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Climate change is on the ballot this November. Do South Dakota candidates make the grade?

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

Exploring how South Dakota’s candidates measure up against national trends and ways we might begin to change the conversation

With three weeks to go until the midterm elections, SoDak 350 is gearing up today with the launch of its inaugural Sioux Falls Green Voter Scorecard. The scorecard provides a comprehensive guide for Sioux Falls area voters looking to elect leaders committed to addressing the climate crisis.

To create the scorecard, we reached out to state- and county-level candidates that will be on the ballot in Sioux Falls voting districts with seven questions about their views on climate and environmental issues. Questions ranged from “How would you work to strengthen the resilience of South Dakota communities and infrastructure to extreme weather?” to “What can be done to create a fair and affordable clean energy future?”

Overall, we were impressed with many of the candid and thoughtful replies. Most candidates who responded are thinking very seriously about how climate change will affect their constituents, expressing concern about its harmful impact on the state’s agriculture industry and recognizing climate change as an existential threat that must be dealt with at all levels of society. However, some falsely claim it’s a media hoax, including one candidate for state-level office.

Also impressive was the scope and diversity of potential solutions. Some candidates emphasized educating citizens about clean energy, energy efficiency, and sustainable land management practices and increasing access to incentives for these practices. Others recommended that local and state governments should lead the way by transitioning government fleets to hybrid or electric vehicles and by investing in wind and solar energy on public lands. One proposed establishing a statewide commission of farmers, scientists, economists, business owners, and concerned citizens to draft a climate action plan that truly reflects the needs, concerns, and strengths of the people of South Dakota. All of these ideas have great potential for getting South Dakota on a path to net zero greenhouse gas emissions, and every one is worth pursuing.

Despite these encouraging signs, however, the fact remains that out of over 80 candidates who were invited to participate in the survey with multiple reminders, only 23 responded. And while we acknowledge the time constraints and heavy demands of a busy campaign season, we can’t help but draw a disheartening conclusion: the majority of politicians in South Dakota still don’t see climate change as a priority, or are simply not thinking about it at all.

This attitude stands in contrast with public opinion. Recent polling by researchers at Yale and George Mason University found that over 65% of South Dakotans are concerned about climate change, and a majority believe that their local and state elected officials should be doing more to address this challenge. As more South Dakotans grapple with the impacts of more frequent spring flooding, prolonged extreme heat, and more intense summer droughts, this number is likely to increase.

Some might explain candidates’ reluctance to engage by pointing to South Dakota’s Republican-dominated political landscape and a history of conservative hostility towards the climate issue: of the 23 responses SoDak 350 received, only 4 were from Republican candidates, and only one of those achieved a ‘Favorable’ score.

But nationwide trends show that it doesn’t have to be this way. In the past few years, Republican-controlled states like Arkansas, Utah, and South Carolina have passed legislation to expand wind and solar power in the name of energy independence, economic opportunity, and expanding consumer choice. Montana and Louisiana - red states with economies heavily driven by fossil fuels - have both released climate action plans in the past two years that would set their states on a pathway to net zero greenhouse gas emissions. And nationwide, young Republicans and young evangelicals are pushing their elders to take a stand for climate action. A 2020 Pew Research Center study found that Millennial and Gen Z Republicans are more likely to agree, by a two-to-one margin, that the government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change. Those who are serious about the long-term outlook of the Republican party would do well to heed the priorities of its youth.

How can South Dakota overcome its current gap and usher in an era of leadership committed to protecting people and the planet? We can start by working from common ground. In responses to SoDak 350’s survey, candidates across the political spectrum expressed support for improving the state’s riparian buffer program, which encourages farmers to plant trees or grass buffers along waterways. Riparian buffers help improve water quality by trapping chemical pollutants and sediment, but they also can help address climate change impacts by containing floodwaters and potentially sequestering carbon in the soil.

Candidates also expressed bipartisan support for taking advantage of the state’s abundant wind and solar potential and for energy efficiency measures that help households reduce their energy costs in the face of volatile fossil fuel prices. Exploring these areas of common interest - as well as other solutions that will help strengthen South Dakota’s economy through the growth of new, homegrown green industries - could be a gateway to accelerating climate action across the state.

There are many important issues on the ballot in November, but climate change is one that affects all of us, and it is one that South Dakotans care about. So for Sioux Falls area voters, we hope this scorecard will be an informative resource for understanding your potential representatives and the solutions they bring to the table. But to those who run for public office, both now and in the future, we hope that this exercise will initiate an ongoing conversation about the role our state can play in tackling the climate crisis - a conversation that will translate into concrete action to build a sustainable future.

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