Kate Knuth looked in horror at the milky red light painting her daughter’s face at sunset. The Canadian wildfires that triggered so many air quality warnings across Minnesota and more eastern states this summer didn’t just make it impossible for her daughter to play outside, they also illustrated the undeniable widespread impact of climate change, something her daughter will have to contend with as she grows up.
At the same time, Knuth couldn’t help but feel a sense of hope — not just in seeing her daughter’s smile, regardless of the light, but also in everything now being done to address climate change around the state and in her new role as climate director for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
“The disasters are real and unfolding, but there’s joy in being a part of a big thing that we get to do together and that we have to do together,” Knuth says. “I’m excited to help mobilize the state government to take on climate change, the real challenge of our time.”
Public service as a path to the MPCA
In a way, the MPCA has been a part of Knuth’s life since before she was born. Her godmother, Elaine Johnson, was a long-time agency employee who got to know her father, Dan, who was trained as a hydrologist and worked various roles in the agency. Johnson even introduced Knuth’s parents.
Knuth’s trajectory toward the MPCA and a career focused on addressing climate change, however, really began in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, disproportionately affecting low-income communities and people of color. “I remember thinking, ‘This is what climate change is, and we’re not ready for it,’” Knuth says. “So what did I do about it? I ran for the Legislature.”
That’s not an entirely uncharacteristic response for members of Knuth’s family. She says that public service is a “foundational value” in her family and among her family friends; both her father and her uncle served as representatives in the Minnesota Legislature in the 1980s.
With Johnson running her campaign, Knuth was elected to office in 2007. Over the next six years, she introduced or saw through a number of significant climate and environment-related bills that, among other things, addressed greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals and identified hazardous chemicals in children’s toys. Those were heady times, Knuth says, with bipartisan majorities working together on common goals.
“It was exciting. That experience exposed me to the power and possibilities of government and to being a partner and collaborator in the future we want.”
After her legislative career, Knuth served on Minnesota’s Environmental Quality Board and as the chief resilience officer for the City of Minneapolis, earned a doctorate in conservation, and started her own consultancy aimed at revitalizing democratic institutions to empower them to fight climate change.
Knuth’s combination of expertise in climate and environmental issues and her two decades of experience in public service “positions her extremely well to lead the state of Minnesota’s response to climate change,” said Frank Kohlasch, the assistant commissioner for air and climate policy at the MPCA. “Her thoughtful leadership at the Legislature, in academia, and in local government, combined with her demonstrated ability to engage communities and residents, will serve our agency — and all Minnesotans — well as we develop and implement strategies to protect our communities, adapt to a changing climate, and meet our emission reduction goals.”
Minnesota’s advantage in addressing climate change
Knuth also generated plenty of headlines across the state during her campaign for mayor of Minneapolis in 2021. While that effort proved unsuccessful, it gave her a platform to air her Minneapolis Green New Deal proposal, in which she encouraged Minneapolis residents to determine the future of their city and to take climate action using collective leadership.
“I grew up in Minnesota, but I intentionally chose to come back here after studying abroad because of the civic culture,” Knuth says. “There’s a foundational belief here that it’s part of your rights and responsibilities to contribute to building a place together. Sometimes that’s through government, sometimes that’s through other means.”
While national media oftentimes describes Minnesota as a climate refuge, a place where people migrate to when escaping or avoiding extreme weather events elsewhere, Knuth says that doesn’t mean Minnesotans will not see the effects of climate change. She pointed to the historic flooding in and around Duluth in 2012 and the more recent air pollution in the state from Canadian wildfires as examples.
“Everywhere is getting hot, and the marginalized are more vulnerable,” she says. “Climate change is a global problem, but people experience it through their local community and place. As the climate changes and as people are moving more, we need to not just be ready and willing but excited about welcoming people to Minnesota. It’s a matter of choosing a vision for our climate future of possibility, abundance, and openness over fear, exclusion, and boundaries.”
A watershed moment
In her role at the MPCA, Knuth will not only manage the agency’s operations as they relate to climate change mitigation and adaptation, but she will also coordinate across state agencies to implement Minnesota’s Climate Action Framework, established in 2022 to increase the state’s resilience to the impacts of climate change, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and build equity.
To Knuth, this moment of climate action feels like just as significant a leap forward in addressing climate change as when she joined a Minnesota state legislature ready to enact new state environmental laws or when her father and godmother joined the growing MPCA in the wake of new national laws like the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
“The state is poised to accelerate this work in multiple ways, if we’re not already accelerating it,” she says. “There are day-to-day challenges of navigating government agencies and aligning resources, and those can be frustrating at the end of the day, but to be part of this team at this moment is very energizing. I’m sometimes in awe of being in this moment in history and making a difference. It’s overwhelming but also exhilarating.”