Former state legislator and then-Minneapolis mayoral candidate Kate Knuth knocking doors on election night 2021 in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis.
Former state legislator and then-Minneapolis mayoral candidate Kate Knuth knocking doors on election night 2021 in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis. Credit: Tony Webster / Creative Commons

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s administration has made multiple high-profile hires in recent months to help boost the state’s capacity to bring in federal climate funds.

Among the latest is Kate Knuth, a former state legislator and Minneapolis mayoral candidate who was hired last month as climate director for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Knuth also ran a consultancy that helped cities develop climate action plans and worked for the 100% Campaign that successfully backed legislation calling for carbon-free electricity by 2040.

In her new role, she succeeds Frank Kohlasch, who was promoted to the state’s assistant commissioner for air and climate policy earlier this year.

Energy News Network spoke to Knuth about her new job. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What attracted you to the climate director position?

A: I’ve worked on different parts of climate change for my whole career, so when this position came open, I was excited to apply and then to be offered the position. I’d add that this is a moment for people who want to make climate change part of their career — there’s a bunch of opportunities within the PCA and other agencies which are hiring to take on different parts of the climate challenge.

Q: What does the PCA climate director do?

A: It’s leading Minnesota on climate action, but it’s really two big buckets of work. I lead the climate section within the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which was created within the last year and a half. I have leadership and management responsibilities for that, and then I am also a key person in helping lead and coordinate on the interagency climate subcabinet work that was set up under an executive order. The subcabinet developed the state’s climate action framework. So there’s both PCA agency work and cross-agency work through the subcabinet.

Q: What does climate adaptation and resilience mean?

A: We’re going to be dealing with more droughts, rain events and extreme weather. Our infrastructure isn’t built for these challenges. We need to make sure that we build the physical and community infrastructure — and connections — that can handle the climate change that is underway. We’re living in a less predictable world that we can predict is less predictable.

Q: Let’s break down the major carbon emission pollutors and how you see their program and what needs to be done. How do you see utilities?

A: We still have a lot of work to do on electricity. I’m guessing that utilities would say that. But it’s a smaller number of actors and we’ve figured out the regulatory process and committed ourselves to a path and a process to get to 100% clean energy.

Q: Transportation and housing?

A: These two areas touch people in a personal way. We want to leverage money in the Inflation Reduction Act to electrify transportation, increase the use of heat pumps and try things like networked geothermal to heat and cool neighborhoods.

Q: The Legislature passed something like 40 bills related to climate change and devoted nearly $500 million to programs. What does that mean for you and your agency?

A: I think we’re at a moment in climate work where we are in an implementation stage. We’ve not done changing policy and making investments, but we’re doing really important implementation work.

Q: How does that play out?

A: We’re connecting with non-state government actors, local governments and organizations because implementation is such a collaborative process.

Q: What keeps you up at night?

A: The challenge is to scale up and mobilize in a historic way to cut emissions. I am maintaining the hope and the belief that we’re doing it fast enough and well enough. But I am nervous about the pace of climate change.

Q: What do you hope people see in the government’s role in climate change?

A: The way we’re mobilizing around climate change right now serves as inspiration for both people my age but also young people who can see that government is investing and serving as a partner in navigating and addressing these huge challenges.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.