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The Midwest has a responsibility to combat climate change — and opportunities to benefit the region in doing so

On Saturday, Dec.

On Saturday, Dec. 12, Aurora Conley, a 25-year-old Ojibwe native of Bad River, Wis., walked at the leading edge of a 100,000-person march through the streets of Copenhagen — the largest climate mobilization in history, by many estimates — carrying with other indigenous people a banner that said “The World Wants a Real Deal.” The following Wednesday, she spoke at a press briefing on behalf of the International Forum of Indigenous Peoples on Climate Change.

“It was really imperative that we were at the front lines of the march, and that we’re at the front lines of the climate movement,” Conley said. “Indigenous peoples are the ones most impacted by climate change and the practices causing it. Our cultures and traditions are the ones that are dying first.” When asked for examples of these impacts, she spoke of close native friends who have developed cancer due to suspected exposure to toxic oil sand mining residues.

A local leader, Conley is studying to become a solar panel installation trainer for other Native Americans, and has worked with Winona LaDuke through the environmental organization Honor the Earth. At the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, she took her leadership global.

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Conley was in Copenhagen as one of 12 Midwestern young people attending the conference through Expedition Copenhagen, a partnership between the Will Steger Foundation and Stonyfield Farm. Like all of us on the Expedition, Conley used her time there to connect people in her community back home with this year’s historic deliberations in Copenhagen.

Midwest contributes 20% of U.S. greenhouse emissions
Expedition delegates hailed from seven states in the Upper Midwest: Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota. Our region’s voice matters greatly on climate change. The Midwest contributes 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions produced in the United States each year, largely because of its dependence on coal-fired electricity.

The region is also home to some of the U.S. Senate’s most critical swing votes on climate and energy — moderate Democrats like Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who understand the threat of climate change but fear the implications of carbon capping for the farming and manufacturing sectors in their economically troubled states.

By dealing with climate change proactively, Midwestern states can find opportunity amid the crisis. Our region has more natural wind-energy potential than any other in the United States, and a wealth of skilled workers, engineers and manufacturing infrastructure that we can use to lead the world in producing renewable energy systems.

We went to Copenhagen to tell the world what the Midwest has to lose, to gain, and to offer in this historic effort to respond to the climate crisis.

Human accounts lay out the true stakes
But we may have underestimated the true stakes of the challenge. In our interactions with other young people from around the world, we heard human accounts of climate change’s impacts. The power of these stories cannot be felt from the figures and statistics we read to prepare for this conference.

A boy from Bangladesh told us about becoming homeless after a typhoon destroyed his village and split his family apart.

A young man from Nairobi spoke about the four-year drought under way in Kenya. It is the longest drought anyone, even elderly people, can remember — crop yields have dropped off dramatically, and pastoralists watch helplessly as their livestock die.

A boy from the Maldives, a low-lying island chain in the Indian Ocean that will be washed away if sea levels rise much more than a meter, said that if his president signs a bad climate treaty, he will be signing a suicide pact for his country.

A reminder of Americans’ responsibility
Our experience has reminded us of the massive responsibility we face as Americans, and as Midwesterners.

We heard that the world is waiting for the United States to lead. We heard that President Obama is waiting for the backing of Congress. We heard that it is our Midwestern senators who must give Obama this sign.

We heard what is at stake, domestically and internationally. We have returned to the United States saying, “We must act.” Our states will determine how the rest of the world will view the United States on this critical issue of climate change.

Chris Detjen served as policy and partnerships coordinator, and Maia Dedrick was the logistics coordinator, for the Will Steger Foundation’s Expedition Copenhagen.