Minnesota's delegates to the United Nations conference on climate change delivered two key messages to state leaders Tuesday: Minnesota, they said, should be even more ambitious about reducing greenhouse gas emissions here — and they encouraged grassroots efforts to hold international leaders accountable for addressing climate change.
• Full coverage: Climate change in Minnesota
Lt. Gov. Tina Smith gave the opening remarks at an event during which eight of the dozens of Minnesotans who attended the Paris climate talks spoke about what they learned. Smith has been vocal in recent months about Minnesota taking a leadership role in addressing climate change.
"Governor Dayton and I strongly support bold action to tackle climate change," she told the crowd.
Bold action is exactly what the delegates said is necessary. The nearly 200 countries that participated in the conference agreed to reduce emissions and be transparent about their progress. But the commitments made in Paris would not be enough to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius — the target scientists have concluded is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. And there aren't any penalties for countries that miss their targets.
• 2 degrees, $100 billion: The world climate agreement, by the numbers
"The only way we would get the 2-degree commitment is if the next time we come together the commitments are at least twice what they are presently," said Jessica Hellmann, who directs the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment. Hellmann attended the Paris conference with a group of university researchers.
"We are taking tiny, tiny baby steps," Hellmann said. "But, in large part, these countries are making these commitments because it's possible to make them."
If the countries are able to follow through, Hellmann said, it will reinforce the idea that a zero-emissions future is possible. It will allow world leaders to double their commitments in years to come, she said — especially if their citizens hold them accountable for it.
Collin Westgard was one of the only high school students worldwide who had official observer status at the Paris conference.
"After I got back from Paris I was often asked, and in some cases told, that the climate conference didn't really mean much because there wasn't a binding commitment," said Westgard, a high school senior attending the School for Environmental Studies in Apple Valley. "Well, I usually answer this by talking about potatoes."
The U.N.'s promotion of potatoes in 2008, Westgard said, helped expand production and reduce global hunger without a binding agreement among nations.
Now is the time, he said, for individuals to act on climate: "And when we do, we know that the weight of the entire international community is behind us."
Cities fill in Congress' inaction
Several of Tuesday's speakers noted that hundreds of large companies, including Minnesota-based General Mills and Best Buy, are making their own commitments to reduce emissions. Cities are doing the same, despite inaction by Congress on climate change.
"I really felt like the mayors were the cool kids at the conference," said St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, who said cities' actions received a lot of attention during his time in Paris.
Coleman was among a group of mayors that met about climate change impacts on river basins — work he said has seemed even more important after returning home to major flooding of the Mississippi River in Missouri and Louisiana.
"It was really refreshing and reassuring to see that those representing the largest communities, mid-size communities, small communities across the country are actually taking steps," Coleman said.
Waiting for change to come
The questions that remain are how big the reductions will be and how soon they will come. Several of Tuesday's speakers called on Minnesota leaders to go beyond the emissions targets the Obama administration has set for power plants and even beyond the goals the state has set for reducing emissions. State lawmakers set a goal in 2007 of reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050.
Kate Wolford, president of the McKnight Foundation, proposed starting what she called a "high-ambition coalition" in Minnesota, saying it could follow the example of a similar group in Paris that helped ensure the strongest agreement possible. McKnight underwrites climate change coverage on MPR News.
"It was a diverse coalition, and was able to align diverse interests and political constraints to keep the high ambition going forward," Wolford said of the Paris group. "So my challenge is, what's our equivalent of the Minnesota high-ambition coalition?"
State Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman said he likes that idea. For example, he said, his staff should be thinking about what comes next after the state's utilities meet President Obama's Clean Power Plan.
• Climate Cast: New Clean Power Plan mandates large carbon pollution reductions
"I think it's imperative that we take all of these questions, all of these ambitions and we ratchet up our own ambitions," Rothman said.
A report on how Minnesota can best reach its climate change goals is expected in February.