Climate change isn't just an environmental issue anymore

Inside a solar panel plant in northern Minnesota
The clean energy economy is booming in some places. Here, the inside of a solar panel plant in northern Minnesota.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

One of the most frustrating things about Jessica Hellmann's job as a climate scientist is how the atmosphere has become a political issue.

"For most of my colleagues, that's not why we got into this business," she said. "We don't pursue science because we want to be on one side or the other. And it's just really frustrating that that's where we often find that conversation going."

Much rhetoric around climate — in politics, at least — is environmentalists vs. the status quo. Take this example from the recent MPR News debate with candidates for Minnesota's 1st Congressional District:

"To transform our energy sector and turn our economy upside down over the premise that at some point the world comes to an end? No, I don't agree with that," said Jim Hagedorn, the Republican candidate.

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While adapting the economy to the changing climate wouldn't turn the world upside down, Hellmann said, it could change who the "winners and losers" are. It won't only affect the economy, either.

"You can no longer separate climate into a distinct public policy issue," she said. "It is about the economy, it's about jobs, the future."

Considering climate change as a transformative force rather than an environmental issue alone allows for discussion of how atmospheric changes impact many aspects of life and society. Here are a few areas particularly relevant to the upcoming midterm elections:

• Immigration patterns will change as humankind's influence on the climate worsens. Weather disasters have displaced about 24 million people annually for the past decade. As the desert expands, sea levels rise and the weather gets worse, that number is only going to grow — especially in the most vulnerable parts of the world. It's happening in the U.S., too, with the state of Louisiana recently paying $11.7 million to relocate its first "climate refugees."

• Homeowners insurance rates are going up. Extreme weather events in the U.S. alone cost $306 billion last year — from western wildfires to hurricanes to a hail storm in Minnesota.

Someone has to pay, and regular people are assuming the cost. Insurance companies are raising rates for homeowners policies across the U.S., and they're not even writing policies for people living in regions most at-risk for extreme weather.

• Economic changes risk leaving behind some people. For example, there will be fewer jobs in the coal industry, inevitably, as the industry shrinks. Says Hellmann: "I do think though it is reasonable and right for us to be thinking about people who have to transition in this economy, and it is just appropriate to think about who's losing out in this new economy." Policymakers and industry leaders, she said, should consider how to bring along everybody as the economy changes.

• There's economic opportunity in renewable energy. Minnesota already generates a lot of solar power and it's only poised to grow here and elsewhere as technology improves. The state added over 2,200 solar jobs between 2015 and 2017.

Plus, many renewable energy jobs are long term, especially maintenance work on wind and solar power infrastructure. "You think about the maintenance that's required on those turbines that's not just one and done," Hellmann said. "These are regular jobs that can sustain our economy."

What's someone concerned with any of these issues to do? Here's Hellmann's advice for this campaign season:

If we are paying attention in this election and we're asking our politicians to comment on the things that matter to the residents of our state, we need to be asking them about climate — about climate change and how they are going to make a positive contribution to make that situation better.

This article is based on an interview from Climate Cast, the MPR News show on the latest news and research on our changing climate.