Eaton: West Coast, best Coast? Climate change says otherwise.

California is burning, but Minnesota can take the heat.

by Emily Eaton

The West Coast is currently experiencing the worst fire season in recorded history with 3.2 million acres burned in California in 2020 alone. For context, that’s roughly the same size as the entire state of Connecticut. It’s no secret that fire season has grown increasingly deadly. Hotter, drier summers mean fires begin earlier and burn for longer periods of time each year, doing more than raze forests. Smoke and ash render the air unbreathable, homes and businesses are destroyed and thousands of people are displaced. Life as people know it is brutally disrupted for months at a time, with only a few months to recover before it begins all over again.

But why should Minnesotans care? By all accounts, this state is one of the best places to be as the climate shifts. Duluth has even been named a climate refuge. Increased rainfall and proximity to Lake Superior makes for abundant access to fresh water — a luxury in most of the world. The state’s inland location lowers the risk of sea level rise significantly. And, those brutally cold winters will work in Minnesota’s favor: Even as carbon emissions raise global temperatures, the region is likely to remain relatively cool.

Before you pack your car for the drive north, consider other possibilities. Minnesota has the luxury of not being in a brutal race against time, making it the perfect testing grounds for the switch to a carbon-free society. The state derives a majority of its electricity from coal-fired power plants and a mere quarter of electricity from renewable resources. Governor Tim Walz proposed a deadline of 2050 for eliminating carbon emissions in electricity production in the state, but 2020’s brutal fire and hurricane seasons have shown that the rest of the country may not have 30 years. As the planet warms, climate migrants seeking refuge from rising sea levels and scorching summers will move inland. These vulnerable populations will likely be seeking employment, and Minnesota needs to be prepared. Jobs in renewable energy are creating an employment boom for blue-collar workers across the country. Investing in clean energy and climate change research allows the state to be at the forefront of the coming crisis, both technologically and economically.

We are one of the only states to generate significant energy from wind power, utilize the often villainized nuclear power and possess the geography to benefit from hydroelectric power. Minnesota also has influence on the petroleum industry with 30% of the United State’s crude oil entering the state via Canada. Should the state take a hard pivot to renewable energy, the economic effects of the decision could reverberate throughout the country. The wide range of energy sources, combined with a progressive policy agenda and the buffer against climate change, makes the state of 10,000 lakes the perfect location for an environmental revolution in this deadly race against time.

As a native Californian, it’s difficult to acknowledge that behind the perpetual sunshine and coastal cliffs is a deeply unsustainable way of life. However, I would rather endure a year of long Minnesota winter than sit and watch the West Coast burn. The timer has started, and we are one of few states with the possibility of beating the clock.