Minnesotans return from climate summit energized despite its shortcomings

Two people hold a quilt around their shoulders and up in the air.
Ruhel Islam and Analyah Schlaeger dos Santos with Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light carry "prayer squares" through the streets of Glasgow on Nov. 6.
Courtesy of Julia Nerbonne

More than 60 students, academics, nonprofit leaders, politicians and other Minnesotans have returned from the UN’s climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, disappointed that more concrete steps weren’t taken to get greenhouse gas emissions under control, but also energized to push Minnesota more quickly toward a carbon-free future.

The deal reached at this year's summit keeps alive — albeit barely — the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. But only if countries follow through on their pledges.

"If I were going to grade this whole COP26, I would grade it as a probably a C+ or B-,” said Ellen Anderson, a former state legislator and Minnesota Public Utilities Commission chair who’s now climate and energy director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

Anderson said overall, the plans countries submitted to cut their emissions are not enough to meet that 1.5 degree goal. But she said importantly, the agreement requires many big carbon polluting nations to come back with stronger plans at next year's summit in Egypt.

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"This is the decade of reckoning for climate,” Anderson said. “That means we have to keep working at this and keep pushing as hard as we can, day after day, year after year. And so I feel like there's a recognition of that in the agreement, and that's good, that's encouraging.”

This was the fifth COP conference Anderson has attended. She authored Minnesota's first renewable energy requirement nearly 15 years ago.

Anderson said this is the greatest urgency she's ever felt at a UN climate summit. But she also felt more frustration and skepticism among attendees than ever before — that some countries are all talk, and no action.

She cited for example, a last-minute compromise that weakened an effort to phase out coal.

Julia Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power and Light, said that's why it was important for so many Minnesotans — and other activists from around the globe — to be at the conference.

“From my perspective, it was great to be there so that, as these world leaders are making decisions, that they can see that people all over the world are paying attention,” she said.

Nerbonne, who's also a sustainability studies professor at the University of Minnesota, said it was energizing to connect with activists from all over the world. She met a priest from the UK named Helen Burnett who walked over 500 miles to the conference.

"And so it's just really inspiring to be with her and her colleagues. And it makes me feel like the work that I'm doing back home is something that I can continue to do, despite the uncertainty,” said Nerbonne.

Several Minnesotans mentioned how meaningful those spontaneous encounters were. Beth Mercer-Taylor, with the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, said all the students and other member’s of the university’s delegation were encouraged to “think of themselves as informal diplomats and ambassadors.”

Jamez Staples, CEO of Renewable Energy Partners, a solar company in north Minneapolis, who traveled to Scotland for the first week of the conference, said he struck up a conversation with a guy in the hallway who turned out to be the energy minister for the nation of Chad.

"There's an opportunity in those type of chance meetings,” Staples said, not only from a private business perspective, but also to “talk to these individuals about how it is that they can incorporate low income and underrepresented populations into their work, so [those groups] can eventually benefit from all this work that's happening.”

Minnesotans had a strong presence at the conference. They led meetings on the Line 3 oil pipeline, and on the role Minnesota and the Midwest can play in helping the U.S. meet its emissions targets.

U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow
Alok Sharma, president of the COP26 summit, leaves after a session at the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Saturday.
Alberto Pezzali | AP

There were large delegations from the University of Minnesota, Macalester College, and St. John’s University, as well as several nonprofits like Climate Generation, which sent several delegates representing young and Indigenous communities to help bring stories from the conference to a wider audience.

“That's something I'm extremely proud of, that there is a very strong group of Minnesotans that are concerned about this issue and putting it front and center,” said Climate Generation’s Kristen Poppleton.

Several Minnesota delegates were dismayed that rich countries failed to commit more resources to help poorer countries transition to clean energy, and to help them deal with damage that's already occurred from climate change.

But State Representative Frank Hornstein says he also found hope among the tens of thousands of people there demonstrating, especially young people.

"This strong and growing movement of people of all ages, but particularly youth, in countries all over the world, really coalesced in Glasgow in a really powerful way,” Hornstein said. “And that movement will grow and continue. It must grow and continue."

Hornstein said experiencing that energy firsthand gives him hope as he returns home. He and others say Minnesota can play a leadership role in the Midwest, which generates about a quarter of all U.S. emissions.