What it’s like being a scientist in the GOP-led Legislature

After intense lobbying by Great River Energy, the compliant Republican-led state Legislature approved lifting the restrictions on coal-fired power plants. Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the measure, but last-minute negotiations left in place a provision that allowed electricity from North Dakota’s coal-fired Spiritwood plant to be imported into Minnesota.

Now, despite the political maneuvering, the Spiritwood plant is being shutdown. Great River Energy, which spent $437 million to build the lignite coal plant, says an unforeseen set of economic conditions in the energy field and customer base makes the project impractical to operate.

State Rep. Kate Knuth told me, “We spent a lot of time in the Legislature debating and passing the lifting of restrictions on the importation of coal fired electricity — just for this project.”

Rep. Kate Knuth
Rep. Kate Knuth

Knuth is in her third term in the Legislature. She is a DFLer from New Brighton. She voted against lifting the restrictions. Knowing her background, one has a right to have expected her opposition. She is a rare sort of politician. She is a scientist.

She is getting her doctorate at the University of Minnesota as a conservation biologist. Her science resume is full of interesting things. She was a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Oslo and picked up her masters of science at Oxford. She currently coordinates the Boreas Environmental Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

Her knowledge of science, as well as her party affiliation, usually finds her in the minority. In her position on Energy Subcommittee, as well as the Environment, Energy and Natural Resources Policy and Finance Committee, she is often disregarded by her Republican colleagues.

I asked her if she really liked it in that political kitchen.

“I’ll tell you why I’m a politician,” she said. “I think we need politicians who are willing to look at the evidence and think about our values and future. We need more politicians who are proud to be working together to create a better future.” 

Ideology ahead of science
Politicians in Minnesota’s Legislature and in the U.S. Congress grab headlines by openly taking positions against established science. According to Shawn Otto in his book “Fool Me Twice — Fighting the Assault on Science in America,” politicians are putting party ideology ahead of scientific evidence.

 I asked Knuth whether she sees that at the Minnesota Capitol. “I don’t think our elected officials are looking at the evidence clearly about the physical realities in which we live. To not look at that evidence is a disservice to the public. It can have serious consequences for our country and our world.

“Our national security depends on looking at the evidence and understanding it,” Knuth adds.

As an example, polls continue to show that the majority of Americans believe there is still a scientific debate over global warming, while polls of published climate scientists show a 97 percent agreement that the planet is warming and humans are causing it by burning fossil fuels and poor land practices. 

Scientists have been trying to figure out what that is happening. More and more information is coming out showing a direct link between the anti-science political motives and contributions from the fossil fuel industry. It seems big oil and coal have better public relations agents than scientists. The belief in the idea that there is still a debate over the fundamentals of climate change has also been traced to fossil fuel front groups. Knuth says she and her colleagues regularly receive publications denying the science from the conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation, among others. 

‘Politics requires patience’
I asked Knuth if she sometimes wanted to pull her hair out when she is forced to listen to her opponents in the Legislature misrepresent the known science. “Politics requires patience,” she says. “The whole system is set up to allow huge numbers of politicians to deny physical reality.”

Knuth says she hopes she can continue to have an open conversation with her science-denying colleagues. “I keep hoping we will see heroes emerge in this debate. Am I sometimes angry and frustrated? Yes. But I intend to work with individuals to help shift the system.”

But is Knuth willing to take on Republicans on the battlefield of the economy? I asked her whether the scientific argument isn’t falling on the ears of people who are only listening to news of an improving economy.

“If we don’t have to go to other states and other countries for our fuel, that is a great economic advantage for Minnesotans,” she says.

Knuth points out that Minnesota has no natural gas, no coal, no oil and no uranium. “But we do have abundant wind, a surprising amount of solar energy and a bunch of really smart people who want to go to work to build the next generation of energy,” she says.

The opposition at the Legislature to renewable energy leaves Knuth puzzled. “So I don’t get, as a legislator, why you would promote sources of power that we have to import from out of state, and send our money out of state, and be reliant on other places for our energy systems.

“If we can concentrate on energy-efficiencies and conservation,” she says, “we don’t have to build expensive, old technology power plants. That would be a savings for us in both the long and short term.”

She adds: “I haven’t even mentioned the benefits to our lakes and rivers and to our agriculture.  The health benefits of cleaner energy are an economic savings in itself.”

Knuth is sometimes frustrated and angry as a scientist working among non-scientist politicians — but she is happy to be in the statehouse. “I don’t think there is a better time to be a politician in this country than right now,” she says. “There are big problems facing us, and we are being asked to come up with the solutions.  So while it is often frustrating, it is incredibly invigorating to be there. And when we turn it around, it is going to be really fun.”

Kate Knuth says she believes in politics and leadership. She says, “I hope more young people see that being a politician is something they might strive for — and to see it as something noble.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell Rep. Knuth that her last statement was not based on the current state of the evidence.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/08/2011 - 09:40 am.

    Noble? I don’t think simply becoming a politician is noble. But there are definitely politicians who do things that make their position noble. They’re few and far between in my view.

    So, maybe not intrinsically noble, but necessary. I have, nagging in the back of my mind, the idea that some day, I might try to join Rep. Knuth as a scientist in politics. I’m political and scientifically knowledgable. I’m no climate scientist, but I have the critical thinking and comprehension skills to understand the science–directly from the scientists. That’s the important part. We can all read a news article and suck the foam off the top of the topic, but news articles (even your pieces, Don) can’t give us the full brew underneath. Reading peer-reviewed journal articles is daunting for most people without the scientific background to know how to read them and comprehend them. But they’re the closest source of information to the real truth.

    Rep. Knuth has far more patience, and probably far more tact than I do. As much as I would consider being a scientist-politician (later in my life, mind you–I love my job too much to jeopardize it with the time it takes to be a politician), I have my doubts as to whether I could be elected, let alone stay elected long enough to make a difference. My brain to mouth filter frequently fails and I too often say what I mean. Not to say that Rep. Knuth doesn’t say what she means, but reading what she said above, I’d say she says what she means more nicely than I do.

  2. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 12/08/2011 - 10:00 am.

    I don’t know if all politicians are noble. I think they can be. I think Kate Knuth is.

  3. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 12/08/2011 - 11:23 am.

    “It seems big oil and coal have better public relations agents than scientists.”

    That’s an understatement. But we got some talented folk on the right side of this issue, too.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/08/2011 - 01:13 pm.

    Can’t speak to Rep. Knuth’s scientific background and knowledge, but it certainly appears – and this is not a compliment – that she’s mastered much of the necessary political ability: “I’ll tell you why I’m a politician,” she said. “I think we need politicians who are willing to look at the evidence and think about our values and future. We need more politicians who are proud to be working together to create a better future.” That’s as good a non-answer to Don’s question of whether she actually likes it in the legislature as I think we’re likely to come across.

    As I get more ancient, I also have less patience with political double-speak. Much of the rest of what Rep. Knuth has to say not only makes more sense, it’s more honest and less evasive. That part I like. I don’t agree with most of what current Republicans support and champion, but I do admire the integrity of some of them who simply say what they think, even if what they think is appalling. It gives me a little window into who they really are, and why I don’t want to vote for them, ever, no matter what political party they belong to.

    “…So I don’t get, as a legislator, why you would promote sources of power that we have to import from out of state, and send our money out of state, and be reliant on other places for our energy systems….” sounds like someone who’s not getting already-prepared bills from ALEC, and isn’t taking sizable campaign contributions from out-of-state energy companies. If that’s true, it’s a minor miracle that she’s a third-termer, regardless of party affiliation, but maybe that means there’s some hope, still.

  5. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 12/08/2011 - 03:17 pm.

    Ray, how is she giving a non-answer? You want something that fits a bumpersticker? Maybe “like” is the wrong word. Maybe she thinks it’s useful or necessary. Sometimes a job matters, even if you don’t “like” it.

  6. Submitted by Jeff Kline on 12/08/2011 - 03:52 pm.

    Being a scientist is one thing.

    Furthering your career is another.

    We’ve already discovered many of these so-called scientists who backed Al Gore were all on the take anyway and their data was largely made up to represent that. Then; they got busted.

    The truth will always come out in the end.

    The real scientists are making positive advances for humanity and the environment.

  7. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 12/08/2011 - 03:56 pm.

    I would love to see more scientists in politics – people who think rationally, and use evidence and data to make decisions. Unfortunately, politics attracts the wrong people.

  8. Submitted by Lance Groth on 12/08/2011 - 04:10 pm.


    “We’ve already discovered many of these so-called scientists who backed Al Gore were all on the take anyway and their data was largely made up to represent that. Then; they got busted.”

    We have? When did we discover that? If you’re talking about “climate-gate”, what we learned in the end is that there is no “there”, there. The data are sound, the research was solid and verified through peer-review, and all we have are some grumpy scientists justifiably p.o.’d about being demonized by the lying denialists (and, I might add, having their private communications stolen – funny how the right thinks breaking the law is fine as long as it serves right wing politics). This was all verified by, what, 4 separate reviews?

    Honestly, I don’t know how people can be so confused. That’s the charitable interpretation, since the alternative is blatant dishonesty.

    “people who think rationally, and use evidence and data to make decisions. ”

    Yup, that’s what we need more of, in politics and elsewhere. Too bad that’s not reflected in your first post.

  9. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/08/2011 - 04:14 pm.

    “I think we need politicians who are willing to look at the evidence and think about our values…”

    Curiously, that same credo guides the warmer “scientist” community.

    It’s a good thing it hasn’t permeated the astro-physics field, or we’d have “scientists” running around denouncing radio-telescope exploration of the universe as an unwarranted intrusion upon the privacy of other life-forms.

  10. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/08/2011 - 04:58 pm.

    Jeff (#6) the truth may well come out in the end, just not from you.

    I don’t know if you are being dishonest or are misinformed, but your claim that the data was made up and that the scientists were on the take – whatever exactly that means – is false.

  11. Submitted by Steve Taylor on 12/08/2011 - 05:38 pm.

    Science is about facts, not politically motivated consensus. Kate Knuth is as much a scientist as a tree surgeon is qualified to practice medicine.

    She won’t/can’t intelligently refute the recent “climate-gate” findings that, at the very least, strongly indicate that this man-made climate change nonsense is a hoax based on manipulated data and flat-out lies for the purpose of advancing a radical left-wing political agenda and securing funding for academia. Her standard argument of “I reject your premise” to the mountain of evidence that refutes her politically motivated stance doesn’t reflect a lot of thinking, critical or otherwise. On the other hand she is an accomplished politician, very adept at getting re-elected in spite of no substantive knowledge or legislative accomplishments.

  12. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/08/2011 - 06:09 pm.


    To answer the question that the title of your column asks, pretty much the same job it was when the legislature was DFL controlled. Knuth was elected in 2006, so she has served mostly in a DFL controlled legislature. This is the first time of heard of her.

  13. Submitted by Lance Groth on 12/08/2011 - 06:40 pm.

    Thomas – I nominate you to lead an effort to change the name of the Grand Old Party (GOP) to the Glowering Anti-Science Party (GASP).

    Seems appropriate – by the time you guys finish suppressing science and trashing the environment we’ll all be GASPing for fresh air (in more ways than one).

    Just trying to help…

  14. Submitted by Rick Conrad on 12/08/2011 - 07:55 pm.

    Too bad no one in government studies both science and economics. Then we might actually get good economic policy based on real sceince. Wind produces power when the wind is blowing hard enough, when the wind dies down we still need power. Unless we build new nuclear or new fossil fuel generators where does this backup power come from???
    Wind turbine construction produces so much CO2 just during the construction stage that a turbine must produce power effentively and reliably for 15 to 16 years just to break even. If the turbine has a service life of 20 years are wind turbines worth the bother???
    If there is 4 to 5 times enough wind energy available to replace our total current electrical usage, doesn’t that also mean that we must cover 20 to 25 percent of our total land area just to meet our current electrical needs with wind turbines??? What about the displaced residents who pays for their relocation??
    A fair minded person would ask all of the above questions before saddling the taxpayers with what will prove to be an expensive unworkable energy policy disaster.

  15. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/08/2011 - 09:51 pm.

    Rick (#14) A scientist from a renewable energy company said recently that if Minnesota were to install one wind tower in every square mile of the state, they would produce about 80% of our current energy use and needs.

    I’d guess that solar and natural gas would easily make up the difference.

    I’m not a scientist, but I believe the wind does not have to be blowing all the time because the electricity produced goes into the grid.

  16. Submitted by Tim Larson on 12/08/2011 - 10:35 pm.

    “What about the displaced residents who pays for their relocation??”

    More importantly what about he birds!!!!

  17. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/09/2011 - 10:15 am.

    No one can logically refute the illogic that is “Climate Gate.” It’s like trying to reason with a child that insists that the monster IS in the closet, no matter how many times you turn on the light and inspect the closet. No proof will ever satisfy the fantasy.

  18. Submitted by Geoff Thomas on 12/09/2011 - 11:27 am.

    I remember when some of the climate change/global warming discussion was on the House floor last session. Rep. Knuth talked about the science of it all. Next up to rebuke was Rep. Drazkowski, with the view that the debate is completely rubbish. His reasoning; he drove past the Sears store opposite the State Capitol that day and there was still a huge pile of snow stacked up in the parking lot! Government by anecdote, seemingly everything modern politics has become.

  19. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/09/2011 - 06:40 pm.


    Below, I cut/pasted a gem from Don’s MinnPost column of Dec. 1, 2001.

    “In the Twin Cities, he said, “the heat index at midnight on July 20th was still 100 degrees F, perhaps the only time it has been so high that late at night.””

    Heat index is soft data for which there is really no history, and even so, the statement had to be couched with “perhaps”.

    Anecdotal data is like that; the more you give the more you get. A wise man once told me to never accept anecdotal data, but to use it when ever you can get away with it. Some of us are here to hold Don accountable.

  20. Submitted by Tim Larson on 12/09/2011 - 08:21 pm.

    #17 “No one can logically refute the illogic that is “Climate Gate.”

    Rachel, I’ve tried but Don or whoever the moderator is chose not to publish my comment, so I’ll try again.

    Please “logically refute” the comments of the late John Daly.

    Date: Sat, 10 Feb 2001 21:47:57 +1100
    From: “John L. Daly”
    To: Chick Keller
    CC: “P. Dietze”, mmaccrac, Michael E Mann, rbradley, wallace, Thomas Crowley, Phil Jones, McKitrick, Nigel Calder, John Christy, Jim Goodridge, Fred Singer, k.briffa
    Subject: Re: Hockey Sticks again
    Dear Chick & all

    [I think Chick Keller wrote:]

    the first is Keith Briffa’s rather comprehensive treatment of getting climate variations from tree rings: Annual climate variability in the Holocene: “interpreting the message of ancient trees”, Quaternary Science Reviews, 19 (2000) 87-105. It should deal with many of the questions people raise about using them to determine temperatures.

    Take this from first principles.

    A tree only grows on land. That excludes 70% of the earth covered by water. A tree does no grow on ice. A tree does not grow in a desert. A tree does not grow on grassland-savannahs. A tree does not grow in alpine areas. A tree does not grow in the tundra We are left with perhaps 15% of the planet upon which forests grow/grew. That does not make any studies from tree rings global, or even hemispheric.

    The width and density of tree rings is dependent upon the following variables which cannot be reliably separated from each other. sunlight – if the sun varies, the ring will vary. But not at night of course.

    cloudiness – more clouds, less sun, less ring.

    pests/disease – a caterpillar or locust plague will reduce photosynthesis

    access to sunlight – competition within a forest can disadvantage or advantage some trees.

    moisture/rainfall – a key variable. Trees do not prosper in a drought even if there’s a heat wave.

    snow packing in spring around the base of the trees retards growth temperature – finally!

    The tree ring is a composite of all these variables, not merely of temperature. Therefore on the 15% of the planet covered by trees, their rings do not and cannot accurately record temperature in isolation from the other environmental variables.

    In my article on Greening Earth Society on the Hockey Stick, I point to other evidence which contradicts Mann’s theory. The Idso’s have produced more of that evidence, and a new article on Greening Earth has `unearthed’ even more.

    Mann’s theory simply does not stack up. But that was not the key issue. Anyone can put up a dud theory from time to time. What is at issue is the uncritical zeal with which the industry siezed on the theory before its scientific value had been properly tested. In one go, they tossed aside dozens of studies which confirmed the existence of the MWE and LIA as global events, and all on the basis of tree rings – a proxy which has all the deficiencies I have stated above.

    The worst thing I can say about any paper such as his is that it is `bad science’. Legal restraint prevents me going further. But in his case, only those restraints prevent me going *much* further.

    John Daly

    John L. Daly
    `Still Waiting For Greenhouse’

  21. Submitted by John Monahan on 12/10/2011 - 02:21 am.

    Don Shelby was always an unbiased reporter without an agenda. To laugh.

    The field of science stretches far and wide. Sorry, but a conservation biologist is not anything close to a climate scientist.

  22. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/10/2011 - 10:53 am.

    Rep. Drazkowski’s remarks were based on direct observation, while Rep. Knuth’s remarks were based on theory.

  23. Submitted by Bob Tourdot on 12/10/2011 - 03:54 pm.

    I find Don Shelby’s writing to be informative and educational. He seems pretty measure in his tone. He generally likes to structure it as a story teller where in the end he refers back to the beginning and I like that as well, so I hope he keeps writing.

    The deniers remind me of Monty Python’s department of arguments, where there case comes down to – no it’s not –

    I find it interesting how easy it is to get republicans/deniers to believe something they want to believe, how vaccinations are bad for you, cutting taxes on the rich reduces the deficit, evolution is just a theory like creationism, cutting regulations will grow the economy, and how much real data they can ignore when it conflicts with what they want to believe.

    I don’t think the problem is that the scientists are not being convincing enough – they don’t have millions to mount a PR campaign; they don’t lie, cheat, and steal (in general, – they are human). To paraphrase an old saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him think”

  24. Submitted by Richard Lee Dechert on 12/11/2011 - 12:31 am.

    I first became concerned about the fate of our planet and its species in 1972 when I read the Club of Rome’s prophetic but sadly ignored “The Limits to Growth.” Its world-system models projected that unless the human species limited its population growth, resource consumption and environmental pollution, the system would collapse sometime in the 21st century.

    And that’s precisely what’s happening now with world population exceeding seven billion and going to nine billion by 2050; limited natural resources being excessively consumed; oceans acidifying and coral reefs dying; glaciers and snow packs disappearing; low-level islands and seashores flooding; other lands becoming deserts; storms, heat waves and other natural disasters becoming more frequent and severe; and increasing numbers of humans and other species dying or fleeing ravaged regions because of the effects of human-generated greenhouse gases and other major pollutants.

    So I have zero tolerance for people like #6, #8, #11, #19, #20, #22 and possibly #9 who seem to be dysfunctionally denying that reality and doing nothing to responsibly address it. With mean atmospheric CO2 continuing to exceed 390 parts-per-million since the onset of the First Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 1730’s and the Second Industrial Revolution in the U.S. in the 1860’s, our planet is already locked into decades of global warming. Yet the fossil-fuel industry funded U.S Republican Party is apparently the only major political party in the world that has adopted an official policy of denying that reality and doing nothing to reduce global warming and adapt to its adverse impacts.

    No elected or appointed official in local, regional, state or federal government who supports that policy should be in office–and that includes the GOP members of the Minnesota Legislature. Senator Knuth, in the 2012 session you and your DFL colleagues must be much more forceful in countering that ecocidal policy!

  25. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/11/2011 - 03:30 pm.

    Richard (#24):

    Thanks for self identifying as intolerant. Perhaps you’ve not heard of the concept of “respect for diversity”.

    “BP and its employees have given more than $3.5 million to federal candidates over the past 20 years, with the largest chunk of their money going to Obama”

    This, according to a 2010 Politico article: http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0510/36783.html

    It seems the DFL is dripping in fossil fuel money, while claiming that Big Oil is funding the GOP.

  26. Submitted by Richard Lee Dechert on 12/11/2011 - 04:49 pm.

    Mr. Rose, I respect and encourage “diversity”–not incompetency, dishonesty and outright psychopathology. That’s what denial of scientifically verifed human-induced global warming and its increasingly catastrophic impacts is. And I have “zero tolerance” for that as should every responsible citizen.

    I have Stage IV terminal cancer. My first grandchild was born on August 31, and as investigative journalist Mark Hertsgaard says in his remarkable 2011 book “HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth,” my grandchild is now a member of “Generation Hot”–the two billion children who will have to cope with adverse climate impacts and other related impacts for the rest of their lives. What, if anything, are you doing to lessen their load?

    Members of both parties in the White House, Congress and Minnesota Legislature have indeed received and been influenced by “fossil fuel money.” But if you carefully monitored the 2011 session of the Minnesota Legislature, you should know that the ALEC-“inspired” GOP House and Senate majorities attempted to virtually gut our state’s progressive environmental legislation at a time when it’s crucially needed. A large majority of the DFL’ers in the House and Senate minorities opposed those attempts, and DFL Governor Dayton vetoed nearly all of them.

    I will closely monitor and if possible testify in behalf of reducing global warming and adapting to its local and regional impacts in the 2012 session that starts in January. What will you do for youself and your heirs?

    Correction: That should be Rep. Knuth.

  27. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/12/2011 - 04:33 pm.

    Richard (#26):

    While I can understand a claim to respect diversity, you will need to explain how you encourage diversity.

    Diversity is a fact, and while you claim to respect it, you provide evidence to the contrary. Real diversity goes deeper than skin tone to what people think and believe, and how they view the world. Those that don’t share your views are psychopaths? Perhaps you need to rethink your claims on respect for diversity.

    As Robert Hoppe pointed out following Don’s last AGW column, “Canada, the country furthest from meeting its commitment to cut carbon emissions under the Kyoto Protocol, may save as much as $6.7 billion by exiting the global climate change agreement and not paying for offset credits.

    The country’s greenhouse-gas emissions are almost a third higher than 1990 levels, and it has a 6 percent CO2 reduction target for the end of 2012. If it couldn’t meet its goal, Canada would have to buy carbon credits, under the rules of the legally binding treaty.


    Canada is home to less than 0.5% of the world’s population, about 34 million. They have placed themselves on the hook for $6.7 billion. The math shows that each person in Canada would pay about $200/year, a family of five would pay $1000. For what? The flow of money does not cool the planet. It just takes money from families that earned it and need it, and squanders it. Is that the world you choose to leave to your children?

  28. Submitted by Richard Lee Dechert on 12/14/2011 - 09:36 am.

    Mr. Rose, my #26 statement on “diversity” is the final one: “I respect and encourage
    ‘diversity’–not incompetency, dishonesty and outright psychopathology. That’s what denial of scientifically verifed (sic) human-induced global warming and its increasingly catastrophic impacts is. And I have ‘zero tolerance’ for that as should every responsible citizen.”

    In #27 you ask, “Those that don’t share your views are psychopaths?”

    Denying the reality of human-induced global warming and its increasingly catastrophic effects, and undermining crucial public and private efforts to reverse and adapt to warming is indeed pathological behavior. Hertsgaard whom I cite in #26 and whose book is dedicated to his five-year old daughter, also correctly calls it criminal behavior. The only other behavior that could be more pathological is nuclear warfare–and that risk will likely increase as conflicts between nations and growing populations escalate over dwindling life-sustaining resources.

    So, Mr. Rose, if you don’t like my #26 statement, that’s your problem, not mine. Also problematic is your claim that I support a Canadian “greenhouse gas emissions” policy that you confusingly describe in #27 and about which I know nothing. Yet you ask, “Is that the world you choose to leave to your children?

    If you wish to continue a dialogue by discussing how our species can best reverse and adapt to global warming in the 21st century, it will continue. If you wish to continue a dialogue by obsessing over “diversity” and asking contrived questions about Canadian policies, it will end.

    The choice is yours.

Leave a Reply