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Minnesotans who went to climate summit returned both distressed and ready to work

This work starts by listening more to the voices of Indigenous communities and our young people, and working in partnership with them to make sure we keep moving forward.

Helen Burnett, an Anglican priest from London, and Julia Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interpower Faith & Light, standing in front of hundreds of prayer squares stitched together into a quilt by delegates from Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light.
Helen Burnett, an Anglican priest from London, and Julia Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interpower Faith & Light, standing in front of hundreds of prayer squares stitched together into a quilt by delegates from Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light.
Photo courtesy of Julia Nerbonne

Minnesotans made their presence felt last month at the U.N. Climate Conference of Parties (COP26). More than 60 of us were in Glasgow for the two-week summit with a wide variety of perspectives represented: Indigenous leaders, students, youth climate activists, environmental and faith leaders, elected officials, renewable energy developers, health professionals and academic researchers.

Our state’s presence was made known visually, as well. Each day, as delegates from across the globe entered the conference’s main gates, they were greeted by hundreds of prayer squares stitched together into a quilt by delegates from Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light. The message was clear: Minnesotans are here and we want to be part of the global solutions to climate change.

The climate summit concluded with the Glasgow Pact, an agreement signed by all 197 nations in attendance. Among the highlights, countries have recommitted to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and finalized the rules for implementing the Paris agreement. New strategies include the Global Methane Pledge, the Declaration on Forests and Land Use, and a “phase down” of coal.

The group returned to Minnesota distressed that more was not accomplished. One of the biggest disappointments was that negotiators failed to create a mechanism for funding the “loss and damage” caused by climate change. This would compensate certain nations, like low-income and low-lying states, that are already experiencing the destruction wreaked by the climate crisis. Seve Paeniu, climate minister from the now-sinking island of Tuvalu, told attendees that COP26 is “a matter of life and survival for many of us.”

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But we also come back with a renewed and more urgent commitment to fight climate change here at home. Midwestern states, taken together, account for 33 percent of all U.S. emissions, and the U.S. is the second-largest polluter in the world. Minnesota must do its part, which means we have work to do.

This work starts by listening more to the voices of Indigenous communities and our young people, and working in partnership with them to make sure we keep moving forward. Much like the citizens of Tuvalu, they’ve contributed relatively little to climate change and yet stand to lose the most if we fail to act.

“We need people in power to do better. The governments of the world are too afraid to do anything big or bold, but we cannot afford to share their fear,” said Ashley Fairbanks, an Anishinaabe artist and one of Climate Generation’s Minnesota delegates.

To fulfill this commitment, we must start by prioritizing an update to the Next Generation Energy Act (NGEA). In 2007, Minnesotans came together and led the nation in adopting science-based standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The NGEA required utilities to produce 25 percent of their energy using renewable resources by the year 2025 and reduce energy sales by 1 to 1.5 percent each year.  That goal is now out of date.

The Minnesota House of Representatives passed the Next Generation Climate Act to update the 2007 law. The new bill mandates reductions in greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors with a goal of 45 percent by 2030 and net zero by 2050. In addition, the 100 percent Clean Energy bill, which calls for 100 percent clean energy by 2040, also passed the House. Neither of these bills has even gotten a hearing in the Minnesota Senate. We need the Senate to act to update these laws so we are keeping in step with climate science and our national commitments.

We also need to accomplish this work by putting more accountability in place to ensure government entities follow the targets in their actions, and that they embed racial and climate justice in implementation. This includes everything from more transparent environmental review of energy projects to better representation from Brown, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) within decision-making bodies like the Public Utilities Commission. We must ensure that we factor in environmental justice when assessing each new measure, because for too long, people of color have had our society’s waste and pollution forced upon their communities in ways that others have not.

“On the days when I feel hopeless, I need to remember that there are others who are with me, who are ready to see the possibilities and not give up,” said Bella Garioch, a youth delegate and student at Macalester College.

If 197 countries can agree to dramatically address climate change, Minnesotans can accomplish something similar here as well. Our responsibility to future generations demands no less.

This piece was written by Prof. Roopali Phadke, Macalester College, and state Rep. Frank Hornstein of  Minneapolis. This piece was also signed by: state Rep. Patty Acomb, who represents Minnetonka, Plymouth and Woodland; Ellen Anderson, climate program director, Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy; great-grandmother Mary Lyons, Ojibwe Wisdom Keeper and Elder U.N. Observer; Beth Mercer-Taylor, co-program director, Sustainability Education, University of Minnesota, and Julia Nerbonne, executive director, Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light.