When it comes to environmental policy, the recent legislative session was a disappointment to many environmental advocates.
This disappointment was front and center for state Rep. Jamie Long (DFL-61B), who has rooted both his public reputation and legislative priorities in clean energy and fighting climate change. After an extended session that finished with frantic budget negotiations, environmental bills that once looked promising were almost universally dead. This included the Long-sponsored 100% clean energy bill, a measure that Gov. Tim Walz similarly took up in his own budget proposal.
In a recent interview, Long reflected on what it takes to get environmental legislation through a politically divided state government, the role of public mobilization and why this session was less of a loss than it may appear.
For Long, the pathway to the Legislature was a green one. “I came to politics through energy and environmental organizing,” he said. Even before focusing on environmental law in law school, he spent time working with national advocacy groups like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Now, after wrapping up his first session as a state legislator, it is clear that Long is committed to sustaining his environmental convictions while in office.
Long was elected to represent District 61B in November 2018 after several years of working for now-Attorney General Keith Ellison. In a letter penned for his campaign website in 2017, Long wrote extensively about his legislative climate proposals, including promoting clean energy, electric vehicle usage and carbon pricing.
In his first session, Long stayed true to these campaign priorities. He was chief author of 10 pieces of environmentally focused legislation. These bills included mandating the State Board of Investment examine the potential impact of divesting the state pension fund from fossil fuels, expanding access to community solar by prohibiting credit score requirements and, perhaps most notably, setting Minnesota on a path to 100% renewable energy by the year 2050.
With such ambitious goals on the table, vocal public support for these environmental policies injected an uplifting dose of additional pressure. “The level of public engagement was at an all-time high,” Long observed. Between youth testifiers, weekly climate strikers and impressively sized rallies, Long speculated that his fellow legislators heard more about climate issues this spring than ever before.
“We had the wind at our backs,” Long said. And this wind carried a legislative agenda that was more robust and ambitious than Long himself even anticipated.
And yet, even with this gust of public pressure, environmental policy largely failed to pass.
According to Long’s political analysis, however, these failures were an expected function of how legislative change happens: in waves.
“You’re not going to make steady progress every year,” he said. Rather, by coordinating legislative mobilization, public support and electoral pressure, legislators can strategically build up towards big changes over time. These changes may seem sudden when they happen, but they are only made possible through a lot of intentional groundwork, Long explained. He sees what happened this past session as successfully indicative of this groundwork.
Despite the coalitional efforts that came together to lay this groundwork, environmental advocates inevitably walk this ground in different and sometimes conflicting ways. While Long pushed hard to incentivize clean energy transitions in the private sector, for example, local organizations like Community Power put forward policy proposals to generate clean energy through public and cooperatively owned structures such as Community Choice Aggregation.
Long defended his incentive-based approach, stating that “in terms of moving our utilities, realistically we’re going to work largely within the context that we have.” This doesn’t mean that Long doesn’t find value in bold and idealistic approaches. “It’s always important to anchor in what’s needed and then go from there,” he said.
And as Long emphasized, environmental action carries particular significance for the state of Minnesota. Measured by temperature rise, Minneapolis has seen the biggest impact of any major city. “A lot of this is because of our winters,” which are getting progressively warmer and shorter, Long explained.
Climate impacts can be felt locally from the spread of Lyme disease-carrying ticks to the historic flooding of Minnehaha Creek this spring. “I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t had a direct climate harm yet,” Long said.
And Long is quick to note that these impacts carry not only public health and safety implications, but detrimentally affect the winter lifestyles that many Minnesotans hold dear. “The winter traditions come from the fact that winters here are reliably cold,” he said. “The prediction is that Minnesota is basically going to be Kansas by the end of the century in terms of climate.”
Already eyeing the next session, Long hopes his constituents can keep the pressure on — for the sake of everything from protecting Minnesota’s coniferous forests to the future of hockey to simply not turning into Kansas. “Next year is an election, so public pressure can sink in in a different way,” he said.