(Editor’s note: This article contains language that may offend some readers.)
In Wisconsin, the U.S. Senate candidates’ stance on climate change may be their starkest contrast. Trump-endorsed Republican Sen. Ron Johnson calls climate change “absurd.” Progressive Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes calls for climate action, saying, “the climate crisis is already here.”
Barnes was appointed to chair the first-ever Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change. Johnson voted against the most comprehensive climate bill ever passed and has repeatedly denigrated the science of human-caused climate change.
Theirs is considered to be among the country’s most crucial and competitive U.S. Senate races. If Barnes wins, it will bring Democrats closer to maintaining control of an evenly divided Senate.
Many voters are worried about climate change, but it’s not top of mind among a majority of voters in Wisconsin. In a survey conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s LaFollette School of Public Affairs in 2021, 39 percent of respondents thought climate change was “an extremely big problem” nationally. Still, only 27 percent felt the same about climate change in the state.
“On the right, [Wisonsinites] are seeing opportunity in clean energy,” said Gregory Nemet, a professor of public affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who focuses his research on energy policy. But abortion, inflation and crime have taken center stage recently.
Barnes was leading in favorability against Johnson until September. After an aggressive ad campaign describing Barnes as soft on violent crime and supportive of defunding the police and abolishing ICE, Barnes now trails Johnson, according to FiveThirtyEight’s poll data. CNN reported that Barnes liked tweets criticizing the two agencies in 2018 and attended an anti-ICE rally in 2019, hinting at support for defunding the police and abolishing ICE. “That’s a lie,” Barnes said in an ad responding to Johnson’s claims.
Neither candidate’s campaign offices responded to a request for comment from Inside Climate News.
Johnson was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010 and reelected in 2016 when he pledged not to run again for a third term—until he did. “I’d like to retire, but I think the country is in too much peril,” he wrote this year in a January opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal.
Barnes ran for a state Senate seat in 2016 but lost to Sen. Lena Taylor. In 2018, he became the first Black lieutenant governor of Wisconsin; if elected, Barnes would be the first Black U.S. senator to represent Wisconsin. His work as a lieutenant governor has largely focused on climate justice, an experience he highlights in his campaign.
As chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change, Barnes worked with a bipartisan coalition of representatives from across the state in the Native Nations, industries and communities across the state.
The group is tasked with proposing policy options that would help move the state closer to the governor’s goal of achieving 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2050 and help prepare the state for the impacts of climate change. Their recommendations lead to the creation of the Office of Environmental Justice at the Wisconsin Department of Administration. They also secured more funding for water quality and flood control programs, but the Republican-led Legislature has blocked a majority of their recommendations, including new large investments in green jobs, conservation efforts, renewable energy, electric vehicle infrastructure and food waste reduction.
Barnes pledged that if elected, he would work to launch a national “green bank” to fund clean energy projects and promote American energy independence.
“What we need to do is reduce carbon emissions,” Barnes told viewers in the first debate on Oct. 7. “What we also need to do is move towards a clean energy economy and make sure Wisconsin is in the driver’s seat.”
He also contended that the country needs to be energy independent and work to strengthen renewable energy in response to Johnson’s accusation that Democrats’ “war on fossil fuels” resulted in the rise in gas prices earlier in the summer.
Johnson has said several times that he is not a climate change denier nor a climate change alarmist. However, he has an extensive record of publicly denouncing the science of climate change despite extensive evidence that climate change is real.
During an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2010, Johnson suggested that excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is good for the environment because it “gets sucked down by trees and helps the trees grow.” He also called those who believe in human-caused climate change “crazy,” labeled the theory as “lunacy,” and blamed the Earth’s changing climate on factors other than human activity.
When he ran for a second term in 2016, he doubled down on his dismissal of climate science.
“No, I absolutely do not believe that the science of man-caused climate change is proven, not by any stretch of the imagination,” he told the newspaper. He also opposed government spending to address global warming, saying that trying to “control” the climate simply hurts the economy, a sentiment he has repeated in his 2022 campaign.
(Editor’s note: The following paragraph contains language that may offend some readers.)
During a luncheon with the Republican Women of Greater Wisconsin in June 2021, Johnson agreed with British climate change skeptic Lord Christopher Monckton describing climate change as “bullsh*t” mouthing the expletive. “By the way, it is,” said Johnson at the luncheon.
At the same time, Johnson has often rejected identifying as a climate change denier. “The climate has always changed and always will change, so I don’t deny climate change,” he said in the Oct. 7 debate against Barnes. “The question is, can you really do anything about it?”
During the debate, he also criticized “spending hundreds of billions of dollars trying to solve a problem that’s not solvable” and said that the country’s reliance on fossil fuels won’t change any time soon “because wind and solar are not reliable.”
Throughout his campaign, the Republican from Oshkosh has also denounced spending on clean energy, something Barnes strongly supports.
Johnson co-sponsored the Energy Tax Prevention Act, which aimed to prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from issuing new rules on carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. He also joined other Republicans in voting against the Inflation Reduction Act, which allocated about $369 billion for climate and clean energy programs.
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Barnes has voiced support for federal legislation that addresses climate change, like the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. He has tried to appeal to voters by highlighting the economic opportunities that climate change action could bring to Wisconsin, including the farming and manufacturing industry, which makes up more than 16 percent of the state’s workforce.
“We need bold, powerful action to address climate change that breathes new life into our manufacturing industry,” he said in a campaign video.
BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor unions and environmental organizations, announced its endorsement of Barnes in early October. “The bottom line for Wisconsin is that it stands to lose greatly if climate change goes unchecked,” said Jason Walsh, executive director of the organization.
UW-Madison’s Nemet said that although the Inflation Reduction Act passed, whether states will take advantage of those clean energy incentives is still at stake in the midterm elections.
During the first debate, the two candidates also discussed drinking water contaminated with so-called “forever chemicals” in large parts of the state. Wisconsin has been grappling with lead and PFAS contamination in drinking water in large parts of the state.
Dozens of wells in La Crosse, Wisconsin, were found to have levels of the chemicals 50 times higher than the state’s recommended groundwater standard for PFAS, man-made and industrial chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which have been linked to illnesses and conditions, including cancer and infertility. Last year, the city started supplying hundreds of families with bottled water as a result.
Both Johnson and Barnes supported funds being used to address water pollution in the debate. Johnson said the Environmental Protection Agency should focus on “real pollution” like PFAS rather than carbon dioxide, the release of which scientists say is a leading cause of global warming.
“The federal government absolutely has a responsibility to fund the initiatives that would make sure that every community has access to clean and safe drinking water, “ Barnes said in the debate. “Also, we have a responsibility to make sure that polluters are held accountable.”
Barnes has accused the GOP candidate of threatening to cut Social Security and Medicare. Johnson has argued in favor of turning the two federal entitlement programs into ones whose budgets are approved by Congress annually.
He has also continually reminded voters of Johnson’s statements downplaying the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, his questioning of Covid-19 vaccines and of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Johnson has received from the oil and gas industry.
According to OpenSecrets, Johnson has gotten more than $560,000 from the energy sector, close to $320,000 of which are from oil and gas, in the election cycle as of Oct. 28. However, the amount is dwarfed compared to what other sectors have contributed to his current campaign. Among the top sectors contributing to his campaign are ideological or single-issue; and finance, insurance and real estate. Each has donated more than $2.5 million to his campaign.
Barnes has received almost $87,000 from the energy sector, according to OpenSecrets.
In addition to Trump, Johnson has also gained endorsements from the Wisconsin Farm Bureau and the National Federation of Independent Business. Barnes was endorsed by former President Barack Obama and environmental organizations.