In a unique climate discussion forum on Thursday, Dec. 8, Arctic explorer Will Steger, Science Policy Director for Fresh Energy J. Drake Hamilton, and ELCA North East Synod Bishop Tom Aitkin joined together at St. Andrew's Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids to talk about observations of global warming in the Arctic, the progress made at the political level to fix the problems, and the possible influence of faith-based organizations to make a difference. The discussion was actually the second of a two stop tour, the first being in Princeton, Minn., on Wednesday.
The three organizations behind the discussion were the Will Steger Foundation, Fresh Energy, and the Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy in Minnesota. All three organizations have a history of promoting clean energy in order to curtail carbon pollution and lessen global warming. The Lutheran Coalition held similar events to this during 2006 and 2007, just prior to Minnesota state legislation passing for new standards in clean energy.
Roughly 200 people gathered at St. Andrews on Thursday evening to participate in the discussion on climate. Following a prayer and recitation on "finding Christ-like, honorable ways of talking about this issue [of the environment]" by Bishop Aitkin, Steger discussed with the audience his various trips to the Arctic, and what has changed in the Arctic landscape throughout the years.
"Scientists predicted that the first changes of global warming would be seen in the polar regions. This was the prediction in the late 1980s," said Steger.
Steger is most famous for making an on-foot Trans-Antarctic expedition in 1989 and for his solo North Pole journey in 1997. His 50 years of Arctic and Antarctic experience gives him a unique, first-hand perspective on the current developments in the world in regards to global warming. His presentation incorporated several time-lapse photo clips that showed the movement and collapse of glaciers in Greenland over the course of just over an hour. Such glaciers lately have moved 15 miles per year. Only a couple decades ago, their movement was measured in yards. Those in the audience showed obvious concern with gasps and moans upon learning the different facts about the changing Arctic conditions.
"Right now, we have a choice of two directions on where we can take our economy. We can take it on the direction that we're on, on the left-hand side, of dirty fossil fuels, coal, buildings that aren't insulated," said Steger. "But on the right here, the choice of clean energy and an economy of wind, solar, and geothermal. And the other part of the clean energy economy of course is reducing demand."
Much of the information shared by Steger is not new to the climate change debate. As a matter of fact, he began the talk by noting that 97 percent of scientists involved with climate change agree on the findings of his presentation, with only two percent arguing some finer points. He humorously added that the final one percent of scientists were employed by fossil fuel companies. But the greater point of the climate forum was to expand the public discourse on a topic that has lost public sway in recent years over other topics, as well as to carry it into demographics where it has historically not popularly been involved: churches. Whereas the topic has not been completely devoid from the faith-based community, the organizations behind Thursday's discussion understand that such a community's backing of the issue is crucial to future change.
Ways in which progress has already been made in the state include a large push in recent years toward wind energy. In her address, Hamilton noted how 58 percent of electricity in Minnesota is still generated via coal, but 11 percent is now wind, which has grown drastically over the past five years.
"That is part of the success story of what we're talking about this evening," said Hamilton. "Why has Minnesota been able to build so much wind power into its system in a very short period of time? One of the reasons is that many, many Minnesotans demanded it."
Despite recognition that opposition to changes in energy generation and global warming is fierce and well-funded, the group of speakers agreed that it is certainly not too late to make important differences in our future energy economy.