A funny thing happened after Jessica Hellmann’s family put solar panels on the roof of their St. Paul home — she began to stare at her iPhone.
A real-time app produced a colorful chart of the panels’ energy production and suddenly, there in her hand, she saw how her family could fight climate change.
They tossed out the old gas lawn mower and got an electric one instead. The new car in the garage? It’s electric, too.
“It’s sort of like, the more stuff that got plugged in, the more excited I got,” she said.
Hellmann is one of many Minnesotans rethinking their daily habits as evidence mounts on the imminent perils of climate change. A report this month, the most urgent yet from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said even the best-case scenario predicts widespread drought, pervasive forest fires, flooded coasts and a degraded planet in coming decades.
The authors said humans must eliminate fossil fuels entirely by 2050 or face a future of killer heat waves, monster hurricanes, smaller crops and widespread social disruption.
It’s so grim that one local environmental group spends a lot of time simply trying to raise people’s spirits.
“One of the biggest obstacles we have … is hopelessness,” said Brett Benson, a spokesperson for MN350. “You can hear it in the political discourse: ‘There’s nothing that can be done.’ ”
While the science suggests that individual actions by individual households won’t solve the problem alone, hopelessness is wrong, said University of Minnesota economics Prof. Stephen Polasky. It’s not too late, he said, and the fix can be made with tools we already have.
“We don’t have to come up with some brand-new [technology] that we’ve never thought about,” said Polasky, who studies the intersection of ecology and the economy. It’s just a question of whether or not we act, he said.
A recent poll captured the nation’s ambivalence on that point. An overwhelming majority of Americans believe that climate change is real, according to the Yale/George Mason climate poll, and respondents were uncommonly unified (85 percent) in supporting funding for more renewable energy research.
At the same time, the poll found that a majority of respondents don’t talk frequently about climate change. People are too worried to want to know the details, Benson said.
Polar explorer Will Steger, who started the nonprofit Climate Generation when he became alarmed by the warming he witnessed firsthand in the Arctic, said fixing climate change will be like one of his expeditions: a difficult journey fraught with risks, but possible if everyone pulls together.
“In expeditions, a lot of times I get into situations that are totally chaotic, just dangerous situations, but I just stay vested in the task at hand,” said Steger. “We can’t invest that much into the chaos around us. We have to look at the positive side of it. It is a challenge to the human spirit. We can do it.”
For most American households, the carbon footprint consists mainly of energy use, transportation and food. About one-third of greenhouse gas emissions come from generating electricity, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
As director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, Hellmann knew this long before the latest IPCC report, and her family turned to solar panels. The Hellmanns installed a six-kilowatt system on their roof last year and expect that it will pay for itself in eight to 10 years.
Even though the price of renewables keeps falling, Hellmann said it’s still too complicated for ordinary homeowners to put panels on their homes. “You can go to the Chevy dealer and drive a Tahoe off the lot in an hour, and not a dollar changes hands, in some cases,” she said. “We’ve got to get residential solar and energy efficiency operating like that.”
Minnesota makes it easier than some states to go solar, thanks to its pioneering use of solar gardens — an array of panels shared by several households — and a solar standard passed in 2013 that requires major utilities to generate 1.5 percent of their power from solar by 2020. Homeowners who lack the capital to put panels on their roof, or maybe have a less-than-optimal roofline, can sign up for solar energy through a third party.
Electrifying her home hasn’t meant sacrifice, Hellmann said.
“The narrative is that we’re going to have to … sit in the dark in a cave. The life that alternative technologies can provide is pretty enriching,” she said.
Work at home, walk the dog
About one-third of the human carbon footprint comes from transportation, with U.S. drivers covering more miles than ever in passenger cars and light-duty trucks. Adam Ahrens of St. Paul, a one-time car commuter, escaped the freeway by switching to mass transit, some days working from home, and occasionally carpooling with his wife.
“Thankfully, where I live in St. Paul offers a wealth of ways to get in,” he said. His employer, When I Work, a software company in downtown Minneapolis, encourages employees to work from home a few days a week. He takes a bus and LRT on most other days. Using Google Hangouts or other online tools, Aherns said he can stay in touch with co-workers while at his home office. Plus, he can take the dog out for a longer walk during lunch.
“It’s really nice, especially with Minnesota and the snow,” he said.
For anyone hoping to green their commute, the nonprofit organization Move Minneapolis promotes sustainable transportation, including teleworking.
“If you’re not driving at all, your impact on climate change comes down to the pixels on your computer and the server farms,” said Mary Morse Marti, the group’s executive director.
Lentils and chickpeas
It’s not cited as often as coal-fired power plants or long commutes, but agriculture plays a huge role in climate change, too. It can drive deforestation, produce the potent greenhouse gases nitrous oxide and methane, especially from cattle farms, and consume huge amounts of fossil fuels for tractors and raising livestock.
It was concerns like these that drove U student Ben Estes to stop eating meat. It was a big adjustment at first, he said, but four years into his new diet he said he feels good to know he’s doing what he can about something he otherwise felt helpless to change.
“As individuals, one of the most costly things that we do is consume meat,” he said.
Even switching to less carbon intensive meat — chicken instead of beef, for example — makes a big difference, researchers say.
Estes said the IPCC report left him with mixed emotions: At 25, he knows he’s likely to be alive for the 2050 deadline to drop fossil fuels.
“I guess I sort of have this vision — ‘Well, I’m going to do everything in my power to help address these issues and … that’s all the power I have,” he said. “Things are going to get kind of crazy, but it’s never going to be so bad that it’s not a good thing to do something about it.”
‘You have power’
High school senior Shaza Hussein said she, too, worries about her future, but working with friends and peers has given her hope that her generation can help build a better path forward.
The Rosemount student belongs to MN Can’t Wait, a student-led group urging the state to strengthen its commitment to renewable energy. The group says Minnesota has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by only 4 percent from 2004 levels, despite a pledge from state leaders to cut them 30 percent by 2025. Hussein said she’s also supporting a federal lawsuit, Juliana v. United States, that’s scheduled to go to trial this week in Oregon. It asks the court to order the federal government to create a clean energy plan to protect future generations, saying failure to produce one would violate children’s constitutional rights.
Hussein, who said her relatives in Sudan have seen widespread drought decimate their farms, has been speaking at meetings and rallies, urging other young people to take a stand.
“I tell them to recognize that even as an individual, you have power,” she said.