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A Green Grassroots Revolution

Nan Skelton at the University of Minnesota brought this article to our attention, which she says is a great local story that shows the Mayors in St. Paul and Minneapolis beginning to make the paradigm shift to a culture of citizen-government partnership. The subtitle of this article is “It's called global warming, but cities and towns, including the Twin Cities, are waging the war.”

In case the link changes at the Star Tribune website, here is the full text of the article:

The big issues in Turtle River, Minn., these days are whether to grade the muddy gravel road through town, and when to put in the public dock for the boating season.

Well, there's one other thing: fighting the warming of planet Earth.

Turtle River, a crossroads just northeast of Bemidji where the population is "down to about 50," according to City Council Member Dave Carlson, is one of more than 300 cities to have signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors' Climate Protection Agreement. It's also probably the smallest, which is exactly the point.

For Carlson, that means burning less wood in his stove and maybe putting a solar panel on his house. "How do big things get built? One small brick at a time."

Frustrated with what they see as paralysis in Washington on climate change, local governments across the United States are taking matters into their own hands.

They're putting heat-absorbing gardens and solar panels on municipal rooftops, buying more energy-efficient vehicles for transportation fleets and otherwise reducing carbon emissions from their communities, large and small.

In Minneapolis and St. Paul, whose mayors were both early signers of the U.S. mayors' agreement, the cities have committed to a number of actions. They include such broad goals as reducing pollution more than called for by the Kyoto Protocol guidelines to such concrete steps as reducing idling cars by removing some "No Right Turn on Red" signs and putting high-efficiency light bulbs in traffic lights.

Workers are busy installing a "green roof" in the courtyard of Minneapolis' historic City Hall. St. Paul's downtown district energy plant has converted from burning coal to burning waste wood.

How big a dent?

But can cities make a dent in a global dynamic?

"Minneapolis-St Paul as a city is, in fact, a minuscule portion of the problem," said Lennie Bernstein, an Asheville, N.C.-based environmental consultant and internationally known climate change expert. "But it's not a problem that has a single solution. And what cities are doing is commendable. They're actually reducing CO2 emissions, and secondly, they're educating people."

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak both said cities are taking on global warming because the federal government hasn't. Standards on CO2 emissions reduction stated in the U.S. mayors' agreement mirror those in the Kyoto Protocol, signed by more than 150 nations but not the United States.

Coleman added that because most of the world's people live in cities, that's where most of the CO2 emissions come from. "We control our own destinies," he said.

The mayors also said the efforts make economic sense by reducing municipal energy expenses.

By putting solar panels on top of a fire station and two public works buildings, Minneapolis estimates it reduced its CO2 output by more than 10 tons. According to the Carbon Mitigation Initiative at Princeton University, catastrophic climate change can be averted if carbon emissions increase 7 billion tons less by 2055 than currently predicted.

Despite that, elected officials, activists and scientists seem almost optimistic in the face of dire predictions of planetary catastrophe by the end of this century.

Buoying their outlooks are growing calls for action from the public, prospects of new markets for new technologies, and an abiding faith in the ripple effect.

Turtle River's signature on the mayors' climate agreement came about when Anna Carlson — City Council Member Dave Carlson's daughter who is studying for a master's degree in environmental studies at Bemidji State — asked Mayor Gary Burger to sign it. Anna Carlson, who was a member of the Bemidji Climate Change Coalition at the time, said she thought that if Turtle River would sign on, neighboring Bemidji might follow.

"It's always important to remember you're not powerless in facing seemingly insurmountable global problems," Anna Carlson said in a phone interview from Denmark, where she is studying this semester. "You always have a sphere of influence where you can work. You move step by step and hopefully have a bigger sphere of influence."

Bemidji Mayor Richard Lehman signed the mayors' agreement Saturday.

Who's leading whom?

Rybak noted that while local governments are trying to set an example of energy efficiency, in many cases they're responding to initiatives from citizens. In Minneapolis' Linden Hills neighborhood, for example, residents contributed to a solar panel to help power the local food co-op; another group is now looking into generating power for the neighborhood from a garbage digester.

"This is a case of citizens leading government," he said. "Minneapolis is filled with people doing dramatic things to make this climate better. Our role is to tie as many of these individual actions into a single package so citizens can see the small thing they're doing is having a huge impact."

Anne Hunt, St. Paul's environmental policy director, noted that both St. Paul and Minneapolis signed emissions reduction pledges in the early 1990s that were at least as ambitious as those in the latest mayors' climate agreement.

But times, issues and elected officials changed. Could global warming initiatives fall out of political fashion?

"I think that's going to be one of the greatest challenges in this process," Anna Carlson said. "I think global warming has the potential to transcend some of the political boundaries we've set up. It affects everybody, and a lot of different groups are finding out they have a common interest. I think it's exciting. It could be a unifying issue in the coming decades."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646 Blog: www.startribune.com/airmassmcaul@startribune.com

Bill McAuliffe

Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, April 22 (2007)

Resource Link: www.startribune.com/462/story/1137316.html

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