Nick Coleman: Pawlenty goes equatorial on the polar cap

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN
  • Star Tribune
  • August 30, 2009 - 11:21 AM

Politics makes strange sled-fellows.

Two years ago, Gov. Tim Pawlenty teamed up with polar explorer Will Steger, becoming part of a highly publicized "odd couple" that helped Minnesota forge into a national leadership role on global climate change and renewable energy. There was even talk of Pawlenty joining a Steger expedition to the Arctic to witness, from the runners of a dogsled, the shrinking polar ice cap.

Today, however, the rapid disappearance of the ice cap is more than matched by the evaporation of Pawlenty's leadership on an issue that Steger says carries as much moral urgency as it does environmental and economic importance.

Since early last year, when he began preening to be John McCain's choice as a running mate, Pawlenty (who is not seeking a third term as governor) has tried to elevate his national prospects by appealing to the deeply conservative base of the Republican Party. His ambitions have led him to jump from Steger's sled and largely abandon his goal to make Minnesota a model for fighting global warming, reducing greenhouse gases, and jump-starting an alternative growth economy by finding renewable, green-energy sources that might wean us from carbon and produce jobs.

It has been one of Tim Pawlenty's most cynical reversals. And the truth, says Steger (who says he remains close to Pawlenty), is that the governor knows better.

Pawlenty's about-face began while he was still in the midst of a series of climate change forums with Steger that were held across the state. He bailed before the final forum and never looked back. A governor who declared himself a champion of clean energy when he was chairman of the National Governors Association has now bowed so low to his party's "Drill, Baby, Drill" faction that he called on the state's congressional delegation in June to vote against the American Clean Energy and Security Act, which embodied most of the very principles he had embraced when he hitched himself to Steger's visionary crusade.

The bill passed the House and will now go to the Senate. But by throwing red meat to red-state Republicans (embracing "clean coal" and nuclear energy, repeating hoary tales of job losses and wildly exaggerated cost estimates), Pawlenty turned his back on a broad-based bipartisan Minnesota movement that he had helped start and that included a full spectrum of interests, from energy companies to environmental advocacy groups.

Environmental advocates have been angered by Pawlenty's abandonment of the climate change/clean energy fight. (Major recommendations approved by a "stakeholders panel" appointed by Pawlenty were orphaned when Pawlenty dropped the issue.) Some have questioned Steger's choice of partners, arguing that Pawlenty could not be trusted to stay the course. But Steger is philosophical about his old trailmate, saying that Pawlenty helped advance the cause in Minnesota even if he chooses to betray it on a national stage.

"I understand why people are angry," says Steger. "He's definitely stepped back and dropped things he was doing. He knows it [climate change] is real, and I believe he sees the moral implications of not doing anything. But he's running for the Republican side, and it's a real hot potato. That's politics, but it's a shame, because drilling and digging as fast as we can do it won't make us secure. That's how we got into this mess. Conservatives should see that we will have energy security and jobs only by developing a low-carbon economy and protecting the environment."

Steger says he is a realist and that Pawlenty's strong, if short-lived, commitment to the global warming battle has made Minnesota a better place, raising the issue to a higher level of awareness. Not even Tim Pawlenty could win office in Minnesota, Steger says, if he clung to the nostrums he's peddling to national Republicans.

"It's not a very electable platform here," Steger says. "This is a big issue for many people in Minnesota, and I give the governor credit. Some of the strongest climate legislation in the country has been passed under his tenure. Different things get you elected in different places, but the people of Minnesota have gotten on board on this. At the next election in Minnesota, things are going to happen in a big way."

Pawlenty won't be part of that election. Minnesota will get a new governor, and Steger says the work dropped by Pawlenty will be carried on, and that the state will return to its leadership position on issues affecting the country and the planet.

What if lightning strikes and Pawlenty gets elected president in 2012?

"I'll still work with him," Steger says. "I'm a bridge-builder, and when you're a bridge-builder, you get walked on. We need the Republican Party in this fight.

"There's still a long way to go."

Nick Coleman is a senior fellow at the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy & Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University. He can be reached at

© 2018 Star Tribune