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Testifiers tell House panel climate isn’t the only thing changing

Minnesota goes to extremes. Major weather events have become a far more frequent occurrence in recent years, with increasingly long stretches of high heat indexes and low temperatures and our storms getting unusually lengthy and wet.

How that’s affecting various industries and communities around the state was the topic of Tuesday’s first meeting of the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee. Subjects included public health, farming, the wood products industry, the infrastructure of cities, and even trout fishing.

So Tuesday’s meeting was something of a storytelling session, with nine Minnesotans testifying of how they have had to adapt to changes that climate scientists believe are caused by greenhouse gas emissions. How the state addresses those emissions is expected to be an increasingly hot topic in legislative debates this session.

For all of the weather’s unpredictability in 2020, the extremes are unsurprising to experts like University of Minnesota Professor Emeritus Mark Seeley, who has warned during previous legislative testimony this was the direction the state was going. He presented these examples of 2020’s weather extremes:

  • a two-decade warming trend continued, with 2020 being the 12th warmest year since consistent record keeping began in 1895;
  • while 2019 was the wettest year in state history, 2020 was the 35th driest;
  • higher dew points than customary and more frequent heat advisories;
  • a recent increase in “mega-rainfall” events continued with a July 25-26 storm that produced 6 inches of rain over more than 1,000 square miles in southern Minnesota;
  • the snowiest October on record and the fifth coldest; and
  • by contrast, it was the 11th warmest November, with record highs each day from Nov. 4 to 7. The highest November dew point in history was also recorded.

So what does that mean for Minnesotans? Several perspectives were offered.

Craig Sterle, immediate past president of the Izaak Walton League’s Minnesota chapter, is a retired Department of Natural Resources forester who said warming winters and wet summers are “an existential threat to the logging industry.” He predicted that, if the current climate forecast holds, timber may be in shorter supply and mills may close.

Testifying remotely from outdoors on his farm was Tom Cotter of Mower County, who said sustainable agriculture is one way of circumventing some of the worst effects of heavy rainfalls.

House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee 1/12/21

“We’ve abused our soil to the point that it can’t infiltrate water,” he said. “We’re letting that rain run off into our rivers. With farm chemicals, we won’t have healthy fish. … And our $16 billion tourism industry is great, if you have clean water.”

Other testifiers included Rochester Sustainability Coordinator Lauren Jensen, who spoke of that city’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Holding a similar position in Duluth is Mindy Granley, who spoke of that city’s moves toward electrification and sustainable energy.

Written testimony from Meghan Hassett of the Union of Concerned Scientists offered examples from a new study with a set of three scenarios tied to varying rates at which greenhouse gas emissions are reduced.

“For Minnesota specifically, there have historically been eight days per year on average with a heat index above 90 degrees Fahrenheit,” she wrote. “With no action to steeply reduce emissions, this would increase to 34 days per year on average by midcentury and 60 days by century’s end. … With rapid action to curb global emissions, Minnesota would face 29 days per year with a heat index above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, instead of 60.”

Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen (R-Glencoe) said he would be sending a book to committee members that questions whether the existence of climate change is the overwhelming scientific consensus.

Seeley took issue with that supposition, citing his 50-plus years of experience among climatologists and saying that those who don’t accept climate change as fact are “an exceedingly small percentage.”

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