The high-profile proposal was well received. “Governor Tim Pawlenty gave global warming a welcome new prominence in his energy initiative, which picks up this state’s pace on expanding energy conservation and developing renewable fuels,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune declared in an editorial.
Pawlenty went to work immediately to push the initiative through. The renewable-energy mandate already had strong backing among Minnesota’s Democrats, but the governor met with conservative Republicans and business groups to convince them that it was a good idea. The Legislature passed the measure, and Pawlenty signed it into law in February 2007. At the time, the aggressive 25 percent renewable-energy mandate was the strongest in the country. Pawlenty presented the initiative as a model for other governors, and several states passed similar legislation in the years that followed.
“He was a real leader on this,” said Ellen Anderson, who was the chief author of the renewable-energy mandate and now chairs the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. “He talked about it a lot to the chamber [of commerce] and conservative groups. That helped me pass my bill. We couldn’t have passed it without him.”
And Pawlenty kept going. In April 2007, he created the Minnesota Climate Change Advisory Group and charged it with developing a comprehensive plan to reduce the state’s greenhouse-gas emissions. He appointed 51 business and community leaders to the panel—including Leith Anderson, his pastor. And he invited the Washington-based Center for Climate Strategies, a consulting firm that had helped 10 other states develop climate policies, to work with the advisory group.
In May, Pawlenty signed the Next Generation Energy Act, requiring the state to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions 15 percent by 2015 and 80 percent by 2050. “The nation has been asleep at the switch, but here in Minnesota we are kick-starting the future,” he boasted.
To highlight the local effects of climate change, Pawlenty toured the state with a fellow Minnesotan, Arctic explorer and dogsledder Will Steger, calling attention to the retreat of Minnesota’s majestic boreal forests and the declining water level of the Great Lakes.
“He had a lot of courage to do that,” Steger said. “But he was convinced by the science. I believe that he saw global warming for what it was. He saw, morally, the implications of it. He got a lot of flak from Republicans in the state for working with me. I thought it was courageous on his side.”
That summer, Pawlenty took his campaign national when he assumed the helm of the National Governors Association. He unveiled his national leadership initiative, Securing a Clean Energy Future, which called on states to ramp up their use of renewable energy and cut carbon emissions.
“America is at a tipping point,” Pawlenty warned in his address accepting the one-year chairmanship of the NGA. “Our country is too dependent on imported sources of energy, and greenhouse-gas emissions continue to grow too quickly. Governors have a tremendous opportunity to lead the country toward a cleaner, more independent, more secure energy future.”
He named six governors to a task force that he cochaired with then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas to look at ways that states could support energy efficiency and low-emissions technology. Environmentalists praised the move, saying it could help get federal efforts—including a national cap-and-trade plan—off the ground.
Meanwhile, Pawlenty reached out to his fellow Midwestern governors to create a regional cap-and-trade program, similar to those being put together in New England and in the Western states. In November, Pawlenty and five other governors signed the Midwest Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord, pledging to establish ambitious regional targets for greenhouse-gas reduction and to create a multi-sector cap-and-trade system to help meet the targets.
“There’s no doubt he was a leader and initiator,” recalls former Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin, with whom Pawlenty worked most closely on the Midwest pact. “He’s a very smart person. He had very good thoughts on this. We never had any disagreement on this. All of us recognized the need to have a national cap-and-trade—but [that] in the absence of that we should have a Midwestern cap-and-trade.”
As the only Republican governor in the group, Pawlenty helped give the initiative some bipartisan heft. But climate change hadn’t yet become a polarizing issue on the state level. “In those years, it really wasn’t that partisan,” Doyle said. “We had an understanding that this was an important issue that needed to be addressed and that the Midwestern states could really benefit by getting out ahead and working to build a renewable-energy industry.”
In January 2008, Pawlenty’s Climate Change Advisory Group released its policy recommendations, which included joining a regional cap-and-trade program and adopting strict air-emissions standards that would likely have blocked new coal-fired power plants. Conservative and business groups, such as the Minnesota Free Market Institute, slammed the recommendations. But Pawlenty appeared to stick by his climate principles. He teamed with the Environmental Defense Fund—the advocacy group credited with most forcefully pushing cap-and-trade policies as the best solution for climate change—and recorded a radio ad with Democrat Janet Napolitano, then governor of Arizona, urging Congress to act.