Moderator’s question in Minnesota governor debate draws out candidates’ starkly different views on climate change

Democrat Tim Walz: Climate action “makes good economic sense.” Republican Jeff Johnson: Climate action “just won’t make a difference.”

Twin Cities PBS host Cathy Wurzer asked Minnesota gubernatorial candidates Jeff Johnson (R) and Tim Walz (D) how they would enable cities to respond and adapt to climate change during their first televised debate on August 17. The exchange touched on the candidates’ acceptance of the scientific consensus on global warming and their views about whether climate action can make a real difference.

Media Matters is tracking debates in competitive Senate and gubernatorial races and encouraging moderators to ask candidates questions about climate change. So far, only 5 of 36 debates analyzed nationwide have included a climate-related question.” See our scorecard.

From the August 17 Minnesota governor debate:

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CATHY WURZER (MODERATOR): Let’s talk just the environment here for a couple of minutes. There are signals, as you know, that the earth is warming, and there are signals all over the world on that. U of M [University of Minnesota] researchers say that Minnesota is kind of like ground zero for some of these changes that we’re seeing. So I’m curious: If you were governor, how might you help Minnesota cities deal and adapt with climate change, especially as we see some of these huge rain events and flooding and that kind of thing?

TIM WALZ (D): We discussed this this morning. Be very clear -- it seems like maybe we don’t need to say this, but we do, because there’s a distinct difference here of opinion -- climate change is real; man-made intervention in climate change is exacerbating the situation; the rates are accelerating at a pace that is going to force changes, especially coastal areas, climate changes and migrations, and movements of people. The state of Minnesota is well positioned -- while we are ground zero, we are still well positioned as the ability to feed, fuel, clothe the world, water, fresh water, because of what we have. But we’ve got to start making those long-range decisions. We’ve got to start doing things that incentivize us to be leaders in this. And this is not a case that we’re just going to spend money. Jeff said, “It doesn’t matter. There’s nothing we can do. The things we do are so minuscule, it won’t make any difference.” That is untrue. If we start making the changes, and, if I could add, by doing so, we will grow economically.

WURZER: Do you believe in climate change? Do you think it’s still being debated?

JEFF JOHNSON (R): Of course, climate change is real, and it’s been happening since long before we were around. And I think that there is a consensus among scientists that individual -- that humans have an effect on it. There is a difference about how much effect. But there’s also a consensus -- and I know we disagree on this, but it’s true -- there is a consensus that the plans that are out there to deal with climate change somehow, aren’t going to change anything in the long run. They just won’t make a difference, even if we do it on a nationwide scale. But if we do it on a statewide scale, even less so.

WURZER: Could you say that governors could show leadership in this issue?

JOHNSON: You could show leadership if it was actually going to do anything. But the problem is, and this is not just this area, we do things in government because it makes us feel good or because it makes us look good as politicians. And I ask people about some of the climate change legislation out there that is costly to people -- it means they pay more money out of their pockets -- and I say, “Can you show me how that is changing anything in a positive way, in a measurable way?” And the answer is, “No. But it’s the right thing to do.” Well, if it doesn’t change anything, it’s not. And we have to end that era of making decisions that hurt people because it makes politicians look good.

WALZ: We fundamentally disagree with that. We can make changes; it is leadership. I may be -- the science supports me, but I’m also the eternal optimist that we need to start showing that forward. The interesting part about this is, to not deal with this will end up costing us far more in mitigations because of changes to the climate. Instead of getting on the front end of this, of making sure that we are using our renewable resources here, making sure we sustain as a leader. Why would we capitulate to the Chinese on the solar field? Because now solar energy has reached parity with energy from natural gas and other sources. That just makes good economic sense, and it is factually incorrect. We can make these changes, we must, because the data is absolutely clear, that the acceleration and the amount of acceleration is going to cause ...

JOHNSON: But if we care about science, because we always hear people on the left say, “We’re the party of science, and the Republicans are not.” If we care about science, the science says that what we’re doing is not going to change anything in the long run. So let’s focus on things like clean water and clean air. I would call myself a conservationist, and I believe I am, and those things we can actually make a difference with. But when we’re making changes that are literally costing Minnesotans thousands of dollars a year and it doesn’t change anything -- that's just politics as usual and it’s not accomplishing anything.