Southwest Minneapolis environmental activists press on

Linden Hills resident Evan Mulholland, an environmental lawyer and volunteer with MN350, has been encouraged by the amount of interest in climate-related causes in recent weeks.

Since 2015, East Harriet resident Emily Moore has urged state leaders to divest fossil fuel-related holdings from public employee retirement funds.

Recently, that’s meant working to get unions and the State Board of Investment, which manages the funds, to coalesce around the idea.

Moore and other activists have gotten support from the state teachers and professional employees unions and have secured meetings with board staff. But with the coronavirus throwing the economy into peril, she said it’s likely that decisionmakers have their minds elsewhere.

“It may be more difficult to get anybody to listen to the connection between COVID-19 and climate change,” she said.

Southwest Minneapolis environmental activists say the pandemic has delayed or, in some cases, hampered efforts to achieve goals such fossil fuel divestment and the elimination of single-use plastics.

But they say their determination hasn’t been tempered and that the pandemic may help galvanize others into action.

“You can’t pause our efforts on fighting the climate crisis,” said Linden Hills resident Evan Mulholland, an environmental lawyer and volunteer with MN350. “It’s urgent and we’ve got to keep working on it every day, even when we’re in this coronavirus crisis.”

‘No letup’

Mulholland is part of MN350’s volunteer transportation team, which has supported Gov. Tim Walz’s plan to adopt stricter fuel-emission standards for cars and trucks.

Those standards would require car manufacturers to sell new cars that meet more stringent emission targets and also to sell a certain number of new cars with ultra-low or zero emissions.

The state remains on track to adopt the standards, but it has delayed the effort because of the pandemic.

Mulholland said his team plans to push Walz’s administration to move forward with the standards. He’s also staying busy in his day job at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

Recently, he appealed the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s granting of an air-quality permit for the proposed PolyMet copper-nickel mine on the Iron Range. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in his favor last month.

“There’s no letup,” Mulholland said of the work. “Polluting companies out there are not hitting the pause button.”

Meanwhile, Moore and fellow divestment activists have been planning to present their case in May before the State Board of Investment, which includes the governor, state auditor, attorney general and secretary of state.

Moore, a former MPCA pollution prevention specialist, began lobbying state leaders in 2015 to divest from fossil fuel-related holdings. She has since joined MN350’s volunteer divestment team.

She and other activists have said fossil fuels are a poor long-term investment and that any new fossil fuel investments would be counterproductive to efforts to meet urgent climate change goals.

While the team continues to meet virtually, Moore said she’s not sure a presentation to the board would be effective right now, given the economic uncertainty. Regardless, she said it’ll be beneficial to have the information prepared to use.

Plastic bag efforts

East Harriet resident Theresa Carter said she’s hoping the pandemic doesn’t hamper efforts to curb the use of plastics.

In December, Carter presented Target a petition with over 455,000 signatures asking the company to stop using plastic checkout bags. The petition was in line with efforts to ban or tax plastic bags in cities and states across the country out of concern over plastic pollution. That includes in Minneapolis, where a 5-cent plastic bag fee was implemented in January as part of a push to get shoppers to use reusable bags.

While disposable bag surcharges have remained in place in Minneapolis, some states and cities have banned reusable bags during the pandemic out of concern that they could harbor the coronavirus. Some local grocery stores, including Kowalski’s and Lunds & Byerlys, have decided to stop charging customers the fee mandated by the city during the pandemic.

But health experts have said single-use plastics could also contain traces of the virus and that people should instead on basic public health measures, such as hand-washing.

Still, the plastics industry, which stands to lose economically with bag bans, has asked the federal government to label them a “public safety risk.” In a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the head of the Plastic Industry Association said researchers have found bacteria on reusable bags, most of which go unwashed.

The researchers whose work was cited have recommend washing reusable bags.

Carter said there is no evidence of anyone contracting COVID-19 from reusable bags and that it’s unacceptable for the plastic industry to use the pandemic as justification for rolling back bag bans.

She said she’s not begrudging people who are apprehensive about using reusable bags during the pandemic but that society needs to get serious about plastic pollution, the effects of which on human health are unknown.

“I don’t think we want it to get worse before we fully understand the implications,” she said.

‘People want to help’

Despite a potential setback, Carter said she thinks there is more awareness now about the dangers of plastic pollution.

She also said it’s easier in some ways to reach people during the pandemic, because many have more time on their hands.

Minneapolis Climate Action executive director Kyle Samejima said her organization, which advocates for environmental policies and best practices, is facing uncertainty because of the pandemic.

The organization postponed a fundraiser and has pivoted from sewing reusable “boomerang” bags to cloth face masks. It’s also planning online meetings and an online “zero waste” happy hour.

“In some ways, we’re in this holding pattern,” Samejima said.

It’s a sentiment expressed by activists across the city, but it’s not dampening their resolve.

“People want to help, and they want to keep working on the issues that people care about,” Mulholland said. “I’m encouraged.”