Farmer-Labor leadership for climate progress

March 16, 2021 6:00 am

Wind turbines rise up above farmland on the outskirts of the state capital on Nov. 19, 2013 near Middleton, Wisconsin. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

After Democrats scored landmark victories in Georgia and secured control of the U.S. Senate, hope for rapid progress against climate change has surged. Failure is simply not an option. Extreme weather systems continue to inflict an ever-growing toll on Americans coast to coast. From California wildfires to rain-starved cropland in Minnesota, the annual consequences are no longer an inconvenient truth but a costly reality. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make consensus around a national climate strategy easier to achieve.

For President Joe Biden and other climate champions to succeed, we need solutions that will outlast any single administration, and there’s no better metric to guide that decision-making process than jobs. That’s why environmental justice advocates have shouldered aside traditional allies to demand climate action that does more than just reduce carbon emissions; we need to ensure that clean energy policies create lasting opportunities for working-class families in every region of the country, whether that comes from Rocky Mountain wind or High Plains cropland. And we need to drive down the toxic emissions that plague high-traffic areas and low-income communities.

Few states offer a better example of what that looks like than Minnesota, which has long been a hotbed of innovation, with a full half of the state’s electricity already derived from carbon-free sources. Gov. Tim Walz aims to bring that share up to 100 percent by 2050. The coalition behind that progress isn’t limited to urban elites and a few high-tech companies. Minnesota’s biggest pipeline of green jobs starts in rural communities, where farmers harvest energy-rich crops for low-carbon biofuels. Those feedstocks are processed in local bio-refineries that dot the heartland, supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs, including an estimated 20,000 union jobs in skilled trades from agricultural equipment manufacturing to building and construction.

Thanks to that success, Minnesota drivers have a more climate-friendly motor fuel mix than nearly any other state. We lead the nation in stations offering higher ethanol blends like E85, and Minnesota retailers continue to raise the bar by making E15 a standard option in record-breaking numbers. For motorists who don’t have an electric or flex fuel vehicle, E15 is not only cleaner and higher octane, it typically retails for less than the traditional options jealously promoted by oil companies.

Of course, every state is different, and the clean energy calculus that drives strong, stable incomes for Minnesota farmers translates into a solar-fueled green jobs bonanza in Nevada. But for Washington to deliver immediate, sustainable economy-wide change in the decades ahead, those jobs must be supported in equal measure by policies that reflect a 50-state strategy.

On that front, few new faces on the national scene have been as forthcoming as Michael Regan, President Joe Biden’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). During confirmation hearings, he vowed to work with senators from both parties “so we’re not leaving any community behind.” It’s a promise we’ve heard before, but Mr. Regan’s track record as secretary of Environmental Quality in North Carolina suggests he is sincere about opening doors for green jobs across a range of industries. Similarly, the new Department of Energy chief, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm emphasized the point, telling senators, “I am obsessed with creating good-paying jobs in America.”

The test now is whether that commitment will translate into economy-wide climate action that will find roots from northern Minnesota to the Texas panhandle. The Biden team is off to a great start, and if they focus first and foremost on driving the kind of green energy jobs that have fueled Minnesota’s success, then the U.S. will soon be back to leading the global battle for a healthy climate.

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