Pawlenty might trek to Arctic on climate mission

  • Article by: PATRICIA LOPEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 27, 2007 - 10:40 PM

Signaling his growing environmental focus and national influence, he is close to finalizing a trip to see the melting ice cap.

When famed explorer Will Steger sets off for the northernmost tip of the Canadian Arctic in the spring, he expects to rendezvous with an important potential convert on global warming: Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

On Saturday, Steger said that after months of meetings and discussion, he and Pawlenty are close to finalizing arrangements for the governor to join the expedition to see the melting ice caps and increasingly fragile Arctic environment.

Pawlenty said Saturday that nothing has been confirmed but that he is discussing the possibility of meeting up with Steger for several days in May.

The payoff for both could be substantial. Getting Pawlenty on board could help Steger on his personal quest to alert the world to the threat of global warming. For Pawlenty, an oft-mentioned vice presidential candidate, such a trip could further boost his national standing.

"He wants to see it firsthand," Steger said. "The governor is very willing. He's serious about this."

Steger plans to leave in mid-March, leading a small international team on a 1,500-mile dogsled trip from Resolute Bay in northern Canada to Ellesmere Island, which is about 500 miles below the North Pole and is known as "The Island at the Top of the World."

Pawlenty said he and Steger plan to talk over details of the trip Monday, when the two host a forum in Duluth on the effect of climate change on Lake Superior. Billed as "Climate Change and its Impacts on Lake Superior, a Conversation with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty," the forum is part of a three-day environmental convention on the lake region.

Steger said he and Pawlenty plan to do several such forums across the state.

Steger said Pawlenty would travel by commercial flight, then on a charter resupply plane to Ellesmere, stopping at several Inuit villages along the way. The region, described as a "polar desert," is sparsely populated, with fewer than 170 inhabitants and little vegetation.

Pawlenty has long put energy and environmental issues -- traditionally identified with liberal politicians -- at the top of his political agenda. Landmark energy legislation was one of the few clear bipartisan wins out of last year's legislative session. It was in January that Steger jointly addressed the House and Senate on climate change and began private conversations with the governor's office.

As head of the National Governors Association, Pawlenty holds a special ability to drive the national agenda, Steger said, and could be in a position to influence governors who have been slow to climb aboard the environmental bandwagon.

When he took the helm of NGA this year, Pawlenty said clean energy would be his signature issue, and when the Legislature reconvenes in February, he is hoping to shepherd through a proposal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state 80 percent by 2050. Such emissions have been connected by a majority of scientists to a rise in global temperatures, although global warming itself remains a politically controversial issue.

Home to deep fjords, glaciers and rock spires and dominated by a mountain range known as the Arctic Rockies, Ellesmere is a spot of spectacularly raw but fragile beauty. In recent years, gradual warming has caused changes, including polar melt. Steger said that what had been a 300-mile-long ice shelf has dwindled in recent years and now a chunk "the size of Manhattan" has broken off.

That, Steger said, is part of what he wants Pawlenty to see.

"We're at a tipping point," Steger said. "To get someone like him up there for even 24 hours, that's so important.

"You can talk about it, show pictures, but not until you really see it do you feel the need to move right now. We have no time drag our feet any longer."

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288

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