Minnesota gubernatorial debate moderator asked about climate change. The GOP candidate's answer drew audience jeers.

Republican Jeff Johnson: “There is quite a disparate opinion on how much we contribute” to climate change

The Minnesota gubernatorial candidates, Republican Jeff Johnson and Democrat Tim Walz, faced off in a debate on August 31. Moderator Mike Mulcahy, the political editor for Minnesota Public Radio, asked both candidates about climate change. 

Media Matters is tracking debates in competitive Senate and gubernatorial races and encouraging moderators to ask candidates questions about climate change. See our scorecard.

From the August 31 Minnesota governor debate:

Video file

MIKE MULCAHY (MODERATOR): Let me ask you a question, because Tim Walz brought up climate change. There was story on MPR, the website, that said you didn’t plan to do anything because you don’t think it would have any effect. And then I saw you tweeted and took issue with that story. What is your position?

JEFF JOHNSON (R): My position is that I want to have some common sense when it comes to environmental regulations. I actually -- I’m not sure I would roll back anything that’s in place. Maybe there is something out there. But I think we do a pretty good job in Minnesota of protecting our natural environment, of protecting our water, of protecting our air, of protecting habitat. It’s actually something that makes us unique in this country, and it’s a very special thing. But, if you are going to suggest that we need to completely reorder our economy and create tremendous new costs for individuals based upon a climate change policy, then you’re going to have to show me that it’s actually going to work. Once again, this shouldn’t be about what makes us feel good, it should be about whether we’re going to make life, or in this case the environment, better for people. And there is a broad consensus that a state by itself, and in fact even a country by itself, can do all of these things that cost people money, and it’s not going to make any difference with respects to climate change. So let’s make sure it actually works.

TIM WALZ (D): That’s why we should have stayed in the Paris climate accords.

JOHNSON: That’s a different issue, though. That’s a completely different issue. 

MULCAHY: But, just so that I’m clear: You wouldn't tighten up the renewable energy standard or impose any new regulations like that to address climate change?

JOHNSON: There may be some. Again, there may be some, if someone can show me that they’re actually going to change anything. But one side of this loves to talk about science, but they look at part of the science and ignore the part of the science that doesn’t fit the narrative. And the science says that climate change is real, that humans do contribute to it, although there is quite a disparate opinion on how much we contribute to it.

WALZ: No, there’s not.

JOHNSON: Yes, there is. Well, OK, I’ll even give you that. But there is if you actually read more than your science and read all science, you’ll see that. But what there’s a consensus on …


JOHNSON: I love the tolerance of the left. What there is a consensus on is that we can do all of these things as a state or as country and it won’t change the climate in a positive way if we believe it’s being changed in a negative way. So, you can talk all you want about, “Well, let’s do something anyway,” and, if it didn’t cost anyone anything, I’d say, “Great.” We do our share in our own home, and we do our own share in Hennepin County. But, if you’re going to do things that actually cost people a lot of money and hurt people, show me that it’s actually going to change something. That’s all I care about.

MULCAHY: Tim Walz.

WALZ: Well, again, I supervised a high school lunchroom for 20 years; I’m an eternal optimist. I don’t give up this easy. We can make a difference. We have to make a difference. This is an existential threat. With that being said, the economic argument in this is totally flawed. The path to a stronger economy is for Minnesota to own the clean-energy economy, to make sure we’re leading in creating jobs. Solar power is now at parity. And I don’t know the last time I saw a naval carrier battle group protecting southern Minnesota’s wind turbines or biofuels the way the protect the oil fields off the coast of Saudi Arabia or whatever may be. Those make no sense. This both an existential threat to deal with with it, it’s being a state that leads on this. And the president’s reckless decision to pull us out of the Paris climate accords makes it more difficult. But, this is the opportunity for states like Minnesota to lead. States are the laboratories of democracy. We will lead the clean energy economy. We’ll make a difference.

MULCAHY: Jeff Johnson, quick response, then a question from the audience.

JOHNSON: I love leading on the clean energy economy; I don’t have any problem with that at all. In fact, we use some of it in our own home. But, this is not for government to say, “This is what you have to do, and we’re going to spend your money to make you do it,” when you can’t prove to me that it actually changes the climate in a positive way. And, Tim, I have seen your proposals for, I think, 80 percent renewable by 2050. Once again, it makes us all feel good. Tell me what that’s going to require and how much is it going to cost people? 

WALZ: First of all, Xcel Energy and all of our producers are already of us. They’re going to reach those goals.

JOHNSON: No, they’re not. They’re not even close.

WALZ: As we move forward on this, this issue is again -- and I understand, as consumers, you want to turn on your lights, you want the lights to come on, and you want to be able to pay your bill. Now that we have parity costs, and we start investing in infrastructure that makes that happen. We start to reduce those by keeping money closer to home, creating jobs, at the same time reducing carbon emissions. That’s the clean-energy economy future that benefits all of us. Rather than telling us this: when the government reduces those standards, when the government forces us to use either oil or coal, you’re putting your thumb on there. Allow the free market to operate. And guess who’s winning: clean energy, carbon-free future.

MULCAHY: Very quickly.

JOHNSON: First of all, I would love to eliminate every subsidy there is for oil and coal. I have just as big a problem with that because it’s not the role of government, I don’t believe. Once again, you are the best politician I know of answering a question without answering a question. That was 90 seconds of happy talk. And I have no idea what the answer is. How much will this cost individuals. Because, I would guess, if what we’ve seen happening in a few other states, it’s going to be a tremendous cost to our electricity bills, which have already shot up in the last 10 years because of this issue.