This past Sunday over 200 area individuals turned out for the Clean Up the River Environment (CURE) hosted Climate, Energy and Health forum held at Granite Falls Lutheran Church.
Event goers were treated to a one - two punch of polar explorer Will Steger and Fresh Energy Science Policy Director J. Drake Hamilton who teamed up to convey the latest information on climate change and what opportunities exist to address the issue here in Minnesota.
While Drake's focus was on conveying science and policy informatin, Steger, who earned a a Lifetime Achievement Award from National Geographic in 2007, provided an account of the changes that he has observed firsthand during polar expeditions of the past 50 years.
Steger noted that between 1960 and today, the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere has elevated from 310 to nearly 400 parts per million. He said that scientists predicted that the ice caps would start melting at 350 parts per million––a benchmark surpassed in 1990––and as expected extreme changes have been documented over the past 10 years.
Steger noted that, in 2007, for the first time in recent history 50 percent of the ice cap broke up over the summer months, and last year 60 percent. The loss of snow and ice cover exacerbating the problem, as the open ocean water absorbs more solar radiation.
Thus, Steger has witnessed more open water during one day of a polar expedition in 1995 than he did during a 56-day trip embarked on 10 years prior, and acknowledges that one can no longer take a dogsled to the North Pole without some form of flotation device. In 2008, during a 2,000 mile expedition across Greenland, he recalled watching an entire mile of glacier, the width of two Golden Gate Bridges, disappear into the ocean in a mere hour and 15 minutes.
Steger also talked about the impacts to wildlife like polar bears, walruses and seals––noting that the change in environment threatens their existence.
"My commitment is a moral issue. I see it as God's creation and we're causing that to change. We're causing some of the creatures to become extinct because of our choices," he said. "[Climate Change] is not a hoax or a joke. It's a reality."
For those still wavering on the "reality" of climate change and the release of carbon as the most significant factor, Drake began by impressing upon the need for individuals to seek expert based information from peer reviewed scientific literature.
"Everyone has an opinion," she said. "But if you have a question about climate science you should go to the people who publish climate science .... of the more than 4,000 academic papers published over the last 20 years, 97.1 percent agree that climate change is caused by human actions."
Drake noted that it's not as if the climate hasn't changed over time, "it certainly has," she said. But never at a rate, 100 times faster than anything in the past, like we're seeing now.
Page 2 of 3 - In a Summary for Policy Makers, issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it was noted that there was a 90 percent chance that global warming in the 20th century is human caused. Meanwhile, in May of 2011, the National Academy of Sciences stated that "Global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it's a great threat to society."
As to the nature of this threat, Drake pointed out just a couple of things as food for thought. She noted that the developments to agriculture and cities that have allowed our modern civilization to develop would not have been possible under conditions of a rapidly changing, chaotic climate that we are beginning to see today.
"With seven billion people on earth growing to nine billion by 2015, how are we going to feed everyone and maintain stable societies in such a rapidly changing set of ecosystems and rapidly changing political world," she asked. "It's not exactly as if the people on the coast lines can pack up and move to totally inhabited parts of the country."
Drake, while wanting to emphasize the urgency of the situation, was hardly a doom and gloomer. Instead she noted how major developments toward renewable energy and energy conservation are underway, and that they are proving to offer a number of social, economic and health incentives that should make the transition much more desirable.
"The good news is that there is no science that says humans will be wiped off the face of the earth. That's not the question before us," said Drake. "The question in front of is what will be the quality of life for humans and what will happen to our economy going forward. And what are the factors that we have some control over that we're going to feel good about moving forward with for our kids."
Drake pointed out the success of Minnesota's 2007 Next Generation Act, which requires all utilities in Minnesota to provide 25 percent of its energy through renewables such as wind, solar, bio-fuels and hydro.
According to Drake, every single utility in the state is on track to meet or surpass the benchmark, with Xcel en route to meet its own self-enforced standard of 30 percent renewables by 2020.
"The latest news," she said. "Is that Xcel Energy says it makes economic sense to (Minnesota) ratepayers to build an additional 750 MW of wind beyond the renewable energy standard. It would save ratepayers $180 million over alternatives, which would be to burn natural gas or coal."
Beyond its investment in wind, Xcel's conservation efforts are also paying dividends––as, according to Drake, the utility has said that it was able to use conservation-based efficiencies to avoid the need for 10 power plants.
"What we've found is that the good smart clean energy policy that we have in Minnesota will also grow good paying jobs at home. And what we found is our kids want those jobs, want to be in the clean energy and energy field going forward and want that for a high quality of life in Minnesota."
Page 3 of 3 - Drake said that on an annual basis, Minnesota alone spends $20 billion on energy and that a good portion of that is transferred outside the state. But by investing in renewables Minnesotans have an opportunity to keep their energy dollars in-house.
Highlighting opportunities for solar and wind investment, Drake pointed out that Minnesota's new "Solar Energy Jobs Act" has set a benchmark for utilities to produce 10 percent of the state's power by 2030 and how wind, which currently makes up 14.3 percent of the state's energy portfolio, has much more room for further development.
"There's a name for this area of the county in Washington," Drake said of the midwest. "It's called the Saudi Arabia of wind."