GRANITE FALLS - In 1986 Minnesotan Will Steger made the first unsupported dog sled trek to the North Pole. Less than 10 years later in 1995 he encountered so much open water, flotation gear was necessary to make the same journey.
"You can no longer dog sled to the pole," Steger said.
Steger and J. Drake Hamilton, science policy director of the renewable energy advocacy group Fresh Energy, were in Granite Falls on Sunday night to talk about global climate change and progress in clean, renewable energy. The meeting was held at the Granite Falls Lutheran Church and organized by Clean Up the River Environment (CURE).
According to Steger, in 1990 scientists predicted that when the concentration of carbon dioxide reached 350 parts per million, the polar ice would start to melt.
Steger said that has indeed started to happen, turning large areas of the polar ocean and Greenland from a reflecting surface to an absorbing surface during the months the sun shines 24 hours a day.
As a consequence, Steger said, the survival of species such as walrus, polar bears and seals is threatened and human coastal populations will be soon be seriously affected by rising sea levels.
"The culprit is coal," Steger said. "We really have to move off coal into clean energy."
Hamilton spoke after Steger with a somewhat more optimistic take on climate change. After making the case that climate change is driven by human action pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, Hamilton said real progress in alternative clean energy is being made in Minnesota.
"Fresh Energy was founded on the premise that more Minnesotans should be weighing in on energy issues," Hamilton said. "The first harbinger of climate change was polar bears, but we're in this for people."
In 2013 the state legislature set goals of achieving 25 percent renewable energy by 2025. According to Hamilton Minnesota is actually ahead of schedule and that though much remains to be done, energy companies such as XCEL have recognized the economic feasibility of phasing out coal generation in favor of wind, solar and local hydroelectric generation.
Hamilton pointed out Granite Falls has been a leader in hydroelectric power since its founding.
"There is an urgent need for action," Hamilton said, "but if humans are responsible for it, humans can do something about it."