With Minnesota years behind on its goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions, Gov. Tim Walz announced Monday that he will create a "climate change subcabinet" to advise him on cutting the state's carbon footprint.
The subcabinet, which will include members of every state department, will be asked to help Minnesota catch up to emission targets set more than a decade ago while finding ways to make everything from roads and stormwater pipes to crops and topsoil more resilient to extreme weather and rising temperatures.
"This is an existential challenge," Walz said. "We need to reduce carbon emissions."
The subcabinet will set concrete benchmarks in coming weeks and months for both emission cuts and investments in resiliency and flood mitigation, said Laura Bishop, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, who will serve as chairwoman.
It's unclear exactly how the governor will measure the subcabinet's success, but Bishop previewed several strategies.
Finding greenhouse gas reductions in agriculture and transportation will be a priority, she said. For transportation, that means building up the state's electric vehicle infrastructure, adding charging stations and moving toward stricter vehicle emission standards, she said.
For agriculture, it could mean building markets for perennial biofuel crops, cover crops and other practices that help reduce erosion and keep carbon-rich fertilizers in the ground.
The new body will consist primarily of members of Walz's cabinet, as well as leaders of the Metropolitan Council, Environmental Quality Board and Minnesota Housing. The state will hire a director of climate to help oversee the effort. Fifteen citizens will be appointed to an advisory council.
Coordination will be key, Walz said, noting that experts from transportation, labor, health and all sectors of the economy will collaborate to track the local impacts of climate change and respond to the damage done, he said.
"We can no longer afford to build billion-dollar flood diversions," he said. "We can no longer allow our greatest resource — our topsoil — to be pushed away by what used to be 500-year flood events and are now five-year flood events."
Environmental groups welcomed the announcement, saying it might keep pressure on lawmakers and state agencies to cut carbon emissions.
"The climate crisis is no longer an issue that can be managed by a few groups and agencies focused on energy and the environment," said Steve Morse, executive director of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership.
"It affects each of us and the systems we all depend on."
Minnesota Youth Climate Strike, a group of mostly high school students that has led several protests at the Capitol this year, called the new cabinet a step forward but added that it must lead to concrete actions.
"We are pleased and surprised that [Walz] has decided to take executive action on climate, as he has consistently ignored our meeting requests and statewide demands," the group said in a statement.
The group is planning to protest at the Capitol on Friday to demand the state divest from fossil fuel producers.
Isaac Orr, policy fellow for the conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment, said that if Walz is serious about reducing emissions, Minnesota must repeal a ban on building new nuclear power plants.
"Nuclear power is the most reliable and affordable source of electricity that does not emit carbon dioxide," Orr said.
In 2007, the Legislature set a bipartisan goal to cut the state's carbon emissions 15% by 2015 and 80% by 2050.
The state missed the 2015 target and is well behind meeting future goals, even though emissions from power plants and energy production have fallen drastically.
Two main reasons are that emissions from crop production have steadily risen since 2007, while, after a brief drop, emissions from cars, SUVs and other vehicles have remained virtually flat every year since 2009.
"Keeping soil on the farms is the biggest piece," Bishop said, because erosion releases carbon into waterways, while healthy soil can absorb and hold it.
"But we know the return on investment for some of these practices can take some time, and farmers are hurting right now." She said it will be crucial for the state to have proper incentives for soil conservation and acknowledge the current slump in agriculture.
Walz's announcement came on the same day the United Nations kicked off a two-week climate conference in Madrid.
The governor quoted U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, saying "The point of no return is no longer over the horizon. It is in sight and hurtling toward us."