Lori Sturdevant
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Something just-deposed state Commerce Commissioner Steve Kelley said in passing at a University of Minnesota event 15 months ago has stayed with me. The former DFL legislator and erstwhile candidate for U.S. Senate, governor and attorney general was forecasting the 2020 political year.

“Health care will be the big issue again, and that’s a shame,” Kelley said. “The next election ought to be about climate change. If we wait until 2024 to take climate change seriously, it will be too late.”

What’s that biblical line about a prophet lacking honor in his own country?

I’ve known Kelley to be a prophetic voice about the negative consequences of rising atmospheric levels of CO2 since his days in the state Senate, which ended in 2006. His brief campaign for governor in 2010 featured a call for a state tax on carbon emissions, intended to both discourage those emissions and help finance a transition to a green-energy future.

In keeping with the gospel, there was no honor in what the Republican-controlled state Senate did to Kelley on Sept. 11, when it booted him from the job at the state Commerce Department to which DFL Gov. Tim Walz appointed him 21 months ago.

No honor, that is, for the senators who showed Kelley the door. And seemingly no cognizance that on that very day, fires were consuming vast swaths of California and Oregon. Residents of Gulf-coastal Texas and Louisiana were mopping up the mess left by one major hurricane while bracing for another one. Chain saws were still buzzing in eastern Iowa after a derecho, or land hurricane, battered landscapes and flattened crops.

Each of those “natural” disasters was record-breaking, but none was entirely natural. Scientists have been warning for decades that continued high levels of human fossil-fuel consumption would lead to precisely those phenomena — and worse.

Prominent in the multipart indictment Kelley’s state Senate accusers recited as they denied him confirmation was opposition to his decision last month to appeal the approval of Enbridge’s proposed new pipeline across northern Minnesota.

The legal argument for the appeal Kelley approved is that Enbridge has not demonstrated that future oil consumption demand will justify a new Line 3. State law requires a forecast of demand as well as supply to justify the Public Utilities Commission’s issuance of a certificate of need for any major new energy project, the appeal argues.

Its backdrop is something the line’s critics have been saying for years: A state that’s serious about slowing climate change ought not make it easier for highly polluting Canadian tar sands oil to be consumed.

That environmental concern went unspoken on the Senate floor before the “no” vote on Kelley’s confirmation. Instead, there was much talk about the projected 4,000-plus construction jobs that would be lost if Line 3 is not replaced, and complaints that by rejecting the new line, the Walz administration was insulting Greater Minnesota.

“By doing this appeal, that’s thumbing their nose at rural Minnesota,” accused Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks. “Does that just tell us that we are a bunch of rocks and cows up there?”

One can safely assume that with an election less than two months away, both parties are well aware that Greater Minnesota is populated by voters as well as cows. But the two parties long ago reached different conclusions about the politics and economics of climate change. Kelley’s non-confirmation shows that those longstanding positions are holding fast in 2020, despite the onset of hellish fire, record floods and a pandemic that has more than a few voters wondering whether American skepticism about science has gone too far.

Even outside the metro area, voters may be warming (pardon the pun) to a faster transition to green energy. Note last month’s DFL primary in Duluth’s state Senate District 7, in which incumbent Erik Simonson lost to attorney and political newcomer Jen McEwen. McEwen made climate change a leading issue, faulting Simonson for being part of “a small group of DFL senators who voted alongside Republicans to really stymie progress” on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

McEwen told me that voters in her DFL-leaning district “believe in science. We believe the climate crisis is happening. We’ve been left feeling helpless, disempowered, in how we can move things forward. It has seemed that we were stuck. I want to change that.”

So, evidently, do Duluth voters.

The now-former commissioner remained unabashedly prophetic when I caught up with him last week. Kelley predicted that regardless of who leads the state Commerce Department or whether the state is an appeal plaintiff, a new Line 3 is in for a prolonged legal challenge. Growing climate concern will propel more court action, he said.

What’s more, he said, the jobs argument in favor of Enbridge’s project will be increasingly be countered by awareness of the job-creating potential of green energy.

“We have options in front of us for building vastly more wind and solar power,” Kelley said. “Most of that investment will be made in Greater Minnesota, both for construction and long-term operation. There will be good jobs and they’ll be distributed across multiple communities. Those benefits will flow to a lot more people” than would the gains from a new pipeline, he allowed.

“Those who are painting a picture of loss” from a transition to green energy “aren’t painting a complete picture. We need to tell both parts of the story.”

As Kelley predicted in June 2019, a health issue — the COVID-19 threat — has taken center stage in the 2020 campaign. But nature keeps showing Americans that ignoring the climate issue won’t make it go away. My prophecy: Tossing Steve Kelley out of the Walz administration won’t either.

Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.