HomeNewsDirector’s Almanac: Reframing the environment

Director’s Almanac: Reframing the environment

It’s November – and in the United States that means election season. Across the country, many U.S. residents are still coming to terms with the election results, and some contests remain undecided. It’s clear that Democrats gained strength around metro areas and Republicans remain strong in rural areas. Emotions ran high this year, and voter turnout was high.

One thing we did not see on the campaign trail this year: talk about the environment. Here in Minnesota, a Minnesota Public Radio–Star Tribune survey suggested that only 6 percent of likely voters identified the environment as a top election issue, with more than three times that number calling out jobs and health care as priorities instead.

Does this tell us that people don’t care about the environment, or other issues like climate change that we often associate with the environment? If so, that’s pretty frustrating and downright worrisome.

Or, perhaps it’s high time we stopped thinking about clean water, our changing climate, the energy transition that’s sweeping the globe, and the biodiversity crisis that is undermining global ecosystem services as “environmental issues.” They are much more than that—they are socioeconomic issues, job issues, immigration issues, and cultural values.

This is what MPR’s Paul Huttner invited me to come talk with him about this election season on his program, Climate Cast. And here’s the crux of what I had to say:

There is a variety of evidence across the United States that there’s room to work on water, energy, and conservation in a bipartisan way. Politicians on both sides of the aisle see the connection between quality of life, economic opportunity, and addressing socio-environmental problems.

That’s why Republican Senator David Senjem is talking about renewables from his district in Rochester, Minnesota, because wind resources are abundant in Minnesota and an economy based on renewables can attract investment for Minnesota residents. The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Minnesota also sponsored a bill last year (as a MN House member) to increase the state renewable energy standard, co-sponsored with a Democratic colleague.

More than a decade ago, Tim Pawlenty, at the time Minnesota’s Republican governor, joined with neighboring governors to sign the Midwest Greenhouse Gas Accord, an ambitious plan to transform the equivalent of the seventh largest carbon economy in the world. With turnover in nationwide governorships this year, perhaps that structure will be open for conversation again.

While many American politicians are committed to reducing taxes, they’ll also need to finance changing infrastructure under a warmer climate. (Think of the pipes and green space necessary to handle increased storm water and the demand for irrigation under drought.) If funds don’t come from taxpayers, we’ll need creative ways of generating and attracting private investment.

Bipartisanship can and does exist at the local level. This is where creative leaders armed with solid information and new ideas can have impact. And this is a key reason why IonE focuses considerable attention on our state, cities and counties. Here we strive to develop intellectual and human capital because Minnesota is a our natural laboratory and a useful case for the whole world.

Not all local politicians are rosy, of course, with obvious sustainability opportunities. Many still do not see the connection between jobs, the economy, and health care to environmental change. And we have failed to act on issues like climate change while knowing quite well that catastrophe is coming.

But after this election season, I’ll still be doing the work I do as the leader of a mission-driven learning organization. Action — wherever it occurs across the political spectrum — grows from public will, and public will grows from awareness and engagement, from new knowledge and novel insights that help us see what’s possible.

At the connection between the environment and other things people care about—that’s where transformative, engaged scholars can find a willing public.

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