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Young play part at climate conference

ST. PAUL -- Megan Constans feels what she is doing is important, despite being just one person among 25,000 at the United Nations climate change conference.

Hundreds of youths like Constans from around the world are playing a key role at the two-week Copenhagen gathering.

"We get so much media attention; it boggles my mind," the North Dakota State University student said Tuesday afternoon, Denmark time. "I feel like an adult for the first time ever because people are really accepting what we have to say. Youth are going to have to live with the climate."

The Eyota, Minn., native does not plan to make environmentalism her career (she wants to be a doctor -- a gastroenterologist or internist), but climate change "is always going to be an issue. ... That is just a side passion for me."

When at the Fargo university, Constans worked to extend recycling campuswide and she leads an environmental group. In Copenhagen, she has spent much of her time seeking publicity for the cause.

"I want to see change happen; what is why I came all the way out here," she said, repeating that message on Upper Midwestern radio stations and wherever she can during the two-week conference.

That media-intensive job began shortly after she arrived, when she appeared on a French television station, and she wants it to continue after she returns to North Dakota.

Constans is one of a dozen young Midwesterners at the conference as part of the Will Steger Foundation, started by the famous polar explorer and environmentalist. Steger and others from the Minneapolis-based foundation also are in Copenhagen.

The 12 use Twitter, blogs, Facebook and other methods to disseminate information about the conference.

"They are continually communicating back and forth," Steger said, using an Internet-based telephone connection himself. "The voice of the youth is so essential to keep things on track here."

'Remember indigenous'

Aurora Conley represents two underrepresented classes at the climate conference, native people and youths.

"It is very important that the indigenous people have a voice here in Copenhagen," said Conley, part of the Steger delegation.

She is a native of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Wisconsin, a former White Earth Reservation employee in northwestern Minnesota and a former and future University of Minnesota Morris student in west-central Minnesota.

"We consider ourselves in jeopardy," Conley said about native people around the world.

While at the climate conference, she is working with people from places as diverse as South America, Africa, Canada and Australia.

"We are the ones with the knowledge of our land, first and foremost," Conley said. "We need to make sure they are protected and preserved."

Language in a tentative agreement gives native people some rights, but it is not as strong as Conley and others wanted.

"Just because the conference is coming to a close, that does not mean our work will be over," she said. "Our work will never be over."

Good ideas

Two Farmers Union presidents will return home with ideas gleaned from the Danish countryside.

Robert Carlson of North Dakota and Doug Sombke of South Dakota toured some innovative heating plants near Copenhagen, one fueled by straw, the other manure.

The straw burner, for instance, provides heat to 00 homes, Sombke said. The cooperative's 29 members earn "quite a substantial income" from the operation, he said.

"They are doing a lot of things that we can learn from," Carlson said.

Name helps

Steger's reputation as one of the world's best-known explorers, and one who says he has seen a reduction in ice coverage first hand, has helped him in Copenhagen.

"Many people are familiar with my work," he said, adding that "it isn't like people recognize me all the time."

Steger said he sees the global warming debate as "a three-prong crises." It involves not only climate, he said, but the economy and national security (because of reliance on foreign oil).

Long waits

With at least 25,000 people crammed into the climate conference, things cannot all move quickly.

David Gillette of Twins Cities Public Television said he waited in a kilometer-long line 45 minutes to get into the conference one day, but praised organizers for getting the line to move quickly.

Brad Crabtree of Kulm, N.D., said he had to wait 20 minutes to check his coat and a like time to retrieve it when he left, so despite temperatures in the 20s and 30s, he opted to leave his overcoat in his room and just wear a suit coat, giving him more time for the conference.

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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.