Thoughts after attending a legislative hearing on climate change

The state Capitol. Credit: By Mary Jean Port

On Thursday, Jan. 24, I attended the Minnesota Senate’s Environment and Energy Committee hearing on climate change. What follows are some impressions:

— Lousy Room! The committee members sat around a large conference table positioned inside four wide, structural columns, and interested citizens sat on chairs along the walls. There wasn’t a single good seat for us. We saw mostly the backs of committee members’ heads.

— Bold Colors? I was encouraged to attend by a local environmental organization, and was urged to wear bold colors to advocate for bold action. Though concerned citizens filled the room, and numbered about 75, which was impressive, very few had bright clothing on. It was a frigid January day, and Minnesotans were apparently not in the mood, thank you very much, for cheerful colors.

— Gas Emissions: During the two-hour hearing numbers rained down. A man from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency made a presentation on greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota. The big players are the electric utilities, which emit 32 percent of such gases, transportation, which emits 24 percent, and agriculture, which emits 19 percent. A further breakdown: Two thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing electricity here come from burning coal.

— What part of fracking don’t you understand? Natural gas burns cleaner than coal. No one at the hearing pointed out that if we use it as a substitute, we are mitigating one problem but doing so on the backs of those whose air and water will be fouled by fracking, the process now used in drilling for the gas, and by mining the special sand required. 

— ZZZZZ…Is anybody else tired of PowerPoint presentations? We had slides on the screen, copies of the slides on paper in our hands, and a person telling us what was on the screen and on the paper in our hands. There is something about this approach that flattens the information and holds everyone at a remove.

— Gas Emissions, Take Two: When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, the biggest offenders are light trucks, that is, pickups, SUV’s, and the like. One senator intimated that without her SUV she would be helpless when it came to transporting groceries from the store to her home. That produced the largest emotional response from the very quiet, polite audience of citizens. A titter, like The Wave at a baseball game, floated around the room.

— Where’s the data? All the data used at the hearing went up to 2010 and stopped. We were told agencies hadn’t had time to analyze 2011 or 2012. I would have liked at least a sneak preview of the recent numbers. The effects of climate change have become more obvious, and those numbers would have been helpful, and perhaps persuasive.

— Yea, Gov. P: Former Gov. Pawlenty convened the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group in 2007, and a Climate Action Plan was created. We were to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 15 percent (below 2005 levels) by 2015, 30 percent by 2025, and 80 percent by 2050. Emissions went down during the recession, and then began to rise again. The speakers predicted we wouldn’t meet that 2015 goal.

— Turbines GOOD! Jim Nichols, former Commissioner of Agriculture and Minnesota Senator, talked about his wind turbines, and he got everyone’s attention with his enthusiasm. He said his turbines are oil wells that never run dry. They are his combines in the sky. “The fuel is free,” he said. “The good Lord is trying to help us out here.” A woman in front of me noiselessly clapped a couple of times during his presentation.

In summary: First, the bad news. The hearing was something of a muddle. False claims made were not refuted. The general level of discourse and engagement was rather low. Several of the senators appeared to be in favor of doing nothing at all in response to climate change, even after being told that the average temperature in northern Minnesota has risen 2-4 degrees in recent decades and may rise 5 degrees more in coming decades. Lake Superior, a beloved, clean, cold-water lake, may well become a warm brew of blue/green algae at the rate we are going. Our forests are threatened. Our moose are threatened.

The good news. Minnesota actually has science-based greenhouse gas reduction goals. People are working to get the state to adopt a comprehensive plan to meet the goals. Energy efficiency is the cheapest way forward, with the fewest bad side effects, and we can all get involved in it. Indeed, the measures we have been taking — driving less, using less electricity, making our homes more energy efficient — have made a small difference. But, people, we have a long way to go.


Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center. Her book of poems, “The Truth About Water,” was published last year.