Itasca County Climate Dialogue - Day Two

Friday, May 15, 2015
High school students present at the Itasca County Climate Dialogue

On the second day of the Itasca County Climate Dialogue, the 18 participants re-grouped to discuss how Itasca County can address a changing climate in order to remain a healthy and prosperous community.  Throughout the day, participants grappled with the distinction between adaptation to climate change impacts and mitigation of those impacts. Though there was consensus that climate change adaptation is absolutely necessary, questions cropped up over whether adaptation is enough, and if not, whether the impact of individuals or even one entire rural community can make any difference in the global problem of climate change.


The thread of adaptation versus mitigation ran through each of the five presentations that participants heard throughout the day. John Latimer, a phenologist that has been keeping records in the area for over 30 years, presented on how insects are impacted by climate change. In recent years, queen bees, which hibernate over winter and emerge in spring to find nectar and pollen, have been unable to find nourishment due to later blooms and temperature swings that inhibit plant flowering. Latimer presented opportunities to address this challenge: preserve and protect insect habitat, leave wild spaces on your land, and quit using pesticides. Latimer made the link that letting land go wild would also reduce the need for gas-fired lawnmowers and leaf blowers, which burn gas and therefore contribute to carbon emissions. Participants embraced the importance of protecting insect habitat to support insect’s critical role in pollinating plants, but felt skeptical about the impact their individual lawn mower use could play in mitigating climate change.


The second speaker was Tim Goeman, a fisheries expert from the Department of Natural Resources. He highlighted the steady decline in local walleye populations over recent years. Compared to smallmouth and largemouth bass, walleyes have a slightly lower temperature range in which they can thrive. Many fish populations in surrounding lakes have already shifted from walleye communities to bass communities due to warming water temperatures. Participants understood the impact this shift would have on the area’s fishing opportunities and tourism; however, many didn’t feel like they could do anything to prevent the shift. Slowing the increasing water temperatures to maintain suitable walleye habitat would require collective global action, leading many participants to feel adaptation was the only option.


Megan Christianson, the Executive Director of Visit Grand Rapids, emphasized adaptation, saying that climate changes will continue and that keeping a stable tourism industry would require promoting what the area has to offer, even if those offerings are different than in the past. Participants voiced that even though adaptation is necessary to ensure sustained community income, the community has the opportunity to participate in mitigation efforts as well. One participant suggested promoting recreational and tourism opportunities that could simultaneously support tourism and climate change mitigation, such as canoeing or kayaking instead of motor boating. No matter how small the impact, participants were beginning to embrace the power their own community has to participate in mitigation.


As the afternoon began, Julie Kennedy, the City Engineer, joined the group to discuss infrastructure challenges. She pointed out that extreme weather reduces the life of capital assets and emphasized the need to design projects that are resilient to a changing climate and also fiscally responsible. This presentation again merged adaptation and mitigation considerations; for instance, larger storm water pipes are needed to adapt to increased precipitation, but the city could mitigate its climate change impact by investing in energy efficient and sustainable infrastructure, including individuals integrating these considerations into their own homes and property.


The final speaker of the day was Michael Duval, a water expert at the Department of Natural Resources. He presented opportunities to deal with the challenges that come with variable precipitation levels, including reducing impervious surfaces (like pavement) wherever possible, adapting storm water infrastructure to handle higher water volumes, and maintaining riparian buffers to prevent nutrient loads running off into waterways.


The day ended with two ninth grade students joining the conversation to discuss what they’ve learned about climate change at school. They shared the local climate impacts they found particularly striking, which included how fish populations are shifting, and how the local forests would be impacted by the Emerald Ash Borer. One dialogue participant chimed in, “global warming is coming, and if you young people get educated, our future looks a whole lot better.” This sentiment was echoed by the group, who agreed that hearing from the high schoolers – the next generation – was the most powerful part of the day.


As participants reflected on the day before leaving to enjoy their Friday nights, there was a sense of the gravity of the challenge facing them. “I’m a little overloaded,” said one participant. “That was a lot of information for one day – I want to go back and process it,” commented another. But despite their exhaustion after 8 hours of listening and deliberation, they still found room for levity. When passed the microphone, one woman remarked, “my husband will be very happy to hear about letting the lawn go wild - he doesn’t like taking care of the lawn.”