By Marshall Helmberger
REGIONAL—A partnership of organizations working to engage Minnesotans on the issue of climate change brought their efforts to Virginia this past week. They’ve launched what they’re calling Climate Minnesota: Local Stories, Community Solutions, as a way to highlight both the big picture of climate change and inspire people to take action on sustainability in their own communities.
Lead sponsors include the University of Minnesota’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnership, and Climate Generation, a group founded by Ely explorer Will Steger, who keynoted the Thursday night event at Mesabi Community College before an audience of about 80 people.
Steger, one of the modern era’s most accomplished polar explorers and educators, told of how his experiences in the Arctic convinced him that climate change was not an issue for the future, but was having dramatic effects today. Steger, who along with Paul Schurke and others, was the first to reach the North Pole by dogsled without resupply back in the 1980s, said such a journey today would be virtually impossible due to the rapid disappearance of ice on the Arctic Ocean.
“Already, by the 1990s, it was almost impossible to reach the North Pole by dog sled,” he said. That trend of disappearing ice has only intensified and has forced Arctic adventures to modify their travel methods. On one of his most recent trips, Steger used modified canoes that served as both dogsleds and boats, allowing his team to traverse the vast leads that rarely existed as recently as the 1980s.
He said the tipping point for him came in 2002 when he read of the collapse of the Larson B ice shelf in Antarctica. Steger remembered crossing the shelf years earlier. “It was 300 miles and took 30 days to cross, and the whole thing disintegrated. That’s when I realized that this was happening now. So I changed my life and in 2005 formed the Will Steger Foundation.” The foundation has now become Climate Generation, a name that highlights Steger’s belief that the current generation of young people will need to make the changes in society necessary to head off the worst effects of climate change.
And while Steger has witnessed firsthand the dramatic changes in the polar regions, where models have long predicted the effects of climate change would occur more rapidly, he said the impacts are increasingly being seen everywhere, including here in Minnesota. He said those effects are raising the awareness of the public of the dangers posed by climate change. “There’s been a big change in the public in the last couple years,” said Steger. “We all have our own stories of the climate and things happening that we haven’t seen before.”
Steger cited extraordinary heat and drought in the western U.S. and Alaska, events like the Pagami Creek Fire and the massive deluge that swamped the Duluth area in 2013, as examples of how climate-related events are becoming increasingly extreme and frequent.
Steger’s observations were reinforced by John Latimer, a Grand Rapids phenologist, who is well known for his weekly phenology (the study of the seasonal nature of natural events) on KAXE radio. Latimer, who has been tracking seasonal events in the region for over thirty years, noted the spread of new species, like cardinals and red-bellied woodpeckers, as well as the consistently earlier dates for things like the leaf-out of aspen.
Looking for solutions
Among other speakers at the event was Jason Edens, director of the Minnesota-based Rural Renewable Energy Alliance. Edens noted that he grew up in a low-income household where it wasn’t uncommon to have to choose between heating and eating, a condition he refers to as fuel poverty. While many low-income families turn to federal heating assistance to help make ends meet, Edens called that a $5 billion-a-year band-aid approach and said he began to look for alternatives that would provide low-income families with longer-term energy security. When someone gave him a solar energy system for free, he said the savings it generated made all the difference for his family. “We didn’t need energy assistance anymore,” he said.
From that experience, he founded his organization, and over the past 15 years his group and a dedicated group of volunteers have delivered over 500 solar power systems to low-income families to help reduce their fuel poverty. “We can move people from impoverished to empowered,” he said. Edens is also a strong supporter of the concept of community solar, which he called an emerging model that can serve multiple families to reduce their energy costs. “It’s an important tool in the fight against poverty,” he said, even as it helps to reduce our generation of carbon emissions.
Steve Callahan, who owns and operates Green Gate Guest Houses, in Biwabik, talked about his concept for building well-designed small guest houses as a way to inspire visitors about the pleasures of small and energy-efficient homes. Callahan, an engineer by training, said he himself was inspired by small and unique hostels on a trekking trip in the Andes and he’s recreating the concept on the eastern Iron Range. “I wanted to reconnect people with nature, and learn more about sustainable development,” he said. Callahan incorporates high energy efficiency into his designs and makes extensive use of recycled and repurposed materials in his projects. While most of his guest houses are quite small, just a few hundred square feet, his latest project includes an exceptionally small guest house, just 96 square feet. He said such mini-houses are alternatives to the large, expensive, and energy-consuming homes that have become the norm in the U.S. “This lets people experience different housing options, and hopefully gets them thinking,” he said.
Last week’s event was put on with financial backing from the state’s Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund, the McKnight Foundation, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Loll Designs.
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