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Climate talks affect Midwest

ST. PAUL -- The Upper Midwest could gain from the global climate change conference in Copenhagen, but those from the region attending the meeting say the real work will come in Congress and in Mexico City a year from now.

Reports from the United Nations conference on Tuesday indicate chances of a firm climate agreement by the time it ends on Friday are slim, but those from the Midwest say the conference remains important.

"We are getting a dialog," famed polar explorer Will Steger said.

That dialog includes talk about how the Midwest can help improve the climate and gain jobs at the same time, Steger said.

Robert Carlson, president of the Jamestown-based North Dakota Farmers Union, delivered an opening-day speech to the conference last week and has worked to keep agriculture involved in the talks.

Even without a final agreement this week, Carlson said, Congress likely soon will make changes that will help the Upper Midwest.

"For North Dakota in the short term, we are going to see a lot more attention to alternate forms of renewable energy," Carlson predicted.

The two-week global warming conference ends Friday, when President Barack Obama is among the speakers. Reports out of Copenhagen Tuesday indicate continued disputes between large developed countries such as the United States and developing ones like China over how climate regulations should be applied. That problem is expected for kill any chance of a binding agreement this year, delaying that until next year's Mexico City climate conference.

Still, those in Copenhagen say this year's conference is has value.

"This is a real powerful turning point for life on earth," Steger said.

Negotiations appear more sincere than in the past, he said, and national leaders are trying to work through "incredibly complex" issues.

Doug Sombke, South Dakota Farmers Union president, said that agriculture must stand up for its needs.

"I think there is a big interest on what agriculture can do across the world," Sombke said. "Of course, we probably don't carry the weight of other industries."

An importance of agriculture is that plants farmers grow digest the carbon dioxide most scientists say leads to global warming. Agriculture's role in reducing greenhouse gases needs to be considered when a final climate-change agreement is reached, Carlson said.

Sombke said Carlson's opening-day comments to a conference general meeting were well received.

But most from the Midwest have little real power at the conference, Sombke said, playing instead "more of a watch and collect information role."

Carlson and Brad Crabtree of the Minnesota-based Great Plains Institute said renewable energy sources could be big winners in Copenhagen.

"Wind, in particular, would benefit dramatically from an international agreement," said Crabtree, a Kulm, N.D., farmer.

However, renewables need federal legislation providing incentives before they can grow much more, Crabtree said.

Steger said he expects Copenhagen talks to influence a renewable energy expansion.

"I see this as job creation," Steger said. "It is as simple as that."

The possibility for new jobs makes the explorer and environmentalist hopeful for eventual success. "We have to get the wheels of capitalism going."

While corn-based ethanol may not be the environmental answer, he said, it did prove that producing a new form of fuel can fuel economic booms. The next ethanol could use grass, trees or lumber waste instead of a food product like corn.

"We have a huge opportunity for the northern forests," the Minnesota-based explorer said.

Ethanol is the best-known Upper Midwest renewable energy source, but is controversial in the climate-change debate.

Environmentalists like ethanol because it comes from a renewable source. But they dislike it because it uses a lot of energy to produce. So they are looking toward the next generation of ethanol, a few years away, to help reduce global warming.

Carbon-based fuels such as coal and oil need to be phased out, Steger said, something up to governments.

"There has to be some sort of incentive away from carbon," Steger said.

Added Crabtree: "We put no value on the environmental benefits of wind power in the marketplace. ... We don't have a climate policy."

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislators have set an ambitious goal of increasing the use of renewable energy, Steger said, but "now we have to meet that goal."

Thanks to its congressional delegation holding key positions, the Upper Midwest will play a disproportionate role in climate decisions, said Crabtree, whose Great Plains Institute promotes renewable energy.

The U.N. climate effort eventually will produce results, Minnesota state Rep. Kate Knuth, DFL-New Brighton, said. "It does not just happen easily and quickly."

"I think there will be something significant coming out of these talks," said Knuth, who is spending most of the two weeks at the conference. "There probably will be something more to do in Mexico City."


The conference helps western North Dakota oil, Crabtree said. It is a cleaner oil than many alternatives, he said, and since oil will be needed for years to come, that is good news for the state.

"North Dakota actually has a superior crude," said Crabtree, who spent the conference's first week and Copenhagen before returning home.

Also, even though lignite coal mined in central North Dakota may not be the cleanest, Crabtree said that new coal technologies may be able to prevent that industry from economic ruin under a strong environmental agreement. He said those technologies should not be so expensive as to prohibit their use.

Wisconsin's Jim Doyle, the only Midwestern governor in Copenhagen, is promoting his state as a leader to make whatever is needed for a cleaner environment.

"With a global focus on climate change, Wisconsin is well positioned to become a worldwide leader in a clean energy economy," Doyle said. "We're using our traditional manufacturing base to build a world leading green industry - conducting research, focusing on high end, green manufacturing and creating jobs while taking on the challenges of climate change. We're making Wisconsin the place to do business in a clean energy economy."

He will be featured on a Thursday panel entitled "Leadership and Innovation by States and Tribes in the U.S."

Doyle plans three other speeches and meetings are scheduled with business leaders and Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.