by Anna LaCombe
Last Friday, Minnesota held its fifth Environmental Congress at the University of Minnesota. The annual event is hosted by the Environmental Quality Board, the publishers of the annual Environment and Energy Report Card which serves as a touchstone for the day’s talks.
The 2017 Minnesota Environmental Congress convened on the heels of an onslaught of Executive Orders and Presidential Memoranda from the Trump administration–fulfilling its promise to peel back environmental regulations; including the most controversial projects, the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, which were given a green light to move forward with construction.
While uncertainty about environmental policy at the federal level was a running theme and loomed over the talks on Friday, there was also a renewed sense of optimism and a reaffirmed commitment to the values and traditions of Minnesotans as stewards of their natural world. Throughout the course of the day, speakers and panelists emphasized that Minnesota is a state that recognizes and appreciates its natural values. Minnesotans share a certain pride as its custodians and they would carry it into a greener future—even if this path is forged alone. In the afternoon breakout session “Adapting our Regulatory Tools to the Needs of Today,” panelist Jeff Smith, the Industrial Division Director at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, admitted that although the messages coming from the EPA are confusing, we are holding tight. In most cases Minnesota’s regulations are more stringent than federal law, something that ensures our progress.
In the opening address of the day, Governor Mark Dayton unveiled a new Water Quality goal “25 by ’25.” This goal is a commitment to improving water quality in Minnesota 25% by 2025 bringing together the public, local governments, farmers and scientists to achieve this benchmark; it does not include regulations. Without any alterations to Minnesota’s current course in addressing water quality, water quality is only set to improve 6 to 8% by 2034 and as of now, 40% of Minnesota’s waters are considered polluted or impaired.
The very notion of a gathering of environmentalists, policy experts, government representatives, social activists, scientists, professors and an interested public to discuss amongst other things, climate change, cannot help but be political in nature. The 2017 Environmental Congress was a collective acknowledgement of truth and the problems that we face—how we arrive at the solutions diverged from there. Speakers openly extolled the virtues of scientific reasoning and analysis and the existence of indisputable facts. As residents of Minnesota, we cannot disengage from the national conversation.
The Environmental Congress highlighted the heightened political polarization as it stands against the backdrop of our own state legislature. The vision for our state expressed by all the speakers on Friday is clearly not the same as what many legislators in this state envision for the future. If the bills introduced by our House and Senate are any indication, their vision includes rollbacks that would subvert government agencies designed to protect consumers, repealing clean water protections and limits on pesticides and other harmful chemicals, reversing strides we’ve made towards clean energy by repealing incentives for consumers to invest in clean energy and reducing subsidies for producers of clean energy. Watching the deluge of bills that strive to take us backwards, I have to ask: Is this really what Minnesotans want for their state? Is this what Minnesotans’ voted for? I don’t think so. To Paul Douglas’ point, and one made time and again throughout the day, environmental issues and the acknowledgement of climate change did not always fall on partisan lines. But for me and an entire generation, environmental issues in our living memory has always split along political divisions and we’ve allowed ourselves to take this as reality.
Ed Nater, Professor at the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate at the University of Minnesota, in his closing remarks reminded us of that famous statement; those who forget our past are doomed to relive it. He listed a whole host of past environmental disasters and crises that I couldn’t catch to jot down because, to his point, I had never heard of them. “Our children don’t know much of these disasters of the 1960s and 1970s. The reason they don’t know much about this is because this system works and that’s why we need to keep it.”
As was evinced by the 2017 Environmental Congress, part of the solution is taking back the message–co-opting the message from those who have distorted it–and by opening the discussion to encompass all people who have a stake in clean air, water, and climate stability and to learn from those who have never lost sight of their roles as stewards.