Climate change concerns fueling many Minnesota voters this year

A "vote here" sign outside a building.
A “Vote Here” signs directs residents to their polling station in Minneapolis on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.
Tim Evans | MPR News 2021

Polling suggests inflation and abortion are the top issues in the midterm election but for many Minnesotans, climate change is always on the ballot. MPR News senior producer Melissa Townsend spoke to climate change communications expert Heidi Roop, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s department of soil, water, and climate. 

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: According to some polling, inflation and abortion are some of the top issues in the midterm elections. But for many, climate change is always on the ballot. For more on how the issue is at play in the midterm elections, I'm talking with Heidi Roop. Heidi is assistant professor at the University of Minnesota's Department of Soil, Water, and Climate. Thanks for being here, Heidi.

HEIDI ROOP: Thank you for having me.

INTERVIEWER: So I understand you have done some, well, polling or surveying of your own around climate change as an issue in the election. Tell me about what you did and what you found.

HEIDI ROOP: Yeah, so we partnered with the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resource Sciences actually back in September to conduct a statewide poll, specifically around Minnesotans' concerns about climate change, their understanding of the drivers of climate change, as well as their desire for action and their level of hope. And what we found is 76% of us are concerned about climate change. A majority of us want to see an increase in the use of wind, solar, and other renewable energy to power our homes and businesses. A majority of us also think it's incredibly important to prepare for climate change by protecting our vital natural resources, like our grasslands, forests, and wetlands. And importantly, many Minnesotans note the lack of political will and politics as a primary barrier for our state to address climate change.

INTERVIEWER: Interesting. And who did you ask?

HEIDI ROOP: We conducted a statewide poll. So it was over a thousand respondents-- I think 1003, to be precise. This was adults over the age of 18 but from across the state. So there was no emphasis on rural versus urban or Republican or Democrat. This was looking at all of us collectively as Minnesotans to try to get a pulse on our concerns and, again, our desire for action and hope.

INTERVIEWER: So what I heard in there was a desire for political candidates and lawmakers once they're elected to do something about climate change. So any specifics on what people want to see?

HEIDI ROOP: So we didn't get into so many of the specifics, but I think it's important to note here that, along with what we're seeing at the national level, Minnesotans want to see our local, state, and our municipal governments doing more. In fact, 83% of Minnesotans see their government as a source of needed action along with the private sector and educational institutions, like the University of Minnesota. But state government and federal government are right at the top of the list.

And I think that's important to note, particularly as we confront the midterm elections, which is that only 0.1% of our lawmakers in this country are elected at the federal level. 96.3% of elected officials work for us at the local level. These are people on our school boards, our soil and water conservation districts. These are our county commissioners.

So as we think about what can we do-- I hear that question almost every day. What can I do? In this season of elections, if you are able to vote, voting in every single election is a critical climate action.

INTERVIEWER: That's really interesting. I mean, it's really hard to cull up research on who your soil and water and conservation district candidate is, frankly.

HEIDI ROOP: That is true. That is true. I think this is another throughline of climate solutions, which is that, unfortunately, a lot of the burden to do research, to wade through myths and disinformation, much of that can fall on us as individuals, which, of course, is an unfortunate burden. But unfortunately, for climate, we see that this season, even anecdotally for the midterm elections, climate as an explicit issue mentioned on, say, those flyers that keep showing up at our doors. My initial scan of those, not many of them explicitly call out climate. But again, we are navigating a range of issues, like inflation, that you already mentioned.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah. So let's turn our attention to the candidates. So are you seeing candidates talking about climate change in a way that matches the amount of concern voters have?

HEIDI ROOP: I would say, no, not right now. And I think one of the challenges, however, is that climate change is a sort of throughline of many of the issues that voters are going to go cast their ballots about as they think about who they're going to vote for.

INTERVIEWER: What do you mean throughline?

HEIDI ROOP: Politicians in our state governments, which they help run and decide priorities for, play a really important role in managing how we all experience the impacts of climate change. And in theory, if the work is done well, we should be less exposed to or be buffered from some of those negative impacts because the state can play an important role in making necessary investments, both to prevent the problem of climate change from getting worse-- we do that through reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases-- as well as necessary investments in how we prepare our state for the impacts of climate change that we know we've already set in motion and that many Minnesotans, quite frankly, are already experiencing.

INTERVIEWER: What are the top things a Minnesota lawmaker could do to affect climate change?

HEIDI ROOP: Seeing climate as part of our day-to-day work is really important. And 83% of Minnesotans want to see our state and local governments doing more. So there's a desire to act. Concretely, what can elected leaders and lawmakers do, they can invest in mitigation effort. That means supporting renewable energy, changing how we're designing for the future so that we are more energy-efficient.

There are efforts like this already underway. We have a Solar Schools program that the legislature passed in 2021. There are discussions around expanding our EV, our Electric Vehicle, charging infrastructure. So there's lots we can be doing on the prevention piece of the equation.

INTERVIEWER: So really, when you think about the things that state officials can do, it has to do with working collaboratively with the federal government, taking opportunity where it comes, and investing in renewables. Does that pretty much sum it up?

HEIDI ROOP: That and investing in our communities. We need to be prepared for the change we've set in motion. So extreme heat, destruction that events like hurricanes that we know are getting worse from a warming world, they bring havoc, and they bring costs. And so as we confront climate change, we can think about how to reduce those types of volatile things that can really impact a individual person's wallet and ability to take care of necessary things, like getting to work and putting food on their table.

INTERVIEWER: Last question for you, do you think misinformation about climate change could have an effect on the election this year?

HEIDI ROOP: That's a great question. And I think, just in general, even stepping away from the election as a specific case, we know very clearly that misinformation and disinformation, they create noise, confusion, and distrust around climate change and a whole range of other topics. And so again, that work falls to an individual to think about doing that research or looking to trusted entities and organizations for that information.

And as a call to action for all of your listeners, this is where the importance of having climate conversation comes in. People are more likely to trust their family and friends, people within their community for trusted information. And so that is an important place to be thinking about how you can have conversations.

We can start to confront the misinformation and disinformation by A, not sharing it and by becoming informed and committing to having climate conversations and other important conversations with our friends and families directly. As climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe likes to say, it's many hands on a boulder. And we're close to pushing it up the hill, and we just need more hands. And so having a climate conversation and getting those hands on that boulder is essential to put us even further in the right direction.

INTERVIEWER: All right. Thanks, Heidi Roop. I appreciate your time.

HEIDI ROOP: Thank you. Bye.

INTERVIEWER: Heidi Roop is assistant professor at the University of Minnesota's Department of Soil, Water, and Climate.

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