carbon dioxide in soils, a renewed commitment to nuclear energy, and development of prairie-plant fuels that could result in a net decrease in carbon dioxide emissions.

'Consensus' and critics

Tilman made several references to a "consensus" of scientists who agree on the dynamics of global warming and its causes.

The session was criticized in a news release by Sen. Mike Jungbauer, R-East Bethel, for not including speakers who would question that consensus on global warming. Two protesters outside the chamber also expressed similar views.

But it demonstrated that such issues as renewable energy and limits on greenhouse gas emissions are likely to be prominent at the Capitol.

Last month Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced a "Next Generation Energy Initiative" that called for reductions in fossil fuel consumption and emissions and incentives to develop renewable forms of energy, including biofuels such as ethanol. President Bush, in his State of the Union address last week, also called for reductions in gasoline consumption and increased support for ethanol production.

In a letter to legislators Tuesday, Pawlenty urged them to adopt his program, saying, "We have a historic opportunity this session to make dramatic improvements in the way we produce and use energy in Minnesota."

Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, said after Tuesday's hearing that blunting the causes of global warming could bring economic opportunities to Minnesota.

Rick Evans, director of regional government affairs for Xcel Energy, said climate change is "probably the preeminent environmental issue" before the public and policymakers today.

Like other major energy and other corporations around the world, Xcel has called for caps on greenhouse emissions that producers can respond to with new efficiencies or in a credit-trading market. But he said such measures would be most effective at the federal level.

He expects Xcel to get behind legislation in Minnesota that would encourage renewable energy, particularly wind, and conservation that would mute demand for more carbon-based energy.

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