This week, host Kristin Hayes talks with Senator Tina Smith, the junior senator from Minnesota. Senator Smith served as the 48th lieutenant governor of Minnesota from 2015 to 2018, after a career in both the private and public sectors in the state. Senator Smith is a member of several committees in the Senate relevant to natural resource, energy, and climate issues, including the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
Hayes and Senator Smith discuss climate policy, its importance to both Minnesota and the nation, the ways in which the conversation around climate policy is changing, and the energy legislation that she has recently introduced.
Listen to the Podcast
Top of the Stack
- One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy by Carol Anderson
- The Secret Commonwealth by Philip Pullman
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, our weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Kristin Hayes. My guest today is Senator Tina Smith, the junior senator from the great state of Minnesota. Senator Smith served as the 48th lieutenant governor of Minnesota from 2015-2018, immediately before joining the US Senate. She also had a career in both the private and public sectors in Minnesota, where she has lived since 1984. Senator Smith is a member of several committees in the Senate relevant to natural resource, energy, and climate issues, including the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry and the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.
I’m very pleased that the Senator is joining us here on Resources Radio, to talk about her own interests in these issues, her perspective on why they matter for Minnesota and the nation, and on recent energy legislation that she has introduced. There is also some talk about loons—which is a first for Resources Radio. Stay with us.
Senator Smith, it is an honor to be here with you today on the Hill to talk about federal climate, energy, natural resource policy for the US. Thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio.
Senator Tina Smith: Well thank you, Kristin. It's great to be with you.
Kristin Hayes: Great, so we always like to start our podcast with an introduction to our guests. And so I'd like to ask you to share a little bit about why you were drawn to work on environmental issues in the first place. I know you've been a strong advocate for climate and natural resource policy during your tenure as a lawmaker, so can you tell us just a little bit more about how these issues first came on your radar, and what drove you to take a lead in developing policy proposals in the space?
Senator Tina Smith: Well, I—of course—first think of how I grew up, and for my family being out and hiking in the mountains. I grew up in Northern New Mexico and Alaska. So having that experience of being out in the mountains, whether it was hiking or skiing or fishing, was such an important part of my life growing up. Then I went off to business school and I learned a lot about marketing and communications strategy, and my little business in Minneapolis, one of the first really important clients that I had was a fantastic organization called the McKnight foundation that did a lot of work on the Mississippi river. So my work in policy, really actually started trying to figure out how to get people in the twin cities to care about the Mississippi river, which flowed right through the city, but most people only drove over it. They really weren't connected to it. And through that work, I really found a way of expressing my passion for the environment in advocacy and policy. I think it really started from there.
Kristin Hayes: I imagine Minnesota is a state that has experienced quite a few changes, a state that is traditionally very cold. I'm sure any reduction in snow would be mildly appreciated, but also somewhat disconcerting as farmers and other businesses have experienced a lot of changes. I'm wondering if you've seen some of those effects firsthand or heard about them from your constituents. What does climate change look like in Minnesota?
Senator Tina Smith: Sure. Well, there have been some really interesting studies looking at the impacts of climate change on the Great Lakes area. And what it tells us is that the impacts of climate change are happening more rapidly and with a bigger impact in the Great Lakes area, where Minnesota is right on the border of the Lake Superior, than other parts of the country. So this is deeply concerning. We're seeing not only more warming in the Great Lakes region, outpacing warming in other parts of the country, but also the frequency and the intensity of storm events in the Great Lakes area are happening more than we're seeing in other parts of the country. This is on my mind because this morning I woke up and I was looking at the videos of the weather cams in the Duluth Harbor, and looking at the massive waves of Lake Superior crashing up against the lake walk and the harbor area of Duluth, and all the way up the north shore of Lake Superior.
This is a significant issue of the erosion that is happening along the shores of the Great Lakes—it’s significant. Beyond that, you can see the impacts in farming, and let's think about this for a minute. Minnesota—we actually love our winters. We like to complain about them, we like to talk about them for long, long periods of time. But winter sports; snowmobiling, ice fishing, cross-country skiing, dog sledding, snowshoeing—winters sports are a significant part of the economy, especially in Northern Minnesota. So the loss of our winter is not only something that we feel personally, but it also has an economic impact. And the last thing I'll mention on this, this is so meaningful to Minnesotans—our state bird is the loon. The iconic call of the lone across Northern Minnesota lakes is in our hearts, and the news that we can expect loons, their habitat to migrate farther and farther North as climate change takes over.
We might not even hear loons on Minnesota lakes because of the impact of climate change. This is really motivating to many, many, many, many people. When I became Lieutenant Governor of Minnesota, I became really interested in the rural economy and what we can do to really help the rural economy grow. And so then, of course, I started to appreciate how important clean energy jobs are in the rural economy. And that really led me to thinking about what we could do around climate and energy.
Kristin Hayes: And particularly in the Midwest, I imagine, where that's been a strong source of growth in a number of states that have strong wind resources and are really trying to expand that part of their economy.
Senator Tina Smith: Absolutely. The economy of Southern and Southwestern Minnesota is so strengthened because of wind energy, and Minnesota is such an excellent source of wind energy and increasingly solar energy. And that seemed to me to be such an opportunity, one that we shouldn't just leave by the wayside.
Kristin Hayes: Well, let's talk a little bit more then about energy and climate policy in particular. I'd like to ask you about a bill that you introduced back in May called the Clean Energy Standard Act of 2019. Can you tell our listeners just a little bit about the goals of that bill and why you chose to introduce it now, in 2019?
Senator Tina Smith: Well, climate change is such an existential threat to our economy, to our health, to our whole world. And I wanted to be able to engage on that issue in a way that was productive and would help to move us forward, frankly, at a time when the administration is truly burying its head in the sand, as it comes to climate and energy policy.
So the Clean Energy Standard Act aims to get the electricity sector in the United States to net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century. The bill is based on the idea that there is no one solution, no one size fits all, that we'll get every part of the country to that goal in exactly the same way. So it starts out by being technology-neutral. It says some solutions might work great in Minnesota that might not work so well at all in Alabama or Montana. And that is really important. It also allows utilities in each of the regions of the country to propose for themselves what is the best way for them to get to that standard. And of course we really do know that we need to have innovation, we need to have lots of things happening in the clean energy sector in the ed as we get to net-zero emissions.
And so we need to create opportunities for innovation. Nobody can say today that they know exactly what's going to solve our problems in 50 or 60 years. We need to get past looking for that silver bullet and move forward. What I'm most proud of with this bill is not only does it take a bold step towards getting the electricity sector to net-zero carbon emissions, but it also has bridged the gap that we too often face between those who are focused on environmental protection, and those who are focused on jobs. The fact that the bill has such a broad array of stakeholders supporting it, from organized labor, to the Union of Concerned Scientists, to some really important utilities around the country. I'm very proud of that work.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, I know that was a big part of the work that your office did as you were building the bill, and also building the coalition for the bill, and I'd love to come back to that and talk a little bit more about that process. But one question I wanted to ask before that was around your choice of policy instrument. And we have talked to a number of other policymakers and offices that have introduced more economy-wide solutions, like a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade. And there's been a flurry of those bills introduced at the federal level this year as well. So I'm wondering if you could say anything about why you chose to look at an electricity sector specific bill as the instrument of choice.
Senator Tina Smith: Well, there are so many different things that we need to do. So one step in one arena doesn't foreclose other steps in other arenas. It's important to understand that. Also a clean energy standard approach is an approach that many other states have been taking.
So it builds on the work—that really innovative and cutting edge work—that is happening in states, and I liked that a lot. It also, I think, has the advantage of—though there are issues around carbon emissions and getting to net-zero in many, many different sectors—the electricity sector is important. And to make progress in that in that sector is going to have a really, really big impact, particularly as we look at the electrification of other sources of carbon pollution. Especially, of course, I think of transportation. As we move more and more towards electric cars, other kinds of electric vehicles—the electrification of that sector is going to mean that the improvements that we make in the electricity sector towards net-zero carbon emissions is going to have even broader benefits.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, we talk a lot about that at RFF too, about the fact that a lot of those reductions that can come from the power sector are among the cheapest reductions that you could get as well. So if you're going to start with one sector, I think that is certainly a natural choice that a number of people have looked at.
Senator Tina Smith: Absolutely. This is going to be a big, hard, heavy lift—but it is an opportunity that we also don't want to leave behind. And I always say when I'm talking to people that are needing to be persuaded a little bit about this, that the United States can either lead or we can follow when it comes to moving towards a clean energy future. And I want us to lead because that's going to mean that the innovation happens here—the jobs happen here, and not in China.
Kristin Hayes: Well, you mentioned states as a learning laboratory for policy development, and I wanted to ask you a little bit more. Certainly all senators are here working on federal policy, but they represent their home states first and foremost—in your case, Minnesota. So maybe I'll take a step back, and ask what you have learned in your years of Minnesota life about the potential impacts of climate change on that state.
Senator Tina Smith: Well, Minnesota was in the forefront back in 2007 when we passed a bipartisan bill to set a renewable energy standard in Minnesota of 25% by 2025. And we did that in a bipartisan way, with a Republican governor and a democratic legislature, because people could see the opportunity that that created for jobs in our economy. And because people understood that we had a responsibility and an obligation to environmental protection. So that ethic, I think, has been important to Minnesota for a long time. I will say, it's interesting to me how the conversation has shifted [since] even just a few years ago—talking about climate change would take people in Minnesota to this place where they're starting to think about sacrifice and what they can't do, what they're gonna lose, how much it's going to cost—a conversation that is all about scarcity in a way.
I believe that that conversation is changing in Minnesota, one, because people are really understanding that this is a serious threat. They can see that—you don't need to tell a farmer in Minnesota that climate change is happening when they look at their flooded-out fields. You don't need to tell a mayor of a small town in rural Minnesota that climate change is happening when they are needing to look at major improvements to their storm water system because of rains and flooding, or the dairy farmer whose barn collapsed because of these extraordinary snow falls that we're having, or the timber industry in Northern Minnesota that is seeing a retreat of trees that would have grown in a completely different way 40 or 50 years ago. All of these things, I think, mean that Minnesota, and I believe much of the country, is ready to have this conversation, and wants to see people like me and others taking action and not just talking about it.
Kristin Hayes: Well let's talk about movement then. That's another great lead in, thank you. So process, from everything that I have experienced in working in Washington, process can be as important as policy in really helping legislation move from concept to something more than just a concept. And so what sort of process did you and your team, your colleagues, use in both developing and then also in socializing your Clean Energy Standard Proposal?
Senator Tina Smith: Well, you're right, it does matter how you build an idea, and then how you roll out an idea. Too many times people, I think, go into a dark room and they figure out what they think is the absolute very best way of doing something, and then they present it to the world and say, here is my idea. Don't you love my idea? Will you come please sign onto my idea? And I don't know how you feel about that, but mostly people like to be asked and not told. And that's one thing that we really put into action as we developed this bill. We did a lot of consultation, and it was not only because we wanted people to support our idea, but it was also because we knew our idea was going to be so much stronger if we had lots of input and lots of people's ideas.
And I do think that the bill is stronger because we did that. Now that, I think, is one of the primary reasons why, as I understand it, this is the only climate bill that has earned the support of both environmental organizations and organized labor. And that is a really, really important connection because, this is a … you used the word movement. In order to actually have a movement, you need to have the support of people out in communities. I'm very proud of that work. Now, I'll be honest, I'm disappointed that we also haven't been able to get the support of any of my Republican colleagues on this bill. This bill is based on something that Senator Jeff Bingaman from New Mexico worked on in a bipartisan way on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, way back in, when, 2007, 2009? Right, so even then, Republicans were willing to have some conversations about this kind of clean energy policy. We have got to change that and, from a purely political perspective, they are going to be left behind. Their constituents are ready, I believe, for this.
Kristin Hayes: Well as you pointed out, there are states across the country, many states, in the dozens, that already have renewable portfolio standards, and are looking at that as a policy instrument. So it does seem like this is a fairly small, and perhaps even more all-encompassing solution that states are already accustomed to have, again, of both parties. So I can see why the idea of a clean energy standard would be something that might potentially have appeal across the aisle.
Senator Tina Smith: I would think that it would. And I remain hopeful. I think that in the political environment that we're in right now where, frankly, not a lot of legislative action is happening in any way, once we move through this, and I know that we will, then I'm hopeful that we'll be able to make progress on this.
Kristin Hayes: I also wanted to ask—I know that you're also a member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. So another set of issues, but they clearly intersect with the energy and climate issues that we've been talking about. I guess I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about how you think about that intersection. When you're thinking about forestry, how does that play into your thinking about climate? And similarly, when you're thinking about the rural Minnesotan farmers and what the potential for clean energy might mean for them, how do you pull those threads together in your own thinking?
Senator Tina Smith: Well, of course, the world doesn't organize itself based on our committee structure or our policy arenas. It organizes itself around people, and their families, and their lives, and how they make their lives work. And I always keep that in mind as I think about this issue of climate and energy. So here's a couple of examples of where I see the intersection. Certainly Minnesota has always been an important state when it comes to forest products. There's a lot of incredible innovation that is happening around wood buildings, as an example. Wood buildings are essentially a giant source of carbon sink. People don't think of that. In fact, many people who have an environmental brain, meaning you know, they think first about environmental protection, think about forest protection, and of course we need to do that. But the opportunity to use more would to build more wood buildings is very consistent and cohesive with our goals around climate, and what we need to do to stop the globe from warming.
Think about what's happening in agriculture. I just was visiting a farm that grows crops, and feed, and also cattle. This farm has been practicing no-till agriculture with cover crops for 15 years. Not only does this mean that they are using less inputs as they grow feed, not only does it mean that those cover crops are soaking up more nitrogen in the soil so that there is less polluted runoff, but it also means that there is more of a carbon sink in the entire way that they're growing their food. And so that's another example of how there can be great synergy. And don't get me wrong, this doesn't mean that we don't have important work to do in agriculture as we think about methane, for example, and the impacts of agriculture on climate, and we need to do that work. But I think that there are opportunities across the board.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, I've recently been more engaged with the work that RFF is doing in that space as well. The statistics about the opportunities with improved soil health, and using forest remainder products from timber production to create these large timber built structures—there’s just a tremendous number of opportunities that I think are still emerging, and have a lot of potential. And it sounds like Minnesota could really take advantage of that as well.
Senator Tina Smith: I think so. I absolutely do.
Kristin Hayes: Well, I really appreciate your taking the time to talk to us today. I will close our podcast with our usual feature called Top of the Stack. And sometimes we've had guests take this quite literally, where they turn to the side of their desk and look at what's on the top of their reading stack. But you are welcome to suggest to our listeners any piece of reading or listening or watching that you think would be of interest.
Senator Tina Smith: Well, I literally looked at the top of my stack. It's next to my bed back in my apartment in Washington DC, and at the top of the stack is an amazing book by a writer named Carol Anderson and it's called One Person, No Vote. The book is about the history of voter suppression in this country and what we can do about it. And though that might not seem to be directly related to the issues we've been talking about today around environment and energy and climate, I think that it's a reminder that democracies only work if people participate. And we need to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to participate as our constitution guarantees.
And then just so people don't think I'm too serious, the book that's right next to it is the latest Philip Pullman book called The Secret Commonwealth. That's part of his Dark Materials trilogy. And I strongly recommended for anybody who needs to get away from it all a little bit.
Kristin Hayes: That sounds fantastic. I did not realize there was another book in that series and I must admit I was just recently telling someone about the marvelous idea that Philip Pullman puts together, that they're portals on the sides of roads that can transport you to other worlds. So that sounds great.
Well Senator, thank you again for joining us on Resources Radio. It really is a pleasure to talk with you and to learn a little bit more about the bill. I know that we're going to be talking with you again tomorrow, a little bit more about clean energy standards. I would welcome any of our listeners who are in the Washington DC area to come to the Hill and join for that event, that's happening here on October 30th. But in the meantime, it really is a pleasure to hear from you directly, and thank you so much for taking the time.
Senator Tina Smith: Well, thank you, and thank you so much for everything that you do as well. I really appreciate your work and working with you. Thanks.
Kristin Hayes: You've been listening to Resources Radio. Thanks for tuning in. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes.
Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington DC. Our mission is to improve environmental energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.