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Living with it: Climate change effort shifts

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Randy Zacher installs gutters
Randy Zacher installed a gutter on a home on the reservation of the the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa October 27, 2014 near Cloquet, Minn.
Derek Montgomery / For MPR News

Climate Change in Minnesota: An MPR News special report

A farmer in western Minnesota recently installed a new heating and cooling system to keep nearly a thousand sows eating and gaining weight during summers that have grown warmer.

The Minneapolis Health Department established a comprehensive heat-warning system that kicks in during heat waves to protect the vulnerable.

Leaders on the Fond du Lac Indian reservation near Duluth bought a seamless gutter machine after flooding in 2012 with the aim of directing water away from houses during increasingly heavy rains.

Minnesotans have taken a variety of steps that deal with climate change. But, as in each of these instances, those steps often deal less with reducing carbon emissions than with adapting to change that already has arrived in Minnesota.

That's new.

While the argument rages globally over how to reduce the pollution that has generated climate change, individuals and communities have quietly begun embarking upon the practical business of dealing with it, whether or not they call it climate change.

Minnesota is warming faster than the nation as a whole, according to a recent analysis by the non-profit Climate Central. And the character of the rain it receives has changed - more precipitation falls overall and more of it falls in big storms. 

Minnesota lawmakers took note as early as 2007, when they passed the Next Generation Energy Act to set renewable energy and conservation goals. It and many other local efforts around climate change have focused on so-called "mitigation" — the reduction of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere.

Cities and counties across the state have mounted solar panels on public buildings and replaced old, inefficient boilers and lighting systems with new ones. Schools and homeowners have installed efficient doors and windows and sent tons of would-be trash to recycling bins. 

"Adaptation was seen as throwing in the towel, admitting defeat."

Companies have implemented their own renewable-energy strategies and some have encouraged telecommuting rather than driving to the office. Utilities in Minnesota are converting power plants from coal to natural gas and have made progress toward the goals set by the Legislature, which dictate that they get 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025.

Despite these efforts, a recent analysis shows that the state is falling short of its greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Scientists argue that even if people and industries were able to significantly slash emissions today, the climate would continue to change. That has led to louder voices pushing for "adaptation" — the remaking of our environment and infrastructure to withstand already changing weather patterns.

Early on, some viewed adaptation as counterproductive, even obstructionist. Former Vice President Al Gore said these initiatives distracted from the more important business of mitigation, or cutting emissions. Now, he advocates both approaches, writing: "I was wrong — not wrong that deniers would propose adaptation as an alternative to mitigation, but wrong in not immediately grasping the moral imperative of pursuing both policies simultaneously, in spite of the difficulty that poses."

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been out front in pushing a policy that blends mitigation and adaptation — embracing the use of more biomass energy to cut carbon emissions, for example, while also testing tree species likely to survive in a warmer climate.

There used to exist a tension between the two camps, said Andy Holdsworth, of the DNR's policy and planning office.  "Adaptation was seen as throwing in the towel, admitting defeat."

But that has dissipated since people started seeing more examples of changing weather patterns, Holdsworth said. "It's clear there are enough greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere that we are committed to a certain amount of change," he said. "We have to adapt to help people and systems prepare for and cope with the changing climate... Adaptation has become more in the focus of policy makers and the public's attention."

In some ways, it can be easier to build support around adaptation because the benefits of, say, a higher-capacity storm water pipe can be realized right now, whereas stopping global warming can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Also, when adapting, it's possible for proponents of action to avoid the words "climate change" altogether, focusing instead on "extreme weather events" or "heat trends" and talking about "resilience" and "sustainability."

Ellen Anderson
Former state Sen. Ellen Anderson was appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton to chair the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission in 2011.
Courtesy of the PUC

"I think the adaptation agenda is just building now," said Ellen Anderson, who knows a bit about the politically sensitive climate change debate. Gov. Mark Dayton appointed her to chair the state's Public Utilities Commission in 2011, but Senate Republicans declined to confirm her, suggesting that she was hostile toward traditional energy sources. After a stint advising Dayton on energy issues, she now heads the University of Minnesota's Energy Transition Lab. Of adaptation, she said, "It's less about, 'You have to stop burning fossil fuels.' That is not a positive message for people to hear or listen to."

Across the state, farmers are moving livestock to indoor pens, painting barn roofs white to deflect the sun, and in extreme cases, sending sensitive animals like turkeys to market earlier to avoid heat stress and death. Cities are building new retention ponds to hold water during rains and planning to raise dike walls and install fatter storm water pipes. The Minnesota Department of Health has just completed intensive mapping to show where vulnerable populations live, like elderly people without air conditioning, in order to target public health responses across the state. 

Those steps should be just the beginning, say those working on the issue. "We need to have more ability to respond to and prepare for the things we are seeing," said Paul Moss of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, who coordinated the state's Interagency Climate Adaptation Team. That group released a daunting report in 2013.

Climate change, he said, promises "major impacts on our economy, our society, our environment and our future. In order to prepare ourselves for the challenges we are facing and are likely to continue to face, we need to start to adjust the services and programs that run our society, so we are more able to respond positively and maintain our quality of life in Minnesota."

This isn't the coast

The conversation around adapting to climate change has moved much more quickly on the coasts, where the specter of rising oceans serves as a more urgent call to action than the prospect of higher temperatures and heavier rains in the Midwest.

A new bridge replaces a flood-destroyed culvert.
This section of road on the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation was washed out after a culvert failed during the flood of 2012. A new bridge replaced the culvert.
Derek Montgomery / For MPR News

 "It's harder for the average Minnesotan to really know what is changing," Anderson said. When she recently attended a conference in Virginia focused on climate resilience, "We were the only Midwesterners there. That is often the case." Most others were from the coasts. "They all had the same worry, about rising sea levels and sea surges, an imminent problem for them. They are talking about adaptation and resilience a lot more than we are in the Midwest."

"We need to have more ability to respond to and prepare for the things we are seeing."

Some think adaption will follow the same arc of acceptance and action established by discussion about mitigation. Give it time, Moss said, noting that the statewide adaptation team was only formed in 2009. "I don't feel that (adaptation) has the same degree of resources and focus that the mitigation effort has had. There haven't been explicit laws at the state of Minnesota that have identified adaption as primary goal."

But state agencies have expressed increasing interest in "making our state more resilient," Moss said.

This year, for the first time, the MPCA awarded "environmental assistance" grants specifically targeting climate adaptation efforts. "While it's extremely necessary to work on climate mitigation the most we can, we're finding it's a hard thing to engage people on in some ways," said Laura Millberg, a green building specialist with the agency, who helps administer the grants. 

"(Mitigation) is overwhelming and depends on what happens in other places," she said. "Adaptation is local and we felt that it was something we could engage people in." The department awarded four grants tied to these efforts, including one to St. Paul for $40,000 to forge a framework for reducing climate change impacts.

Sue Bast
Sue Bast, environmental specialist for Burnsville. The city has installed LED street lighting.
Jennifer Simonson / MPR News

Other cities are beginning to make the transition, too.

When it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Burnsville has made a number of efforts, installing LED street lighting, replacing a boiler at City Hall with an energy-efficient model and updating a pump at the water treatment plant, for example. As a result, it has reached the highest level in the state's GreenStep Cities program. "One of our goals was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for city operations and we have done that," said Burnsville's environmental specialist, Sue Bast. "We are pretty glad about that."

Yet the city, which sits on the flood-prone Minnesota River, is just beginning to think about adaptation. Last fall, Bast attended the Midwest Regional Convening on Climate Resilience in St. Paul, organized by the National League of Cities.

She came away with practical advice. "We are trying to assess our vulnerabilities. That can be in many different directions. We are still trying to figure that out."

One of Anderson's projects at the university will be to inventory community efforts in order to provide examples to others.

It's hard to talk about

"Mitigation is overwhelming and depends on what happens in other places. Adaptation is local."

Despite overwhelming evidence that climate change is real, human-made and already affecting  the weather, there is still disagreement over how and whether to address it. A recent Pew Research survey found that while two-thirds of Americans believe the climate is changing, just under half of those people think it's human-caused. The public's lag behind scientific consensus complicates matters when it comes to, say, cutting auto emissions to mitigate greenhouse gases.

It matters less in efforts to adapt.

Three years ago, when Larry Jacobson, a professor and extension engineer at the university, started a five-year U.S. Department of Agriculture project to work with Minnesota farmers on climate change, he thought the effort would be split between mitigation and adaptation, perhaps with a heavier emphasis on reducing emissions. "Pretty quickly in the project, we decided to turn that around because of pushback," Jacobson said. "People weren't buying it, or there was reluctance."

Instead, the project focuses almost exclusively on adaptation, a natural strength of farmers, who regularly contend with uncertainty about feed prices, animal diseases and, more and more, the weather.

Turkey farm
Farmers are moving livestock to indoor pens, painting barn roofs white to deflect the sun, and in extreme cases, sending sensitive animals like turkeys to market earlier to avoid heat stress and death.
Mark Steil / MPR News

 "A lot of people are adapting without really acknowledging that, or calling it (climate change) ," Jacobson said. "I don't think they really care. They are seeing these changes and they have to adapt."

Some Minnesota farmers are devising new ways to keep animals cool as summer nights get warmer and stickier. Increased humidity can make traditional evaporative methods of cooling livestock, like sprinkling pigs, less effective. Jacobson has been working with a Hutterite farm in Big Stone County that installed a geothermal heating and cooling system. He's monitoring the project to see if and when the producer will see a return on a several-hundred-thousand-dollar investment.

"Probably the only way to capture the benefit is if the system improves the feed efficiency or the daily gain of the animals," Jacobson said. "Instead of taking 16 weeks to grow the animal, it might only take 15 weeks. That would be huge. That would save a lot of feed." If the math works out, the farm will serve as an example for others in the Midwest.

Moss at the MPCA said just because someone doesn't ascribe specific efforts to climate change doesn't mean they don't believe it exists. Rather, sometimes this reluctance reflects the difficulty in knowing where normal weather fluctuations leave off and climate change begins. "It's not like an off and on switch," he said, "where this is definitely climate change and this isn't. Climate change is an amplifier of things that are already happening and we are already observing. We are responding to drought or wildfires or flooding, and climate change will amplify and make those phenomena more frequent and more severe."

Whether moving homes off flood plains or re-designing roads, Moss said, "There are a lot of practices going on throughout our state that are going to help in adapting to climate-related challenges that are not being done in the name of climate adaptation."

Paying for it

Minneapolis is fairly gung-ho when it comes to confronting various conundrums presented by climate change. The city has planted tens of thousands of trees and even threatened to establish a municipal utility if Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy didn't work harder to meet local energy goals, a move that resulted in ambitious new franchise agreements.

The focus has been almost exclusively on greenhouse gas reduction, however, with very little attention paid to adaptation. "Personally, I think we have to do both," said Brendon Slotterback, the city's sustainability program coordinator.

But, he said, "The topic (of adaptation) is very broad. It can be anything from storm water sewer planning to disaster response. With mitigation you say, here is what our emissions are this year. Adaptation and resilience can encompass so many different topics, it's a different planning process and community dialogue."

Even more daunting is the matter of funding, the potentially astronomical costs associated with preparing Minneapolis or any community for changing weather patterns related to climate change. The estimated price of adapting in the United States easily reaches into the tens of billions of dollars, and some place it in the hundreds of billions.

Holding back the creek
Flood waters from Minnehaha Creek leaked through a sandbag dike at Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, Minn., June 19, 2014.
Jeffrey Thompson / MPR News

"Where do the resources come from for that?" asked Slotterback. "That is new money and a lot of money. It's real infrastructure you have to build. Sometimes in climate mitigation, it can be easier because at least in energy efficiency, you can say a lot of these things will pay back pretty fast. With adaptation, you are saying, it's expensive now but in 50 years you will need this. It's a longer-term thing and bigger infrastructure, so it will be a challenge for all governments to talk about that."

Minneapolis was part of a recent study of the Minnehaha Creek Watershed that examined the cost of upgrading storm water sewer systems to accommodate heavier rain events. The bad news: It would cost Minneapolis between $40 and $70 million or more to adapt even part of its system.

"In an urbanized place like Minneapolis, it will be hard to build our way out of the problem," Slotterback said. "We can't make pipes bigger through the whole system. We have to think about more green areas to keep water out of the storm water system before it even gets there." 

Federal funding rules can make it hard to replace damaged infrastructure with sturdier bridges and storm sewers, said Cooper Martin, program director for the National League of Cities. "A lot of federal funds that come in, if they come in under normal funding streams, can only be used for new projects," he said. "Or if it's disaster management or response and recovery, they can only be used to rebuild the infrastructure almost exactly as it was before, to the same level of performance."

Luverne, in southwest Minnesota, encountered the funding issue when looking to rebuild after heavy rains last spring caused the Rock River to overflow and create millions in flood damages. Rock County administrator Kyle Oldre said there is a special pot of Federal Emergency Management Agency money a city can tap to build projects that are beefed up, but that takes a separate application, which takes time. "We explored it, but on the short term wanted to get everything opened and back up."

He said the city is looking to add a foot or two to a dike system that contains the river and for that, it will apply for the special FEMA funds. "We are working through the winter on the cost-benefit analysis."

"We will take our time and make sure (the dike) is fixed for good," Oldre said.

"It's clear that we can't stand by and watch these changes unfold," said Holdsworth of the DNR. "We have to be proactive as much as is possible and before the problems become too big to manage. We must be active managers. We have to use some new approaches to do the work we have been doing for a long time."