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Rep. Jim Hagedorn doesn’t believe in man-made climate change. In his district, the climate’s changing anyway

Between rising rivers and flooded farm fields, residents of the First District are feeling the effects of a changing climate.

Zumbro River
A Sept. 24, 2010 image of the Zumbro River in southeast Minnesota overflowing its banks during flash flooding.

At a town hall in North Mankato last December, First District Rep. Jim Hagedorn said: “I do not believe in man-made climate change.”

Rep. Jim Hagedorn
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein
Rep. Jim Hagedorn
At another town hall in Austin in November, he said, “The climate has been changing since God created the world. We used to be under an ice sheet here.”

Even if he believed climate change is real, he said in Austin, he would deal with it differently. Instead of efforts like the Green New Deal, a proposed non-binding resolution to exit the United States from fossil fuels and increase clean energy jobs, Hagedorn said people should move.

“When you get down to it, I’m not willing to risk the U.S. economy over it,” he said. “A better way to mitigate it would be to deal with the effects and move people around rather than turn the economy upside down.”

But in Hagedorn’s district, whether or not he accepts the reality of climate change, it’s drastically altering the region. Waters are rising along the Zumbro River. Farmers are dealing with increasingly wet weather, making it close to impossible to retrieve crops from muddy fields. And because of increased precipitation that local scientists have traced back to climate change, landslides are becoming more frequent and significantly worse.

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Along the Zumbro

Kim Norton, the Mayor of Rochester, understands the danger of flooding. Her office has a view of the Zumbro River, which flooded in 1978, killing five people. After that, the city installed flood walls.

But in 2018, the water just behind walls came close to overflowing. Since she took office last January, Norton has made climate change a priority. She’s spoken with both Republican and DFL state legislators about sustainability and climate change. And she’s met with mayors around the country who are just as concerned.

Mayor Kim Norton
“We would have to question: Is what we’ve done enough? And we certainly thought it would be,” Norton said. “But some of the other communities that haven’t done the flood mitigation that we did, up or downstream, are still having the effects of the flooding in the fields and perhaps communities. And they will most certainly need support, whether it be federal or state.”

Norton said that state legislators she’s talked to have been receptive, including state Sen. David H. Senjem, a Republican from Rochester and state Rep. Tina Liebling, a DFLer also from Rochester.

Earlier this year, Senjem sponsored a bill that would make adding new coal and gas power tougher for utility companies. And Liebling has been clear on her concern about climate change for some time. “Global warming is an urgent problem,” she said in 2006. “Right here in Minnesota, we can’t ice fish or ski like we used to because record warm winters are becoming the rule, not the exception. We should be looking at solutions now, instead of waiting until we see even more drastic changes.”

Norton said that while she appreciates the response from state legislators, what she’s hearing from congress is less comforting. “This idea of moving is a little concerning because we’re working really hard to create a community that we want people to stay in.”

The science

About an hour away at the Minnesota State University, Mankato, Prof. Phil Larson is looking at the frequency of landslides across the state. Larson, who was born in Red Wing and raised along the upper Mississippi and St. Croix, has been interested in rivers since he was young.

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As an earth science professor, he’s working on a three year project with other researchers to assess the frequency of landslides across the state. Larson’s focus is on Southern Minnesota and the Minnesota River Valley.

“We know that the rivers are changing. The water quality stinks because of some of this stuff. We know that climate change is a part of this as a culprit, but also the land use activities are as well,” he said. “It’s a big thing to try to tackle and I don’t know that Southern Minnesota, by itself, can handle it.”

Larson said that the consequences of climate change are visible.

State Sen. David H. Senjem
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
State Sen. David H. Senjem
“When we get the big mega-storms come through this area, we have major landslide activity that occurs out here and it blocks highways. It destroys bridges and destroys property. It causes economic loss,” he said. Larson pointed to the St. Paul Lilydale landslide in 2013, when two children were killed, as a breaking point. That’s when he saw the state start to take the changes seriously.

In the district, wet weather last spring caused limestone boulders to collapse onto Judson Bottom Road, which is not far from the Minnesota State. The road was home to at least six rockslides in 2019. Additionally, two grave sites in Blue Earth County cemetery were moved because erosion ate away the land they were originally dug into.

“I know that congressmen and politicians out there don’t want to look at this. They don’t want to accept it. It’s pretty hard to ignore, you know? It just blows my mind that they do.”

Larson said that the impacts of climate change are already obvious in the First District. Another example of climate change that he could point to: agriculture.

“These things have real consequences. And it’s to the farmers to their agriculture fields. For example, this spring was one of the wettest springs we’ve had on record. And many farmers weren’t able to get their crops down in time. They weren’t able to harvest it because everything was freaking soaking wet. And so people lost money.”

Minnesota has warmed between one and three degrees over the last century. And climate scientists at the University of Minnesota have said that the state is one of the fastest warming in the country. 

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“I know that when I teach my classes, that maybe a third of them may come in with this preconceived notion that climate change isn’t real or, you know, a Chinese hoax or whatever,” said Larson. “But I can show them that data and have them do some statistics on it and go: it’s hard to argue the real data.”

How obvious the changes are, with just a bit of research, is why Larson is so flabbergasted by the way some politicians are looking at climate change.

“I mean, they got to wake up to this stuff, you know?,” he said. “Cause I think in Southern Minnesota, we need help.”

The same stance

The need to mitigate and understand climate change has even made its way into private businesses in the first district. The Mayo Clinic, one of the largest employers in the region, last year added medical school classes to address how practitioners should deal with climate change.

Prof. Phil Larson
Prof. Phil Larson
But none of this has prompted Hagedorn to change his stance. At a recent town hall in Faribault, a local farmer pressed Hagedorn on climate change, saying she had seen its effects first hand. Hagedorn again said he was skeptical that climate change was caused by humans and argued for an “all of the above” energy strategy.

When asked by MinnPost about his thoughts on climate change, Hagedorn provided a statement.

“I support an energy policy of U.S. energy independence via an all of the above strategy to deliver abundant, reliable and affordable fuel and electricity to power our economy, create high-wage jobs and maintain our standard of living,” he said. “Wind, solar and other renewables are part of the mix, but those who advocate scrapping fossil fuels for renewables are unrealistic and irresponsible. As it applies to the production of electricity alone, no technology exists to use wind and solar in any widespread way to deliver baseload power.”

For Norton, who has a city to run, the federal government doesn’t seem to be offering enough. And she said she’s resolved to push for solutions with or without their help.

“We need to deal with these issues because they affect people in our community. They affect the economy in our community. They affect the future of the kids that are going to live here and you know, when you have to deal with flooding or tornadoes,” she said.

“So the cities are just saying: We’re just doing this on our own. We’re not gonna sit and wait. We’re going to do what we can.”

Walker Orenstein contributed reporting to this story.