The recent severe flooding of Baton Rouge and Kansas City reminded me of the torrential rains and record flash floods that Minnesota has endured since 2002. There was the time Lake Minnetonka overflowed its banks, overwhelming local sewer systems and turning Minnehaha Creek into a torrent that flooded homes and threatened Methodist Hospital. Or the St. Paul flood that caused Taste of Minnesota to move from Harriet Island to Waconia. Or the June 2012 Duluth flood caused by a 10-inch rainfall that resulted in over $100 million in damages; even the zoo was underwater.
Baton Rouge is out of the headlines now, but the suffering and loss continue. As always Minnesotans are helping with donations, supplies and volunteer time. But as we wait for the next weather disaster we should reflect on what more we can do to help ourselves and our neighbors around the country in the face of increasingly frequent and severe storm events due to climate change.
With this in mind a new report from the Minnesota Environmental Quality Board (EQB) deserves close attention. The report, “Climate Solutions and Economic Opportunities” [PDF], outlines common-sense measures needed to ensure that Minnesota reaches the carbon emissions target established by the Next Generation Energy Act of 2007. This bold, bipartisan legislation signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty set the goal of 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2050. Although progress has been made, without urgent additional action Minnesota will fail to meet this important target.
Two-pronged approach recommended
We can get better control of dangerous climate trends by doubling down on those promises made in 2007. After all, between 2003 and 2012 our state emitted almost a billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas. The EQB, with input from a number of state agencies, recommends a two-pronged approach. First assess the risks that coming weather crises pose to our roads and bridges, businesses, farms, medical facilities, and communications/utility infrastructure. Then provide the resources and adapt emergency readiness plans around the state to handle these challenges. And second, accelerate our shift from fossil fuels to clean energy to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions while introducing programs to help keep carbon “in the ground.” Such programs would include preservation and restoration of forests and wilderness areas and increasing agricultural soil carbon retention with strategies such as the use of cover and perennial crops.
The report goes on to list a number of measures that can get us back on track. Among these are: raising the renewable-energy and energy-efficiency standards; accelerating the phase-out of coal plants (and not replacing them with natural gas); increasing the energy efficiency of our buildings and water treatment plants; and building out more and better mass transit options (and don’t forget bicycles!).
Controlling greenhouse emissions and pollution can save us a lot of money. After all, we spend over $11 billion a year just to pay for the coal and oil we import. In a 2013 research paper University of Minnesota economists calculated that the total damages from electricity generation in Minnesota from impacts to human health and the environment were $2.454 billion in 2006. Fossil-fuel-related air pollution alone costs Minnesotans over $800 million annually in higher health-care costs.
Clean-energy policies will improve our health. Binging on coal, oil and natural gas has meant more disease-carrying insects surviving our milder winters; warm-weather bugs moving northward toward us; longer pollen seasons causing more allergies and asthma; higher pollution and ozone levels leading to more lung and heart disease; and more frequent and intense heat events endangering agricultural and construction workers. And we mustn’t forget the pain and emotional distress of families dealing with flooded homes, businesses and farms.
Minnesota is a national leader in enlightened clean-energy awareness and action; we can’t drop the ball now. To paraphrase the old saying, if we are energy wise we can be healthier and wealthier — and do even more to help our fellow Americans in every state.
Bruce D. Snyder, M.D., FAAN, is a retired neurologist and a resident of St. Paul.
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