Last week, MCEA Staff Attorney Kevin Lee and MCEA Communications Director Aaron Klemz screened An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the follow up movie to An Inconvenient Truth. An Inconvenient Sequel follows former Vice President Al Gore as he presents research on climate change around the globe, attempts to help the passage of the Paris Climate Accords, and travels to see the impact of climate change. It’s a strong update of the 2006 movie and provides a needed dose of hope in the wake of the U.S. federal government withdrawal from the Paris Accords.
Kevin and Aaron had a chance to sit down with the directors of the movie, Bonni Cohen and Jon Schenk, to ask them about the movie, the state of climate activism, and the importance of working at the state and local level.
Just one day after the interview, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission updated their "cost of carbon" used when making power plant decisions. This took four years of work here at MCEA. It ensures that from now on, Minnesota will accurately reflect the cost that climate change imposes on people when choosing between renewable energy sources and fossil fuel based energy. It's one example of how MCEA works at the state level to ensure a livable planet for our children and grandchildren.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power opens Friday, August 4th at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Aaron Klemz of MCEA: Eleven years after the first film, An Inconvenient Truth, it seemed like we would be past this "debate" about scientific evidence and whether we need to prove the reality of climate change any more. And of course there is a lot less emphasis in this sequel than there was in the 2006 film. How did you make decisions about how much emphasis to place on the reality of climate change and how it’s accelerating as you put the film together?
Bonnie Cohen: You know there’s a expression that Al Gore uses often, “the hope bucket.” When you’re talking to human beings about this kind of devastation, an existential crisis of this magnitude, you have to have a “hope bucket” in the conversation somewhere so that they don’t become paralyzed with fear and aren’t moved to act. That kind of thesis we talked about a lot in the making of the film – just how far do we go before we infuse a little bit of information about the sustainability revolution taking hold right now and the cost decrease of solar and wind and how effective that is in turning all of this around, it’s just a question of how quickly.
Obviously we thought it was very important, as did Al, to let the viewership know just how bad things have gotten in terms of hottest years, climate related weather events that have gotten so much more serious in the last 10 years, droughts, fires, Zika picking up further into the northern hemisphere. So that is all in there, but very often you’ll see Al Gore turn around and give an example of how we can also work to combat the climate crisis. So, we were always thinking about how much a viewer could take before they would just want to walk out of the theater and throw their hands up in the air and not want to act.
Kevin Lee of MCEA: Since we work in the policy field and we’re pretty steeped in this, we’re constantly bombarded with a lot of bad news on this front. To follow up on what you were talking about in the “hope bucket,” we’re there any experiences you had while shooting the film that gave you optimism that this is a solvable problem?
BC: You see Eric Rignot in the film, he’s an incredible French scientist, he teaches at UC-Irvine where he is a glaciologist. He’s in the film in Greenland on a boat with Al Gore, showing him where the ice was in the 1980’s. When we got to Greenland he had just released his new report on what was going on in Antarctica and Al was just completely devastated by it. He actually said to him “I read your reports, I’m an eternal optimist but even me, I’m having a hard time coming back from this.” And Eric said, “It’s true, of course, that we’ve done irrevocable damage. There are things that we cannot get back, but the best way to think about is it’s as if you’ve cut off most of your pinkie finger. Do you give up on the other nine fingers?” And for whatever reason, all of us thought that was the most positive thing we’d heard. We were all ready to saw off our fingers!
Jon Shenk: We were really uplifted many times throughout the production process by the exciting news of what’s going on with the innovative technologies of the sustainable revolution, as Al Gore calls it. In the original film, there’s a famous shot where Al Gore got on a scissor lift and has to lift himself practically out of the theater to show how bad global warming has gotten and how bad carbon dioxide has gotten in the atmosphere. There are graphs just as dramatic showing the cost downcurve of solar and wind.
Bonnie and I put solar on our house about 10 years ago and even then it was a cash-positive net gain for us, but now it’s very dramatic. In many states in the US you can call a solar supplier and the next day you can be paying less for electricity, it’s kind of a no-brainer. So then it comes down to policy, and politics.
In the film you see Al meet a mayor in oil country in Texas. That’s kind of a two-fold piece of optimism for us. One, because it really reveals that Al is in kind of a post-political world, he’s beyond politics, his career has moved beyond to this realm of activism where he doesn’t care if you’re a conservative or a liberal anymore, he just cares about solving the problem. He met with [Georgetown, Texas Mayor] Dale Ross, and of course they agree that solar and wind make sense financially. And oh, by the way, once you go there the air is cleaner and you can leave a better planet for your children. It really gave us an enormous amount of hope to see scenes like that.
AK: It’s interesting that you mention this idea of being “post-politics” because the specter of the election is cast throughout this movie. When you were shooting this movie you didn’t know that in November 2016 we were going to see an election that threatens to reverse a lot of the political progress on renewable energy and climate change. If you had more time to make changes or shoot new material, what would you have added to this film?
BC: The truth is that Trump, I hesitate to say this, is at the very early part of his tenure as President. It is a grim reality. Al was very funny, we were in France showing the film in May. His favorite line was “Well, I’m glad we’re at the halfway mark of Trump’s presidency.” Even though Trump has dismantled the EPA, he’s made these cabinet appointments of climate deniers, and now he’s pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, which is insanity, it’s hard to know what the effects are actually going to be. So in terms of including him further as a character, we would actually have to stay with this for longer. Because the truth is that while he is undoing all of this, regular citizens of this country like yourselves, and mayors in small towns, and Governors like [California’s] Jerry Brown are continuing to move this all forward.
So, is he actually going to be able to undo as much as he thinks he is? It’s hard to know. It feels like progress is still very much underway. You can still get to the Paris commitments, as an example, even if Trump is trying to pull out of it. I think we have to constantly ask ourselves, in reality what do all these devastating things that he’s doing really mean? And in terms of the film, what would we have actually included besides knowing that we’re facing this now? We haven’t experienced it yet.
JS: Bonni and I really come from an observational school of film making where we lay a plan to try to capture the reality of the story were doing. In this case it was really Al Gore’s story and the work that he does to try to solve the climate crisis. The documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker said that documentarians don’t have the luxury of screenwriting. We can’t invent stuff, we film what is actually happening and then we piece it together the best we can. And the audience themselves has to fill in the gaps, to a certain extent. We make films where we really respect the audience. We know that people bring an intelligence to this story, and global warming and the climate crisis has been in our culture for long enough, partly thanks to an Inconvenient Truth, that we have the language. We don’t need to condescend and berate people about the basic science anymore. I think most Americans know the basic science. And so the real story for us was how fast are we moving to solve the problem?
To us, that has real drama because the technology exists now for us to get there. So, we’re not really kicking ourselves because we didn’t have any more time. We’re really proud that we were able to get such great access to Al’s world and be there for the meetings he did to gain the information he then gives in his slideshow. And, of course, during Paris when he did whatever he could there to make a deal successful. We really hope that this is a document of a really driven person trying to the right thing during a difficult period in the planet’s history.
BC: Al Gore was very worried when Trump pulled out of the Paris Accords that other countries would follow suit. And the truth is the absolute reverse thing happened. Countries doubled down on their commitments in Paris. We often marvel at the fact that in those first days after he pulled out of the Paris Accords that all the major news networks were talking about the climate crisis. When was the last time that climate was major news in this country? So, maybe there was a reverse psychology happening there.
JS: There is this funny little thing that gets in the way of the denialist agenda, which is the truth.
BC: There still is truth.
KL: One thing we hear a lot of since the election is that a lot of attention has turned toward the states, and we see that a lot here with the work that we do. Has Al Gore shifted his activism in the same way? Does he see the states as the next front in moving these policies along?
BC: Definitely. I don’t know that he sees it as “the next front,” but he sees it as an important front. [California Governor] Jerry Brown was at our screening last night, and he was talking about very important legislation that he just passed on methane in the state of California. One of the reasons we have the scene with the Mayor of Georgetown [Texas] is that Al Gore really believes that local and state government can do a hell of a lot when the federal government is obstructionist.
JS: One of the best moments for me in the wake of Trump’s devastating announcement about the Paris Accords is that Trump said he was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh, not the people of Paris. Within a day or two, the Mayor of Pittsburgh stood up and said, “Wait a minute. I’m the mayor of Pittsburgh and the people that I represent want to stay in in Paris because we want to save our environment.” And so cities are enormously important because so much of the electricity use in our country goes predominantly to urban areas. If you can take cituies like Pittsburgh and giant metropolises like New York and San Francisco carbon neutral, it’s very exciting and well worth activists’ energy.
JS: It’s organizations like yours that are pushing things forward.
BC: Now more than ever.
JS: We hope you agree, by getting people out to the film it really sends a message. One of the ways we vote these days is by what we pay attention to. When, hopefully, millions of people go to see this film, it sends another strong message that “wow, people care about this stuff.”
By Jim Erkel - MCEA Attorney & Director, Land Use & Transportation Program
In MCEA’s land use and development program, I argue for policy platforms and funding mechanisms that will support more compact and mixed-use forms of development and a transit system that will allow residents to access all of the social, economic, and environmental assets the region affords. The strategies MCEA supports will improve the air we breathe and the water we drink, protect our region’s remaining natural areas, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and make the region more resilient as it confronts the effects of a changing climate.
If properly implemented, the strategies will also help reduce the region’s problem with some of the nation’s worst racial disparities in housing, health, education, and employment. This summer, I’m planning to read two books that explore the role of the law in creating the kind of racial disparities the region confronts, assess how the disparities exacerbate economic inequalities, and consider solutions that will help make the economic engines that regions represent work for all of their residents.
Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law:
A Forgotten History of how Our Government Segregated America
This book catalogs the legal mechanisms that were used to establish and reinforce neighborhood segregation. In particular, it considers the use of racially restrictive covenants. In a recent report, MCEA assessed the role such covenants played in the history of intentional racism, economic neglect, and geographic isolation that still burdens the Near North neighborhoods of Minneapolis.
Richard Florida’s The New Urban Crisis:
How Our Cities are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation,
and Failing the Middle Class – And What We Can Do About It
In previous books, Florida argued that human capital, particularly the creative class, would determine success in regional economic competition. Following the Great Recession, Florida saw that attracting and building the creative class was having the effect of worsening economic inequalities. He argues for a set of policies that will lead to an ‘urbanism for all.’ The solutions Florida sets out reflect many of the strategies MCEA supports such as transit access, local business opportunities, and neighborhood preservation. Working with its allies, MCEA helped to include these kinds of policy threads in the Saint Paul’s Central Corridor Development Strategy.
I will probably run through several yellow highlighters when I read the books this summer so that I can come back to them for ideas and inspiration as MCEA moves forward in advocating for policies and funding that will advance regional equity the definition of which I take from a past summer’s reading recommendation, a book by Manuel Pastor, Jr., Chris Benner, and Martha Matsuoka entitled This Could Be the Start of Something Big: How Social Movements for Regional Equity are Reshaping Metropolitan America –
“(R)egional equity means considering both people and place. A competitive and inclusive region is one in which members of all racial, ethnic, and income groups have opportunities to live and work in all parts of the region, have access to living wage jobs and are included in the mainstream of regional life. It is also one in which all neighborhoods are supported to be vibrant places with choices for affordable housing, good schools, access to open space, decent transit that connects people to jobs, and healthy and sustainable environments.”
What are you reading this summer? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.
I'm sure that you've seen the news that President Trump is withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord. This action threatens U.S. leadership on global action to limit climate change, to be sure. We wanted to take a moment to share with you what MCEA will be doing in response.
Minnesota's position as a leader in clean energy is more critical than ever.
Minnesota's bipartisan Next Generation Energy Act has put us on a path to exceed the goal of generating 25% of our electricity through renewable sources by 2025. Ten years after this legislation was signed by Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, 21% of Minnesota's electricity comes from renewable sources. We can do even more - and bipartisan legislation introduced this year would double that goal to 50% by 2030. We don't need to wait for leadership in D.C., we can take action right here in St. Paul. Governor Dayton's decision to join the U.S. Climate Alliance is a big symbolic step, and now we need to create the policy change to live up to that commitment.
Our work in Minnesota regulatory agencies is making a big difference over the long haul.
Besides working at the legislature, MCEA works on making renewable energy gains through our work at the Public Utilities Commission. We're constantly strategizing ways to reduce our carbon footprint here in Minnesota. We're working to ensure Minnesota factors the impact of climate change into energy decisions. We work to retire dirty coal plants, like the Sherco coal powered plants. It's not always glamorous, but it's making a big difference.
MCEA’s ability to protect Minnesota’s environment depends on you.
We need your support to push for clean energy and climate justice in Minnesota.
We appreciate your support, and together we'll keep working to ensure that Minnesota leads the way on responding to climate change.
by Jim Erkel, Land Use and Transportation Program Director
The transportation bill passed by the Minnesota House and Senate and vetoed by Governor Dayton recommended using proceeds from the State of Minnesota’s general fund to support the state trunk highways and local roads. There are three main arguments against letting roads draw from the general fund – history, competing priorities, and the unreliable character of the general fund itself.
1. History Until the end of the Nineteenth Century, roads in Minnesota were considered a form of internal improvement. There was so much suspicion of such schemes that Minnesota’s Constitution specifically precluded the use of state funds for their construction and maintenance. When the need for better roads became too obvious to ignore, the Legislature worked through several specific new funding mechanisms -- investment proceeds, statewide property taxes, and finally the gas tax -- so that roads would not become a substantial draw on the general fund.
Road interests used the fiscal lemons of specific funding mechanisms to make political lemonade. They argued the dedicated funds would make it easier to plan and execute the state’s road systems. More importantly, they began asserting that ‘roads pay for themselves.’ This talking point was a stretch then and certainly isn’t true at the moment. As a bit of context, the state’s gas tax represents less than 20% of the total amount raised by all levels of government for the construction and maintenance of all of Minnesota’s roads and the largest source of source of funding for Minnesota’s roads is local property taxes.
Republicans are now arguing that roads are a priority of state government and should be able to access the general fund. This argument is simply a variation on the Republican theme of ‘no new taxes.’ In addition, they argue, as Rep. Jon Petersburg (R-District 24A) said last week, that “(w)e can’t continue to sustain it (road infrastructure) on the backs of just those who drive cars anymore.” In so doing, Republicans intentionally or not repudiate the history of road funding in Minnesota and the main talking point they have used to prefer roads to transit when funding transportation.
2. Competing Priorities It may well be that transportation in of its all forms should be a considered a priority of state government but polls consistently show that it rarely makes it out of the second tier of political issues that might have a reasonable call on the general fund. The second-tier character of transportation is reflected in how other states support roads with proceeds from their general funds. The support may be considered broad but it is not particularly substantial.
As the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce has noted, 34 states support roads with some proceeds from their general funds. However, general funds represent only 5.5% of all state funds used for roads. Even this amount is less than it seems. Of the 34 states that use general funds for roads, 2 -- California and Texas -- represent 45.7% of the $9.6 billion in general fund proceeds used in 2014 by all 34 states. If California and Texas are not included, proceeds from general funds represent only 3.9% of all state funds used for roads.
The effect of a small number of states that heavily rely on their general funds can be seen in the difference between the median and the mean in the amount of general fund proceeds used by the states. With California and Texas, the median of all 34 is $89.5 million/year/state but the mean is $248.6 million/year/state. If California and Texas are not included, the median for the remaining 32 states drops to $75.3 million/year/state and the mean is $163.8 million/year/state.
When it passed the House on March 31st, HF861 represented a projected hit to the general fund of $342.2 million/year in FY2020. In other words, Minnesota wouldn't be simply easing its way into the use of the general fund in support of roads, it would be diving into the deep end and spending more than 3 times the median and 2 times the mean of the 32 states other than California and Texas. At that amount, Minnesota would go from not being on the list at all to the top 10 of states supporting roads with general fund proceeds other than California and Texas.
In the transportation bill vetoed by Governor Dayton, the amount of general fund proceeds that would be directed to roads was reduced to $281.7 million/year in FY2020. For the most part, the general fund proceeds for roads needed to be reduced so that Republicans could use more of the projected surplus in the state’s budget to pay for their proposed tax cuts. This substantiates that roads are a second-tier issue even for Republicans -- they are a priority of state government for Republicans but they always take a back seat to tax cuts. It is too bad, then, that Republicans can’t seem to connect the dots and understand that raising the state’s gas tax would result in local property tax relief.
3. Unreliable Character
The general fund is one of the most unreliable mechanisms used to fund roads. Changing economic conditions and the ebb and flow of state budgets mean that a projected surplus in the general fund can quickly transform into a very real shortfall. Minnesota has some road-related experience with this problem. Almost as soon as the statutory dedication was established, the state experienced a difficult run of budget shortfalls. Predictably, the general fund proceeds intended for roads and transit were taken and used to balance the budget. After repeated fails, the statutory dedication was repealed.
The unreliable character of the general fund is also reflected in the experience of the 34 states that used general fund proceeds to support roads in 2014. In 2005, 28 states used some amount of general fund proceeds. Seven of the 28 didn't use any general funds in 2014. Of the remaining 21, 9 spent less and 12 spent more in 2014. In other words, 16 of the 28 states that used general funds in 2005 -- almost 60% --either stopped or reduced the amount they used from general funds.
There were 13 states that used general fund proceeds in 2014 that hadn't used any in 2005. Of the 13, one is Texas which went from spending no general funds to $2.54 billion/year. If Texas is not included, the remaining 12 new states had a median of $75.7 million/year/state and a mean of $95.3 million/year/state. Again, the conference committee report on HF861 would have directed $281.7 million/year to roads from the general fund. As a result, Minnesota would have grabbed almost 4 times the median and almost 3 times the mean of general fund proceeds used by the 12 new states. In fact, Minnesota would have hit the general fund harder than any of the new states other than Texas.
4. Conclusion The Minnesota Chamber argues that the trend is for states to support roads by making more use of their general funds. As far as it goes, this is true enough. After all, 28 states supported roads with general fund proceeds in 2005 and this number increased to 34 in 2014. However, the Chamber disregards the amount of churn behind this trend and the inadequate amounts ultimately raised. More importantly, the Chamber disregards the more substantial trend playing out in how states fund transportation -- the growing number of states that are raising their gas taxes. As 13 states began using general fund proceeds for roads between 2005 and 2014, 17 states raised their gas taxes. Nine of the 17 also supported roads with general fund proceeds in both 2005 and 2014. In fact, 7 of the 9 both raised their gas taxes and increased the amount of support for roads from their general funds.
The trend of raising gas taxes is set out in the third attachment which presents information on the 16 states that passed substantial packages to fund roads in 2015. Nine of the 16 raised or significantly modified their gas tax. Seven of the 9 were states in which Republicans controlled both the executive and legislative branches. In addition, 4 of the 7 deeply red states also enjoyed a budget surplus when they raised their gas tax. The trend took a hiatus in 2016 when only one state raised its gas tax because of worries by legislators about how such an increase would affect their bids for re-election. However, it has taken off again. Already in 2017, 6 states have acted to raise their gas taxes -- California, Indiana, Montana, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Utah.
Four of the 6 states are deeply red and the differences between the positions taken by Minnesota’s Republicans and their Republican counterparts in these states are substantial. In the most striking recent example, the gas tax was increased by 12 cents/gallon in South Carolina when the Republican House and Senate voted on May 10th to override a veto of the increase by the Republican Governor. In contrast to Minnesota, the gas tax increase in South Carolina was supported by Republican leadership and the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce. The increase passed even though South Carolina enjoyed a budget surplus this session. Most importantly, it passed after South Carolina had tried and failed to meet its road needs by using proceeds from its general fund. If Minnesota really wants to be part of a trend, it will raise its gas tax rather than draw down its general fund.
By Hudson Kingston, MCEA Staff Attorney
Far from the runways of Milan, New York, Des Moines and Paris another "model showdown" has been going on in Minnesota this spring at the Public Utilities Commission. Unlike those fashion model shows, this one is for keeps and hundreds of millions of dollars (not to mention air pollution and climate change) hang in the balance. But like many important and significant issues, this debate can have the captivating intensity of a Macro Economics II midterm exam, so I will attempt to liven it up a bit.
How much should you pay a power company per month regardless of how much energy you use? This is a simple question, but it might surprise you to know that parties who participated in Xcel Energy’s recent rate case came out with very different answers to a straightforward question. Part of this big difference is because they started with totally different economic models, with different built in assumptions that lead to different outcomes. These outcomes have an impact on you, in what is called your “fixed customer charge.” Xcel Energy announced they wanted to raise it, and we joined the company’s rate case to fight that potential increase.
In MCEA’s corner was the Basic Customer model. Our economic expert started with the assumption that a residential customer should only pay for what it costs Xcel to add that customer. This means Basic Customer says: “I only should have to pay for Xcel’s costs to send me a bill, give me a meter and connect it, and provide me other services like answering the phone when I call with questions.” These bills don’t vary with where you live or how much energy you consume, they are the same whether you’re rich or poor. With the Basic Customer as a starting point, our expert used Xcel’s own facts and figures to determine that its costs are a little under six dollars for each new residential customer. For comparison: Xcel customers are paying about eight dollars a month today, already above what the Basic Customer method says they really should owe.
In the company’s corner were the Minimum System and Zero Intercept models. These models are a little harder to wrap your head around, but they attempt to represent a version of the existing Xcel system (i.e. the wires, poles, transformers, power stations, etc.) that is “minimum sized” and then divide that up to say how much each person owes for that imaginary power delivery system.
As our expert summarized in testimony:
"Minimum System analyses attempt to estimate the cost to install the same number of units (e.g., poles, conductor-feet) as are currently on the distribution system, assuming that each of those units are the smallest size currently used on the system. The Minimum System approach attempts to estimate the cost to exactly replicate the configuration of the existing distribution system using the smallest-size equipment currently used on the system. . . . the Zero Intercept method attempts to estimate the cost to replicate the configuration of the existing distribution system, assuming the same number of poles, conductor-feet, transformers, and services. However, where the Minimum System approach estimates minimum cost based on equipment cost for the smallest-size equipment actually in use, the Zero Intercept method derives minimum cost based on an estimate of what the equipment would cost in theory if it did not have to carry any load."
So, parties who adopted these models assumed that each Xcel customer should be held responsible for a part of an imaginary power system that either carries the least electricity possible or no electricity. That modeling assumption, according to Xcel’s expert, means that each of us owe more like eighteen dollars per month, just to keep the imaginary poles and wires up. Obvious right?
No, not obvious at all! In fact, last week the Public Utilities Commission decided that the fixed customer charge—what we pay each month no matter how much electricity we get from Xcel — should stay at eight dollars. This rejection of the company’s proposed increase is a big victory for the Basic Customer, and for those of us advocating for energy conservation and renewable energy use.
Why is a low customer charge so important? Xcel still gets its money from customers, but it has to recoup it in the “energy charge” you pay for your usage. So you can save money by saving energy, and if someone with the means wants to put solar panels on the roof a low customer charge makes that more feasible too. Other parties in the rate case made the good point that a lower customer charge is likewise better for low-income customers (the majority of whom are low-use), elderly customers on fixed incomes, and… the majority of all Xcel residential customers. This is a win-win-win-win for the environment, consumer advocates, advocates for the elderly, and the common sense truth that you should only have to pay a utility a fair price for what you’re getting.
So as more Minnesotans work on keeping their energy consumption low and adopt more renewable energy they have the Basic Customer to thank for the push in the right direction. Next time you get your electricity bill remember that tough customer and how it helped us to convince the Public Utilities Commission to make the right choice on your electric rates.