Survey show concerns for climate change, reasons for hope

A graphic showing various scenes related to climate change.

A recent survey conducted by the U of M’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS)—in collaboration with the U’s Climate Adaptation Partnership (MCAP)—takes a closer look at Minnesotans’ perspectives on climate change.

According to the survey, 76 percent of residents are concerned about climate change. Of Gen Zers surveyed, 85 percent are concerned about climate change.

When asked what’s causing earth’s changing climate, 69 percent of Minnesotans responded that burning fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas are a primary cause. Land use, including deforestation, was cited as a primary cause by 57 percent of respondents.

“Understanding how Minnesotans feel about climate change is vital to engage in effective conversations and accelerate climate action across the state,” says Heidi Roop, director of MCAP and an assistant professor of climate science in CFANS. “This survey shows that while overall concern is greatest with Gen Z—a deeply climate-conscious generation—there is warranted concern across age groups, and that hope and a desire for action are at the heart of Minnesotans' attitudes about climate change.”

Concerns close to home

As for what concerns people most about climate change in Minnesota, 57 percent of people responded that it is the impacts to the state’s lakes and rivers. This is the focus of work being done by Gretchen Hansen, assistant professor of fisheries ecology in CFANS. Her team is studying how oxygen levels in the world’s temperate freshwater lakes are declining at rates faster than in the oceans, threatening freshwater biodiversity and the quality of drinking water.

“Minnesota has been a leader in identifying the importance of coldwater, oxygenated habitat in lakes and working to restore and protect the watersheds of lakes to counteract these concerning trends,” says Hansen. “Our research highlights the importance of that ongoing work for adapting to climate change.”

How should Minnesota prepare for climate change? According to 64 percent of respondents, the state should focus on preserving and conserving Minnesota's grasslands, forests, and wetlands. This view is supported by research from CFANS that shows even relatively modest climate change could dramatically alter Minnesota’s Northwoods and the southern boreal forest that runs from eastern Canada to Alaska.

"Present-day southern boreal forest may reach a tipping point with even modest climate warming, resulting in a major shift in the kinds of species present, and with potential adverse impacts on the health and diversity of our forests,” says Peter Reich, professor in the Department of Forest Resources in CFANS.

Reasons to be hopeful

Despite urgent challenges and concerns, it’s not all doom and gloom for Minnesota residents. The survey showed 56 percent of Minnesotans are hopeful that society will do enough to reduce the most severe impacts of climate change. That response went up to 62 percent for Gen Zers surveyed.

To prevent climate change from getting worse, 60 percent of respondents said that they would most like to see increased use of wind, solar, and other renewable energy to power homes and businesses in Minnesota. Increasing the use of renewable energy for production agriculture is a focus of the U of M’s West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC).

“Renewable energy holds great potential to boost our economy while minimizing our impact on the environment,” says Mike Reese, director of renewable energy at the WCROC.

And for a state that depends on farming, cultivating sustainable agriculture solutions will be essential to tackle climate change—from developing continuous living cover crops to advancing precision agriculture. Toward that goal, MCAP recently hired a new Extension educator dedicated to agricultural climate resilience in Minnesota.

“To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we need to focus on both mitigation and adaptation—addressing the root causes of climate change while also preparing for future impacts,” says Roop, who also serves as an U of M Extension climate specialist. “Together, through research, experimentation, collaboration, and leadership, we can help ensure that Minnesota is ready for the impacts of climate change today and tomorrow.”