Storytelling a key tool for Will Steger’s Climate Generation

Credit: Photos courtesy of Climate Generation
Credit: Photos courtesy of Climate Generation

Confronting Climate Change: A Journals’ series of stories and commentary examining how local leaders, organizations, businesses and residents are addressing climate change. For more stories and a resource guide, go to www.southwestjournal.com/climate-change

Famed polar explorer Will Steger’s newly rebranded foundation Climate Generation is on a mission to get more people involved in the climate movement and the state’s rapidly growing clean energy economy.

“I’ve been talking with audiences about what we can do to fight climate change for more than 10 years,” Steger said, who splits his time between Linden Hills and his home in Ely. “During that time I’ve engaged with 1,000 educators, 5,000 young leaders and over 60,000 Minnesotans. We are making a difference, but we need to move with more speed and purpose.”

The 70-year-old environmentalist founded the South Minneapolis-based Will Steger Foundation in 2006 and celebrated the organization’s new name and direction with staff and supporters April 29 at the Red Stag Supperclub in Northeast.

Climate Generation has also launched a new program called Climate Minnesota: Local Stories, Community Solutions — a two-year project funded by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund.

The organization is hosting community conversations around the state with noted climate experts to discuss local solutions to climate change. It is also collecting Minnesotan’s personal stories about climate change via blogs and podcasts.

“We took a line out of Kevin Kling’s story book about storytelling as one of the best ways of communicating with the community,” Steger said. “With stories people can relate to it, they get emotional — they feel it.”

Nicole Rom, the foundation’s executive director, said the organization’s new name and focus aligns with the urgency of the problem.

“The time is now,” she said. “We believe climate change will define this generation; this generation has been the first to really experience the effects of climate change and will have the biggest influence on how we address it. Furthermore, we want to emphasize that it is young people who are most impacted by climate change and are among our most powerful advocates.”

The foundation has an Emerging Leaders Program that helps young people develop advocacy skills and YEA! MN, which supports a network of high school environmental clubs around the Twin Cities.

It also developed the state’s first curriculum on climate change. The curriculum guides for grades 3 through 12 can be downloaded for free from Climate Generation’s website.

The foundation has also been a key player in lobbying for renewable energy policies at the state level.

Steger said the state’s clean energy economy has the power to provide economic opportunities to those who need it most. He predicts that within 10 years, most of the roofs in Minneapolis will feature solar panels.

“We have about a $15 billion clean energy economy right now whereas four years ago it might have been a $1 billion,” he said. “It’s skyrocketing — this economy during the recession did not slow down.”

As for climate change deniers, he said there are two types — an average person and those in positions of power.

Steger said he tries to avoid arguments and instead focuses conversations on the economic development potential of clean energy.

Republican members of the Minnesota House recently voted against an amendment to a bill acknowledging that climate change is a reality and humans are contributing the problem.

Steger said he knows some Republicans who accept the science of climate change, but feel pressured to toe the party line.

“When you have leadership that’s in denial, this is a very serious thing,” he said. “They are denying our children a future. Politics are a very strange thing sometimes because they don’t follow logical lines. It’s baffling sometimes.”

He said an engaged and motivated community is key to moving the issue forward.

“The way to get around that is to approach the constituency — to work in the congregations, in the community,” he said. “Because if the community is saying we need these clean energy jobs, that’s how you move the politicians.”

Young people are often the best lobbyists, too, he said. They know the science, are passionate about the problem and deliver their message calmly.

They are favoring bikes and public transportation over cars and rejecting the materialism that became rampant among their parents’ generation, he added.

“They’re there because they know that the climate is changing and it’s going to affect their life drastically,” he said. “It’s going to affect their economy if we continue with the denying — it’s going to affect their children.”