From COVID to climate change: science must lead progress

We must demand better than the antiquated and dangerous response we are getting from political leaders

Planet Earth exploding into heat and flames and sparks
'Climate change' artistic image, royalty free by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

As COVID-19 continues to upend lives across Wisconsin and the country, we need our elected leaders to engage in collective, coordinated action based on science – not fear, panic, ignorance or demagoguery.

Unfortunately, as they have with their response to climate change, too many of our elected officials are not rising to the challenge of this harrowing moment.

Too many of our elected representatives have enabled anti-science rhetoric and policy that is leaving people at severe risk to their livelihoods and health.

After nearly a decade of climate change denial and anti-conservation policymaking that favors polluters over people, a crisis such as COVID-19 reveals in dramatic fashion how thin the veneer of safety and preparedness really is in Wisconsin.

With resources like hospital capacity, emergency services and safe drinking water supplies already stretched thin by the effects of climate change and bad policy, a crisis such as COVID-19 becomes even more monstrous, and amplifies existing racial and economic inequalities.

While Wisconsinites overwhelmingly support a practical, safe and science-based response to the COVID-19 public health crisis, many of our elected representatives, especially in the Legislature, are ignoring their constituents and are fomenting an antiquated, dangerous and irrational response to the pandemic and to climate change.

The vast majority of us are doing our part – social distancing during this pandemic and reducing our carbon footprints. It’s time for those elected officials to do theirs. They need to stop playing lethal games with COVID-19 and with climate change.

On April 7, because of actions by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, the spring slection and presidential primary were held, despite a global pandemic and warnings – based on sound science – that it would exacerbate the spread of the COVID-19 virus, especially in already vulnerable communities like Milwaukee.

That decision has already been linked to at least 19 new cases of COVID-19, and until testing accelerates, we won’t know just how devastating that decision was for us, our neighbors, and our families.

Similarly, our elected officials need to take a science-based approach to climate change.

The majority of Wisconsin’s energy comes from dirty, unsustainable sources, with coal topping the list as the leading fuel used for electricity generation. In 2018, coal-fired power plants provided 49% of the state’s net generation. Wisconsin imports 75% of our electricity fuel, meaning we are sending money out of the state’s economy to import dirty energy. Meanwhile, only about 10% of Wisconsin’s energy production comes from renewable energy. We’re not investing in homegrown clean energy sources.

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According to Climate Central, more than 130,000 people in Wisconsin are especially vulnerable to extreme heat (under 5 years old or 65 and older, living in poverty). By 2050, the typical number of heat wave days in Wisconsin is projected to rise from 10 to more than 60 days per year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recorded 13 extreme weather events affecting Wisconsin in the last decade that were responsible for over $1 billion in damages. In 2018, there were 12 deaths in Wisconsin due to extreme weather. Farmers, already struggling, are seeing crop losses because of extreme and unpredictable weather events.

As these dual crises bring sickness, death, voter disenfranchisement and financial ruin, many of our elected officials are reacting as if it were just another “us versus them” moment of political football.

In both the current pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis, the Legislature has ignored the advice of experts, overruled the direction of scientists, and undermined the institutions we rely on to protect us, putting people all across the state at risk. 

Our health is at stake, and so is our livelihood and the economic stability of our communities and state.

Once in a great while, we are all called upon to sacrifice for the greater good. This is one of those times. Some are sacrificing more than others, including healthcare workers and others on the frontlines. Existing inequalities also mean that hardship is falling unevenly on poor people and people of color.

Without using science and sound data, our elected officials will only make matters worse, prolonging the pandemic and exacerbating climate change. 

We should expect more — we should demand more — from them.

Kerry Schumann
Kerry took the reins at Wisconsin Conservation Voters in 2004 and rapidly moved the organization from a two-person startup to the political force it is today. From day one, Kerry led Wisconsin Conservation Voters to adopt a locally-based citizen engagement model, believing firmly that citizens must lead and be engaged in their democracy in order to protect the environment. As Executive Director, Kerry’s focus is developing top-notch staff, building an effective Board of Directors, working directly with our supporters, and helping the entire team stay focused on the mission and vision of Wisconsin Conservation Voters.