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Midwest could be in position to help improve the climate and gain jobs at the same time

Famed polar explorer Will Steger pauses Tuesday at the waterfront during his visit to the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen. He is leading a group of a dozen young Midwesterners. Will Steger Foundation/Minn. State Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL -- The Upper Midwest could gain from the global climate change conference in Copenhagen, but those from the region attending the meeting say the real work will come in Congress and in Mexico City a year from now.

Reports from the United Nations conference on Tuesday indicate chances of a firm climate agreement by the time the conference ends are slim, but those from the Midwest say the conference remains important.

"We are getting a dialog," famed polar explorer Will Steger said.

That dialog includes talk about how the Midwest can help improve the climate and gain jobs at the same time, Steger said.

Robert Carlson, president of the Jamestown-based North Dakota Farmers Union, delivered a speech to the conference last week and has worked to keep agriculture involved in the talks.

Even without a final agreement this week, Carlson said, Congress likely soon will make changes that will help the Upper Midwest.

The two-week global warming conference ends Friday, when President Obama is among the speakers. Reports out of Copenhagen on Tuesday indicate continued disputes between large developed countries such as the United States and developing ones like China over how climate regulations should be applied. That problem is expected for kill any chance of a binding agreement this year, delaying that until next year's Mexico City climate conference.

Still, those in Copenhagen say this year's conference has value.

"This is a real powerful turning point for life on earth," Steger said.

Negotiations appear more sincere than in the past, he said, and national leaders are trying to work through "incredibly complex" issues.

Doug Sombke, South Dakota Farmers Union president, said that agriculture must stand up for its needs.

"I think there is a big interest on what agriculture can do across the world," Sombke said. "Of course, we probably don't carry the weight of other industries."

Steger said he expects the Copenhagen talks to influence a renewable energy expansion.

"I see this as job creation," Steger said. "It is as simple as that."

The possibility for new jobs makes the explorer and environmentalist hopeful for eventual success. "We have to get the wheels of capitalism going."

While corn-based ethanol may not be the environmental answer, he said, it did prove that producing a new form of fuel can lead to economic booms. The next ethanol could use grass, trees or lumber waste instead of a food product like corn.

"We have a huge opportunity for the northern forests," he said.

Ethanol is the best-known Upper Midwest renewable energy source, but is controversial in the climate-change debate.

Environmentalists like ethanol because it comes from a renewable source. But they dislike it because it uses a lot of energy to produce. So they are looking toward the next generation of ethanol, a few years away, to help reduce global warming.

Carbon-based fuels such as coal and oil need to be phased out, Steger said, something up to governments.

"There has to be some sort of incentive away from carbon," Steger said.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislators have set an ambitious goal of increasing the use of renewable energy, Steger said, but "now we have to meet that goal."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.