Feeling Minnesota, Looking Nebraska

In the lakes and streams, lower water levels could degrade water quality for fish. Cold-water fish such as trout and cisco would die off if lakes and streams warm significantly, and fish adapted to warm waters could move north to take their place. According to DNR biologist Don Pereira, populations of walleye in Lake Pepin have been severely distressed for the past 20 years, most likely by higher summer water temperatures there. And cisco, a key food fish for larger walleye, have recently seen their populations crash in Mille Lacs. “We’re going to see a change in fishes’ range,” he says. “In general, I’m afraid our waters will come to resemble those of Missouri.”

According to Mark Ebbers, the DNR’s trout and salmon program consultant, trout that live in the streams dotting the southeast and northeast part of the state are particularly vulnerable to higher stream temperatures. Warmer air temperatures relate closely to warmer water temperatures, but the problem could be compounded if the cooling tree cover that spruce trees provide to streams in the northern part of the state is replaced by deciduous trees, which allow more sunlight through to the water. Smallmouth bass, white suckers, and a variety of minnow species could muscle in on stream habitats, depending on how the DNR chooses to stock these waters.

Will anything really be lost if, in 25 or 50 years, the next generations of Minnesota anglers eat a shore lunch of catfish instead of walleye? Interestingly, it is fishing that provides a model for how future Minnesotans may react to a changed landscape more generally. Fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly, a professor at the University of British Columbia, was interested in why people aren’t more disturbed about the relatively rapid degradation of fishing grounds around the world—the declining size of fish caught and the tendency to “fish down the food web” when the largest fish are depleted. He theorized that the knowledge does not get passed on from generation to generation among local populations of humans—the baseline of knowledge has shifted, and the past is often dismissed as exaggerated or inaccurately depicted. The only way to stop the cycle is to reconstruct the past and set a firm reference point to which conservation policies can be anchored. For ocean fisheries, this may mean going back half a century to look at the number, type, and size of fish caught. This approach may be too little too late for warming scenarios, but at least it would establish a literal frame of reference that average Minnesotans will understand right away. You’re catching fewer and smaller walleyes, and more and bigger trash fish. Doesn’t that mean anything?

Staking out environmental benchmarks does not seem to be on the mind of the Bush administration. Soon after being elected, the president backed away from a campaign promise to regulate carbon dioxide and declared the Kyoto Protocol, the only major international agreement on greenhouse gases, “fatally flawed.” Last year, with the support of ExxonMobil, the administration used its influence to oust the chair of the leading scientific panel on global warming, and it released a plan that sought to reduce greenhouse gas intensities—the amount emitted per unit of economic growth—rather than an absolute decrease in emissions.

At the president’s request, a panel of 17 environmental experts was assembled by the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the White House’s policies related to global warming. The panel’s February report could not have pleased the administration when it found that the Bush policy “lacks most of the basic elements of a strategic plan: a guiding vision, executable goals, clear timetables and criteria for measuring progress.” One panel member complained, “There’s no question that if you claim that not much is known, even if it is, then you delay the time at which you can say, OK, the research is unequivocal and we need to do something about the problem.”

The Bush line closely echoes the recommendations of a GOP strategy memo by pollster Frank Lutz, which was leaked to the media last year. In it, Lutz said, “The scientific debate is closing but not yet closed.” He added, “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate…[italics his].”

There is reason for hope, and strange as it may seem, it has to do with the war in Iraq. In February, British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a remarkable statement that got little notice on this side of the Atlantic. The president’s most important ally in the war against Iraq—and the only real political star in an otherwise deplorable performance—said that global warming and other environmental degradation were as great a threat to world security as weapons of mass destruction or terrorism. Along with new funding for alternative energy research, he announced a plan to cut Europe’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 60 percent by 2050, a significant step beyond the Kyoto goal that EU countries are committed to. Taking a swipe at his Gulf War ally, he called global leadership on climate change issues, “a little short of inspirational, especially in some of the world’s most powerful nations.”

Perhaps the savvy prime minister has some kind of payback in mind for his loyalty. Could it be that Blair will ask for a U.S. commitment to stop ignoring the global and scientific consensus on climate change? Past failures of diplomacy aside, it may be one of the few silver linings to come out of this war.

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