An Earth Day assessment of Wisconsin’s environmental progress

A new report shows how the business lobby thwarts climate policy, but there has also been positive change

Banner at Milwaukee climate march 2019
Banner at Milwaukee climate march 2019 (Photo by Isiah Holmes).

This Earth Day is a time to reflect on how Wisconsin has been handling its obligations to the environment and its duty to combat climate change.

During Scott Walker’s administration, Wisconsin did not do its part — to say the least.

My organization, the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, released a report on Monday entitled “The Filthy Forty.” It notes that former GOP Gov. Walker and the state’s Republican-controlled Legislature approved dozens of legislative proposals, rules, and policies between 2011 and 2018 that contributed to climate change.

Walker, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and their Republican colleagues:

• slowed the development of alternative, renewable and home-grown energy sources, such as wind energy;

• stifled discussion of climate change by environmental, public health, and other state agencies charged with safeguarding the public’s interest and well-being;

• thwarted the state’s ability to manage natural resources affected by climate change in order to appease special interests;

• put factory farms and other large water users ahead of citizens and communities for available, safe drinking water;

• stymied recycling’s role in lowering energy and resource consumption, waste and pollution;

• hijacked the right of local communities to enact tougher environmental standards or do more to combat climate change;

• and weakened the enforcement of state laws aimed at protecting public health and the environment.

In pursuing these anti-climate policies, Walker, Fitzgerald and Vos benefited from outside election support for Republicans to the tune of $23 million from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce and $14 million from the Koch-funded group Americans for Prosperity.

Fortunately, since Walker left office, Wisconsin’s climate policy has done a 180 in the governor’s office.

Here are a few of the good things that Gov. Tony Evers has done:

• His DNR secretary, Preston Cole, has brought back the discussion of climate change, after Walker’s DNR had scrubbed the words “climate change” from its website. Under Cole and Evers, the DNR is reinvesting in climate science and reinvigorating the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

• In February 2019, Evers joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, which includes governors from 20 states and Puerto Rico. The Alliance aims to implement parts of the international Paris Agreement on climate change.

• In August 2019, Evers used an executive order to create the Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy. The new office is in charge of coming up with ways to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, which means shifting the state away from electricity generated by fossil fuels in favor of clean energy, like solar and wind power. (This plan to create the new office was included in Evers’ proposed 2019-21 state budget, but removed by the Republican-controlled Legislature during budget consideration.)

One final note can’t be ignored on this Earth Day compared to previous ones. This Earth Day occurs in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which is taking a terrible toll on those who’ve been infected and those who’ve lost their jobs or their businesses. But ironically, it’s allowing the globe to breathe again.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has caused industrial activity to shut down and cancelled flights and other journeys, slashing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution around the world,” writes Paul Monks, professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Earth Observation Science at the University of Leicester, for the World Economic Forum in an article on Monday.

“If there is something positive to take from this terrible crisis, it could be that it’s offered a taste of the air we might breathe in a low-carbon future.” 

He notes that China’s carbon dioxide levels dropped 40% in January and February of this year, compared to the first two months last year. And air quality from Los Angeles to New York City has noticeably improved.

Here in Wisconsin, the air is cleaner, too. 

And it could be even cleaner if it weren’t for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, and their trio of water boys named Walker, Fitzgerald, and Vos.