Agencies assess challenges of warming environment
Minnesotans face a future of more floods, droughts, extreme heat events, and intense storms, along with worsening air and water quality, increases in disease, and the further spread of harmful pests.
Those dire prognostications — and others of similarly apocalyptic tone — are outlined in a recent 38-page report from the state’s Interagency Climate Adaptation Team (ICAT), a collaborative effort of eight state agencies and the Metropolitan Council that seeks to identify strategies to combat the harms expected to arise from climate change.
The report, which follows up on a preliminary effort in 2010 and will serve as prelude to the creation of a formal “action plan,” catalogues the agencies’ climate change-related initiatives and recommends a broad array of future actions. It includes no cost estimates. However, some of the proposed remedies would be expensive and others could lead to more regulations — both potential stumbling blocks when it comes time to put words into action.
“Right now we’re just trying to better define the issues. We haven’t identified the cost implications in terms of needed investments, but I imagine that will occur at some time in the future,” said Paul Moss, ICAT’s coordinator and head of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Climate Change Corps.
Extreme precipitation one challenge
The increased incidence of extreme rainstorms is one major concern highlighted in the report. According to federal data, the Midwest has experienced a 45 percent rise in “very heavy precipitation” events between 1958 and 2011 — dramatically influencing the frequency and magnitude of floods, especially along the Red River in northwestern Minnesota.
Because many storm-water sewer systems and wastewater treatment plans are not designed to handle such heavy volumes, the report states, some communities will need to invest in upgrades to prevent contamination of lakes and rivers.
Meanwhile, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the state’s bridges now require more vigilant monitoring because frequent incidents involving high water are eroding foundations and abutment slopes at river crossings. In response, MnDOT is developing a “bridge scour plan of action.” Earlier this year, the agency also secured federal funding for a pilot project to conduct climate vulnerability assessments of transportation infrastructure in two flood-prone areas of the state.
The increase in heavy precipitation may also require a wholesale rethinking of storm-water management, according to the report. Historically, most communities have designed storm sewer systems with the aim to “get the water off the landscape as quickly as possible.” To more closely mimic natural hydrology, however, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is promoting the increased use of rain gardens, swales, and other green technologies that allow more of the rainfall to seep into the ground. That tactic carries the double benefit of reducing runoff and replenishing depleted aquifers.
Anticipating an increase in the incidence of damaging ice storms, meanwhile, the Department of Public Safety’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is calling for the retrofitting of power lines to reduce the likelihood of outages, along with the acquisition of more backup generators in public facilities to deal with outages when they happen.
Added stress for plants, wildlife
According to the report, climate change threatens virtually all aspects of life in Minnesota. And some of the anticipated problems can’t be addressed through improvement to sewers and other infrastructure.
Warming temperatures pose a pronounced hazard to the state’s wildlife and plant communities, the report states. The Department of Natural Resources, which has already instituted several climate-change-monitoring programs, anticipates that increased water temperatures will make Minnesota a harder place for cold-water fish species such as trout and salmon. The composition of the state’s forests is also expected to change, with the boreal forest retreating further to the north.
Even seemingly positive climate developments carry a dark side, according to the report. For instance, warming trends have extended the length of Minnesota’s growing season by about two weeks since 1950, thus boosting agricultural production. But that benefit could be undone by more frequent and intense storms, which often lead to crop damage and soil loss. Warming temperatures may also herald a proliferation of damaging pests and invasive species.
Livestock producers, meanwhile, will likely lose more animals to high heat and humidity events – a factor that could push livestock production (along with some crops) further to the north. In one gruesome aside, the report notes that a shortage of rendering facilities in the state already makes it difficult for farmers to dispose of dead livestock. Absent an expansion of rendering facilities, that would leave farmers no choice but to locate a large impervious surface on which to compost carcasses.
According to the Georgetown Climate Center, Minnesota and Michigan are the only Midwestern states currently at work on climate adaptation plans. Twelve other states — mostly located in coastal areas — have already completed action plans.
“With sea-level rise, coastal states are already beginning to see impacts, such as more intense storms, more erosion, and more flooding, and this is driving planning for how sea-level rise will change risks over time,” said Chris Coil, a spokesman for the center. Coil said the availability of designated federal monies for coastal areas has made it easier for those states to cobble together funding for adaptation plans.
While the ICAT report states categorically and repeatedly that climate change is already happening, it does not address the politically fraught (if scientifically settled) debate over man’s role. “This didn’t require us to analyze or decide what is causing the climate change,” noted Paul Moss, the ICAT coordinator.
Moss said that many of the strategies outlined in the report are based on documented changes in the climate. However, Moss acknowledged that ICAT relied on data from the National Climate Assessment, which makes its projections under the assumption that greenhouse gas emissions are driving climate change. That premise runs contrary to the opinion of many climate skeptics, as well as the Minnesota GOP’s 2012 platform. The relevant plank explicitly rejects “policies, legislation and mandates that are based on the theory that humans are responsible for global climate change.”
Former state Sen. Ellen Anderson, a senior adviser to Gov. Mark Dayton, said that politics of climate change will likely intrude on efforts to develop a formal climate plan, especially when it comes to efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. But the tactics outlined by ICAT — which are aimed at adapting to climate change, not preventing it — are less controversial, she said.
“Adaptation is an easier discussion to have than mitigation. It’s less polarizing politically than talking about cutting greenhouse gases,” Anderson said. “It doesn’t matter where climate change comes from when you talk about adaptation, and it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. We need to deal with the changes that we’re already seeing around us.”
Anderson said the ICAT report represents a crucial step in the effort to develop a more comprehensive plan, which will ultimately occur through the auspices of the Environmental Quality Board.
“Over the next year, we are going to develop a comprehensive list of action steps. Ultimately, we want this plan to include both adaptation and mitigation,” Anderson said.