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Environmental inequality: the other Minnesota paradox

The preferences and priorities of the experts may be different from those of important stakeholders like people living in disadvantaged neighborhoods and those living in the tribal nations.

Addressing our environmental concerns calls for more inclusive decision makers to be a part of the process.
Addressing our environmental concerns calls for more inclusive decision makers to be a part of the process.
Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board

The fact Minnesota can be recognized widely as being a good place for environmental protection and yet still fail to deliver in a number of important areas shows many parallels with the paradox that the state is simultaneously both good and bad for Black people in which to live. 

The two connect.

Despite the environmental accolades, there are some serious challenges for this state; surface waters that fail to support beneficial uses, soils that are contaminated with forever chemicals, atmospheric pollution from wildfires and vehicles and problems in homes with contaminants like lead in paint and pipes. Those living in older properties and without health insurance are more at risk from environmental contaminants than the rest.

To address these anomalies three areas need attention – more coherent decision-making, more inclusive decision-making and paying more attention to both in responding to funding opportunities.

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 Coherence 

Major barriers to achieving equitably and sustainably are decision-making siloes. There are at least seven state agencies involved in protecting water resources. Responsibilities for safe drinking water change with agency from source to sink, meaning that decisions about if, where and how to treat contaminants are not optimized.

Responding to climate change will involve all of the many state agencies and again there are opportunities for confusion.

The states’ Environmental Quality Board could provide oversight but needs leadership independent from the constituent agencies to deliver more strategically. A Clean Water Council, set up to administer tax money from the so-called Legacy Amendment to the state Constitution, by definition has focus on water. At the governor’s level there is a sub-cabinet dealing with climate change, but that needs a broader remit, otherwise promoting climate change policy can cause unexpected problems in other sectors. For example, choosing between electrical storage batteries only based on their ability to reduce carbon dioxide ignores the pollution that they can cause to soils and water from chemicals released on disposal.

Sustainable environmental policy needs more holistic oversight and that is limited in this state.

Inclusivity

The state bodies are crammed with technical experts. This is as it should be to address the wickedly complex technical issues associated with environment degradation. But for these kinds of problems there will rarely be just one solution, but rather a set of alternatives. The preferences and priorities of the experts may be different from those of important stakeholders like people living in disadvantaged neighborhoods and those living in the tribal nations.

Technical elitism can lead to resentment and has been linked with the rise of populism.

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Funding

Delivering more effectively and equitably is not just about governance; it is also about public investment — and the investments are big. For example, getting rid of lead supply lines from the drinking water system alone would cost this state $4 billion over 20 years with responsibility currently resting with owners. Billions are needed in converting to renewables, upgrading the grid, improving property insulation, electrifying transport and defending against more flooding.

Peter Calow
Peter Calow
Money is available from the Clean Water Fund to the tune of about a third of a billion dollars each year. And even more will soon be on the way from the Federal Infrastructure and Jobs Act. 

The state should have a high-level group for strategic thinking on sustainable environmental policy options, but then decisions on priorities need to be refined by preferences elicited across all the important stakeholders including the tribal nations. There will undoubtedly be urgency and political pressures to act as more funds flow so it will be impractical to ask everybody about options all the time. Community leaders will be important. Increasingly, though, we should involve the power of the internet, big data and crowdsourcing in informing decisions.

To deliver for the economy, environment and people taking account of the present and future generations needs a holistic approach. Balancing the inevitable trade-offs in a way that is transparent and sensitive to public preferences is the challenge. The state has a way to go in delivering on this. 

Peter Calow is a professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.