GRAND FORKS, N.D. — If he had come in winter, the prairies of North Dakota might strike him as eerily familiar territory: cold, treeless, wind-swept and lonely.
But he has come in the spring, a hopeful time, and he goes out of his way to make his message more hopeful than alarmist.
Polar explorer Will Steger has brought his “Eyewitness to Climate Change Tour” to North Dakota, using slides and his own up-close observations of recent and rapid changes in glaciers, ice bridges and sea ice to spread an urgent warning about the consequences of global warming.
Since taking up that cause in recent years, he has barnstormed Minnesota with a soft-spoken fervor, urging education and action by town councils, churches, school assemblies and anyone else willing to listen. He has taken his “eyewitness tour” into Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and other states.
From Grand Forks to Bismarck
In Grand Forks Monday, he entertained more than 400 middle-school students with tales of crossing Antarctica with teams of polar huskies, “showering” in the snow and doing head-stands on the South Pole, then pressed his message about climate change at an evening public forum that drew about 300 people. He did the same in Fargo Tuesday night and will speak again today in Bismarck.
His main audience, though not expected to attend the slide shows: U.S. Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan and U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy.
“Your two senators — since you’re a coal state — have not really backed the climate legislation we need, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, which calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions 20 percent by 2020 and 42 per cent by 2030,” Steger said in an interview prior to this week’s tour. “We’re hoping to educate the public around these issues, the real benefits they offer to North Dakota.”
He said North Dakota “can be the nation’s No. 1 resource in terms of wind energy” and could benefit significantly from a “new energy economy” that moves away from carbon-based fuels. For the nation, a low-carbon economy also offers solutions to economic and national security problems, he said.
‘The Saudi Arabia of wind’
Ditlev Engel, chief executive of the giant Danish wind developer Vestas, told the Wall Street Journal last week that despite the economic turndown, he remains bullish on the United States. The corridor from North Dakota to Texas, he said, is the “Saudi Arabia of wind.”
Steger said he hasn’t talked directly with members of North Dakota’s congressional delegation, who have embraced projects designed to ramp up wind energy production as well as efforts to make coal “cleaner,” but he planned to meet with members of their state staffs this week.
Steger was greeted raucously by students at Valley Middle School in Grand Forks, where 8th grade math teacher Greg Taylor said they “have been studying global warming, both sides of the issue.” He spent much of his time with the students relating his 220-day crossing of Antarctica in 1989-90, but he also urged them to “educate yourselves” on the issues of global warming. “And, when you get a chance, educate your parents.”
“What I have witnessed in the Arctic over 45 years, and more importantly in the past 10 years, is alarming,” he said.
His presentation “was really good,” said Brianna Vondal, 13. “It taught me about how climate change can affect my life.”
If there were dissenters in the audience, they held their tongues, though one student complained to a teacher before Steger’s arrival that “global warming is crap” and climate change is “just cyclical.”
Skeptics amid the already persuaded
Steger’s public forum in the evening also seemed more a rally for the already persuaded than an effort to win over skeptics.
There are skeptics.
“We don’t need a Ministry of Propaganda in this country,” Jonathon B. from Stephen, Minn., commented on-line in response to a Grand Forks Herald story on Monday’s school assembly. “We already have it in the public school system.”
But in the pre-tour interview, Steger said he is optimistic because people are responding.
“It’s incredible what’s been happening in Minnesota in the past few years,” he said. “We’ve mobilized the people. There’s a moral shift that’s happening. Conservative churches, once they saw the moral implications of global warming, the mass extinctions — that had a lot of power.”