New House committee gets climate change boot camp

Several members of a new Minnesota House committee got a lesson on climate change Tuesday.

It was the first of two sessions meant to brief the legislators on the new House Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Division on the latest in climate science, so they can decide what — if anything — the Legislature can do to combat climate change.

Several University of Minnesota experts walked the members through the changes in temperature and precipitation the state is already seeing thanks to a changing climate — and the pests, pathogens and invasive plants that come along with both.

"Climate change has occurred for 4.5 billion years, as long as Planet Earth has existed,” retired University of Minnesota climatologist Mark Seeley told the legislators. “But the pace of change, year by year, decade by decade that we are living through right now is totally unprecedented."

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University of Minnesota professor Peter Reich, a forestry expert, reminded legislators of something scientists have been saying for years: that Minnesota icons like the common loon might not be common at all in the future.

"The species adapted to cold winters and cool summers, a whole raft of them are going to become less abundant and some of them are going to disappear entirely from our state,” he said. “For some of them that's almost guaranteed at this point, because we're not going to slow and stop climate change fast enough."

That question — how fast Minnesota and the rest of the world can address climate change — is central to the committee’s work. And while committee members mostly sat back and listened to the experts, it was clearly on many of their minds.

Rep. Chris Swedzinski, R-Ghent, is a farmer. He asked the experts what reducing emissions in Minnesota would do to slow climate change.

"What's the policy?” he asked. “Folks have talked about [the idea that] we need to be 100 percent fossil [fuel]-free and move ourselves in that direction, but it doesn't sound, potentially, that that would actually make a difference."

"It would make a big difference," Reich countered, explaining that even incremental changes have major implications on the ground. Minnesota has already seen big changes from just 1 degree of global warming. The United Nations climate change panel reports that the world is on a path toward several more degrees of warming.

"If we could cut back our emissions, not just in Minnesota but globally, that will help,” Reich said. “It's not hopeless, by any means. It's serious."

Another committee member, Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, said she felt pressed to act by the data presented in the hearing.

"I feel that the sense of urgency is pretty stark for our state,” she said. “If we want to be the state that feeds the world, if we want to be the state where people come from around the world to swim in our lakes and paddle our rivers and those kinds of things, if we want to be, you know, the state of hockey, we have a lot of work to do fairly quickly."

Later this session, the climate and energy committee, chaired by Rep. Jean Wagenius, DFL-Minneapolis, is expected to take up bills aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota. For now, the lawmakers will continue learn more about the consequences of climate change in Minnesota. Another hearing on climate change’s effects on Minnesota's natural resources, health and economy is scheduled for Thursday.