MCEA celebrates environmental progress

The Minnesota Center on Environmental Advocacy had its 40th anniversary celebration on Thursday and it was a humdinger.

The venerable group whose name says it all has been a fixture on the “enviro” scene without any letdown in energy or mission in its four decades.

My favorite part of the event was the public recognition of two giants who propelled the fledgling environmental movement in the 1970’s and '80’s and continue as a major force today.

More than anyone, environmental lawyers Chuck Dayton and John Herman have commandeered a cascading raft of laws and rules that pushed the currents of political discourse at the Legislature toward sustainability.

I’ve known these guys the whole time, so I’ve had had a ringside seat.

As a student I was on the hiring committee that brought Dayton and Herman together for the first time, as staff attorneys for MPIRG. I still have their resumes somewhere in my old MPIRG files. Chuck quit a lucrative job at a prominent law firm to be employed by students; John was a Harvard wunderkind who located here to work for peanuts at MPIRG.

After 44 years, their body of work spans pretty much the entire environmental spectrum, including:

The Minnesota Environmental Policy Act, Minnesota Energy Act, Metropolitan Open Space Act, major process laws and tools resulting in the Certificate of Need requirements, strong Environmental Impact Statement mandates, a Minnesota Environmental Quality Board, leadership in shoreline management laws, creation of new State Parks and Trails, farmland drainage controls (but too late to transform southwestern Minnesota back to its pre-settlement wonderland of water and woods).

The MCEA gala was a celebration of past policy achievements, and of victories yet to come.

But behind the backdrop of revelry at MCEA’s gala is an urgent need for dramatic action now on climate change. Future wins on climate need to come fast and furious.

That is because decision makers dilly-dally on enacting conservation solutions everyone knows will save money and pay for themselves many times over. They drag their feet on meaningful clean energy advances, even though solar energy economics compare favorably with coal, nuclear and natural gas on both short and long-term cost.

Our state's environmental champions have led the way to demand a target for conservation and clean energy requirements. The 1.5% solar energy mandate in Minnesota was a start, but it grossly understates the appetite of the market--and the public--for more clean energy, much more.

The self-less efforts of groups like MCEA and environmental heroes like Dayton and Herman showed us how to work inside the system to make environmental history.

Now it is up to the rest of us to pay it forward.

You can also read this column on startribune.com