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How should Minnesota prepare for climate change? UN report’s co-author has some ideas

It’s been 10 days since the United Nations released the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the sobering nature of the news made the front pages of newspapers and news websites around the world.

According to the report, significant changes are already afoot, and human activity is a chief cause. Rising sea levels, extreme weather events, massive wildfires, and longer and more severe droughts are but a few of the consequences currently being confronted that are expected to grow worse.

So what can one state legislature in the middle of North America do about this global problem?

To address that question, the House Climate and Energy Finance and Policy Committee invited the coordinating lead author of the IPCC report, Robert Lempert, to appear before the committee on Thursday. A principal researcher at global policy think tank RAND, Lempert emphasized adaptation and mitigation measures for the changes that he and the report’s 269 other authors concur is coming.

[MORE: See the presentation]

“Together, we read and discussed more than 34,000 scientific papers,” he said. “We received and responded to more than 62,000 review comments from scientists around the world.”

Their conclusion?

“The impacts of climate change have arrived and are widespread, pervasive, and in some cases irreversible,” he said. “Minnesota and the American Midwest are experiencing increased-intensity rainfall events, increased flooding, adverse impacts on water quality, increased soil erosion, decreased crop yields and agricultural productivity, and increased heat mortality.

“Climate change is also affecting natural systems worldwide. For example, here in North America, scientists have observed with high confidence changes in the structure of terrestrial, freshwater, and ocean ecosystems; many species shifting their ranges northwards; and many species changing the timing of their annual cycles.”

But the report dwells less on what can’t be changed than on how to be prepared and resilient, how to adjust to the impacts of climate change. Yet Lempert warned most current adaptation is not keeping pace with accelerating change.

“At some point, most systems reach what is called their limits to adaptation,” he said. “Some systems have already reached their limits. For instance, many of the world’s coral reefs are dying because the reefs can no longer adjust. Some coastal communities have been displaced by sea-level rise. … If we don’t get greenhouse gas emissions under control, the challenge becomes increasingly unmanageable. More and more systems will cross their limits to adaptation.”

Rep. Jamie Long (DFL-Mpls) asked why — after 35 years of the IPCC analyzing climate change — the language in its reports has such increased urgency.

“The science has gotten considerably better,” Lempert said. “It’s gone from confidence to virtual certainty as to the human footprint.”

Rep. Patty Acomb (DFL-Minnetonka) asked what adaptation options should be concentrated upon in Minnesota.

“Among the big issues you face in Minnesota is a lot more extreme precipitation events,” Lempert said. “The general pattern of climate change is that where it rains, it will rain more intensely. And where it rains less, it will rain less.

“A key thing you need to do is make sure that your building codes and your design standards and land use rules reflect future climate, as opposed to current and past climate. … In urban areas, that’s going to lead you to simple things like larger culverts under the roads, more permeable pavement. … Re-creating wetlands, forested river banks, places that, when you’re not having a storm, are pleasant for recreation.

“In agricultural areas, soil management will become more important. To pull carbon out but also to deal with erosion and water retention. … Even things like training health workers to recognize diseases they may be less familiar with as patterns of what diseases you get change.”

As is common at the committee’s meetings when the subject is climate change, Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen (R-Glencoe) brought up a book by Fred Singer focused upon disagreements within the scientific community about climate change. Lempert said he has had dinner with the author on a few occasions.

“I much prefer the model of examining the overwhelming body of evidence, rather than the consensus model,” Lempert said. “The body of scientific evidence is built upon multiple lines of evidence and works hard at comparing alternative theories about what we’re experiencing. You can pick at pieces of any body of science, but there is no viable alternative to this conclusion.”


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