Pawlenty, Steger make bond to slow changes to climate

  • Article by: Larry Oakes
  • Star Tribune
  • October 29, 2007 - 10:30 PM

DULUTH -- The governor runs in conservative circles and wears button-down shirts. The explorer runs behind dog sleds and is more apt to show up in a casual sweaters.

"In some ways, I suppose we're a bit of an odd couple," Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Monday of himself and the state's famous Arctic explorer, Will Steger, who stood beside Pawlenty during a conference about issues threatening the environmental health of Lake Superior.

One of the biggest issues, global climate change, is what motivated the pair to join forces -- warning of what they say will be grave consequences if individuals, businesses and governments don't act to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

"It is an important issue -- I think one of the most important of our time," Pawlenty told the 400 researchers, resource managers and educators gathered in Duluth this week.

Steger praised Pawlenty for having "the guts to take on bold initiatives" to reduce greenhouse gases and for his leadership on that issue in his capacity as chair of the National Governors Association.

Pawlenty called Steger, who lives in Ely, "a Paul Revere-like figure, issuing a call to action."What we have in common is our concern and love for Minnesota, and our concern for the environment and the economy," Steger said.

Steger and Pawlenty, who acknowledges catching "some flak" on this issue from fellow conservatives who still doubt some of the science behind climate change predictions, chose the first day of the "Making a Great Lake Superior" conference to officially announce their partnership.

The pair said they plan this winter to host forums in various places in the state where climate change is having an effect, including near Lake Superior -- where warmer winters have led to reduced ice cover-- and farming communities that produce crops for alternative fuels.

And Pawlenty reiterated Monday that if his schedule permits, he hopes to rendezvous with Steger during the explorer's planned trip to the Canadian Arctic in the spring.

Such a trip would bring increased national exposure to Pawlenty, 46, who is viewed in some circles as a potential Republican vice-presidential nominee in 2008.

Pawlenty said he wants to see firsthand what is left of the ice sheets that Steger has seen shrinking over time, near Ellesmere Island.

The 63-year-old Steger said it's one of the alarming trends that is causing him to devote his remaining life to raising awareness of climate change.

Steger said he brought that message to legislators in January at the Capitol in St. Paul, and then had a discussion with Pawlenty that led to the partnership idea and, eventually, to the proposed rendezvous at Ellesmere.

Some good news on Superior

Steger and Pawlenty spoke during the first day of the conference, hosted by Environment Canada, Great Lakes Sea Grant Network and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Conference topics include pollution, invasive species and shoreline development, and some news coming out of Monday's sessions was good.

Prof. Deborah Swackhamer, interim director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, reported that concentrations of "legacy contaminants" such as DDT and PCBs have declined dramatically, and other researchers said the lake on the whole remains remarkably healthy as a habitat for fish.

However, emerging data on the lake's response to climate change were more pessimistic, or, as some said, alarming. Compared with a century ago, 50 percent less ice covers the lake in winter now, spring ice-breakup comes earlier, and the average summer water temperature is increasing 2 degrees a decade, said Prof. Jay Austin of the Large Lakes Observatory at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Among other effects, this leaves the lake more open to evaporation and a drop in average water level, he said.

Global climate change "is not some esoteric problem in a far-off land," Austin said. "Rates of change in Lake Superior are some of the largest seen on Earth."

"Maybe we can lead them"

Steger told conferees that "America is at a tipping point," where it can either act to change current trends or see the underpinnings of its civilization start to crumble. He said ordinary people need to realize the connection between climate change and such things as their retirement savings and way of life.

"What's at stake here is really the economy," Steger said. "Civilization is based on the infrastructure of a stable climate."

Pawlenty, who wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state 80 percent by the year 2050, expressed disappointment that more steps aren't being taken on the national level, and he challenged individuals, communities, and states to show the way.

"Maybe we can lead them [the federal government] or even shame them into action," Pawlenty said. "It'll become de facto national policy."

Larry Oakes • 1-218-727-7344


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