Maybe it's his imminent 100th birthday that has Tom Swain so impatient to ramp up Minnesota's efforts to combat climate change.
Then again, anyone who knows Swain (and that's a lot of people, after Swain's seven decades of vigorous civic life) knows that he's never exhibited much patience in the face of a public problem.
The bigger the issue, it seems, the more eager he is to tackle it posthaste. That trait was evident when he was working in state government as statehood centennial director, a state agency head, gubernatorial chief of staff and health policy adviser; in local government as mayor of Lilydale; in the private sector as an insurance executive and St. Paul convention bureau manager; and in higher education, as a Gophers ticket manager and a University of Minnesota vice president — twice.
Fourteen years ago, while in his mid-80s, Swain did something routine — for him, that is. He went to a public-affairs meeting, read up on the topic at hand and asked a ton of questions. This meeting was the 2007 Nobel Conference at Gustavus Adolphus College, featuring Columbia University climate scientist James Hansen. (You can watch Hansen's 2007 speech here.)
Hansen "made a very significant point: that the planet is almost at a tipping point with regard to habitability in many places," Swain recalls. "He suggested oblivion if something wasn't done about it soon.
"That warning has been preying on me increasingly ever since. If my grandchildren live long enough, they're going to be significantly impacted. Yet though we've talked a good game, very little has been done about it."
Subsequent study convinced him that unless every possible tool is employed to bring human emission of greenhouse gases down to net-zero — and soon — Earth will become significantly less hospitable to life. That reversal will occur even as demand for food and water swells with a human population that's projected to hit nearly 10 billion by 2050.
This year, a few friends (including me, his writing partner on his 2015 memoir "Citizen Swain: Tales of a Minnesota Life") asked Swain how he'd like to celebrate his centenary, on July 4. Some of us were thinking cake and ice cream. Swain was thinking climate change.
Could he ask well-wishers to pledge to step up their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Could he find a way to urge them to go beyond individual choices, such as eating less meat or driving an electric car, and employ the change-making power of democratic action? Could he make the climate issue a more visible priority of his favorite institution, his alma mater and several-time employer, the University of Minnesota?
Those questions proved highly motivating. They led to the creation of the new Swain Climate Policy Series at the U. It's a project of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs; also involved are the U's Institute on the Environment, its alumni association, foundation and University Press, along with a host of environmentally focused nonprofit organizations. A website has been launched that includes a "kudoboard" on which anyone can wish Swain a happy birthday and make a climate pledge.
Coming soon: a big-name lecture series and a flurry of opportunities for citizens to get involved. Plus: a flag-raising ceremony at Target Field before the Minnesota Twins play ball on July 10, at which a certain World War II veteran plans to represent the Greatest Generation as he pleads that a climate correction can't wait.
Did I mention that Swain spent most of his life as an active Republican?
Swain's urgency stands in stark contrast to the foot-dragging on climate matters seen among Republicans this year in the Minnesota Senate. The Senate's GOP majority has gone to great lengths to block what future historians will undoubtedly describe as a relatively minor, overdue policy nudge in a vitally necessary direction.
That rule is far from heavy-handed. It would not require anyone to stop driving a gas guzzler or trade a car for a bike or a pair of walking shoes. It would merely tell automakers to send Minnesota dealers more electric vehicles and dealers to stock them, so more Minnesota buyers can have that option readily at hand.
The clean car rule is a baby step. Swain is all for it. But his judgment about its ultimate value is clear: "It's not enough to drive an electric vehicle. Young people need to realize that what needs to be done involves government policymaking." It will take government to accelerate the transition away from fossil-fuel consumption in big systems. Think power generation, manufacturing, agriculture, mass transit.
Swain calls himself a small-government conservative. But some problems can't be solved without government, he argues, and climate change is atop that list.
"Citizenship has been one of the bases of my existence," he said. "I've seen that lawmakers will only do as much as they are urged to do. Until now, the climate hasn't been a vote-getting issue. That's got to change, and in order to do so, we need to get all of society involved in this now."
See why we called his book "Citizen Swain"?
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at email@example.com.