Although climate change might not be the first thing on the minds of many Wisconsinites, it remains a top priority for state officials. The Governor’s Climate Change Task Force continues developing recommendations to steer Wisconsin’s climate-related policies, and gathering information from residents. Tuesday night, June 23, the task force will hold its first virtual listening session, which will include several Badger State agricultural groups.
A second listening session will be held Saturday, June 27 with three more to follow (see below) for a total of five opportunities to weigh in.
“These public hearings are going to be modeled after the governor’s budget listening session that took place around the state prior to the budget being introduced,” Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes tells the Wisconsin Examiner. “Some of the first listening sessions are going to highlight local sustainability champions, including the City of River Falls, and the City of Milwaukee.” Barnes notes that including Milwaukee in the conversation is an important part of building equitable policies and conversations. The lieutenant governor says he was delighted to learn recently that River Falls has transitioned to powering city buildings with 100% renewable energy.
“I didn’t even know until like, today or yesterday,” says Barnes. “It’ll be interesting to see how they made it happen. They did it without making a big deal about it, which probably took the politics out of it and made it much easier for them to do so.” The task force expects to learn a lot from listening to how the successes in River Falls were achieved. Still, there’s a lot about how climate change is impacting the state that many Wisconsinites either don’t know, or don’t notice.”
Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine), who sits both on the climate task force and the Transportation Committee in the state Assembly, explains that concerns from farmers and others across the state are growing louder by the day.
“We were making decisions in the Legislature, in those committees, based off of the reality that seasons are changing, and the growing season is changing,” she tells Wisconsin Examiner on a joint Zoom interview with other task force leaders. “Yet, thus far, we have not been willing to make decisions on the front end to mitigate those impacts.”
Barnes notes that, for Wisconsin, one of the biggest impacts has been the flooding. “Especially last year,” he says, “with the seemingly never ending rainy season. But also the extreme cold temperatures. People expect it to be cold here in Wisconsin, but we have repeated polar vortex seasons. Same things with the hundred year storms, that we’re getting much more regularly.” Cold happens, he acknowledges, but not historic, record shattering cold every other year. “When you have to close schools because it’s too cold in Wisconsin,” says Barnes, “something is afoot.”
All of this has severe impacts not only on the health of Wisconsinites, but also on the state’s much valued agricultural industry. Research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and UW-Extension found that Wisconsin’s farms generate nearly $60 billion in economic activity annually, and employ over 350,000 people.
In other words, that’s about 10% of the Badger State’s overall workforce. In some regards, Wisconsin’s weather is shifting to a wetter, more humid environment. The moments of extreme cold and flooding, however, kill and damage crops which may otherwise flourish in the changing climate. Wisconsin also has a lucrative fishing and trout economy, which climate change threatens by warming the water and impacting the breeding and life cycle of the fish.
Neubauer also highlights the importance of moving away from the burning of fossil fuels. Gov. Tony Evers has set a goal for the state to utilize 100% carbon-free electricity by 2050. In May, it was announced that the Edgewater coal plant, owned by Madison-based Alliant Energy, will close by the end of 2022.
Alliant’s president David de Leon said in a statement at the time, “as we transition from coal toward a cleaner energy mix, we are caring for our employees, creating new jobs and bringing new economic development opportunities to the communities we serve.” Neubauer notes that, “we don’t extract fossil fuels here. We bring them into the state, send money out of the state and then, not far from Racine, continue to burn coal that increases people’s risk of asthma [and] of other health issues, particularly for low-income folks and communities of color.”
The concept of environmental equity and injustice has become a focal point of the Climate Task Force. Barnes, who grew up in Milwaukee, experienced childhood asthma, as do many Black and other children of color in the Cream City. “So, for a long time we’ve been feeling those impacts of the burning of fossil fuels, and we’re going to continue to feel those as we go forward, if we don’t address this issue,” he says.
Sen Mark Miller (D-Monona), another task force member, also highlighted the issue of erosion along the Great Lakes which is being worsened by climate change. It’s something that Neubauer is witnessing first hand in her Racine-area district. “My high school music teacher is looking at a really significant bill to just keep her home from falling into Lake Michigan. And we also in Racine have lost a lot of the public access along Lake Michigan,” explained Neubauer. Even just a few blocks from her home, “we’ve lost a huge amount of the parking and public access that people used to enjoy. So that is a huge travesty.” Due to the pandemic gutting an already limited city budget, Neubauer admits, “we don’t know when we’re going to be able to fix that.”
“As the heat increases, milk production goes down,” Miller adds, “and I think one of the things that we recognize is that there are some significant health impacts of the emissions into the air. Both particulate matter, as well as some of the other chemicals that are emitted from gasoline exhaust and electrical generation from coal-powered plants. So these health impacts, unforgettably, tend to fall on low income communities disproportionately. And we’ve certainly seen that have an impact during this pandemic.”
Barnes says he feels that, “the more you talk about [climate change] the more things people think of.” Lake Michigan’s temperature is warming to historic highs, and heavy rains are causing challenges for sewage treatment and containment. In Milwaukee, when the sewers become overwhelmed with rainwater, the Sewage District is forced to release raw material into the nearby river and lake.
“These sorts of rain events, which used to be very occasional, are now happening with increasing frequency,” Barnes continues. “Complex as the problems are, the task force remains undeterred and, in addition to learning from the practices of residents, is also learning from what our neighbors in other states are doing.
“We want to particularly look to our neighbors, Illinois and Minnesota, which have taken some great strides” says Neubauer. “Particularly in recognizing that addressing climate change is not just risk mitigation, it’s also an opportunity to create good jobs, family supporting jobs.”
In truth, creating a green and climate-conscious economy could be a game-changer in pulling Wisconsin out of the economic losses from the pandemic, according to this group.
“I’m particularly looking to other states,” says Neubauer, “and some of our Midwest neighbors, in some of the ways in which they’ve created good jobs in the clean energy sector, that have reduced inequality and helped more people stay in the middle class.”
Barnes notes that, “Iowa has gone all in when it comes to wind.” Still, different states have different approaches. Nuclear energy, though pushed by some, makes Barnes uneasy. “Just given the storage and disposal of nuclear waste,” says Barnes, keeping in the back of his mind that issues of waste and contamination always hit low-income communities the hardest. “We have to be responsible. And my thing about nuclear is that, it’s clean in theory. But if there’s waste, then it’s not really clean.”
Miller notes that some states have created carbon taxes, which create incentives for moving away from the fuel source while generating the funds to do so. “I think it’s one of the ways to put an economic price on what is essentially a price being born by the health of the individuals in our state, and the health of our economy.”
The senator also highlights how state-centric the policies are becoming due to the lack of federal leadership. “The U.S. should be at the forefront of this, since we are the largest emitter of climate changing gases,” Miller tells Wisconsin Examiner. “For us to not be stepping up and recognizing our very important role both as a contributor and as the largest economy has left it up to the states, and actually local units of government.”
Barnes saw this lack of American political presence on the climate issue first hand during the Climate Conference in Madrid, which he attended in December 2019. “It was very disappointing,” he says, “because the largest nations didn’t step up to the plate the way that they should have.” For Barnes., “the lack of a competent federal government response has left states to figure it all out. And so, that’s where we are.”
Information on the listening sessions — open to all Wisconsinites:
Tuesday, June 23, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. (Register: bit.ly/3fAn2sr)
Session 1: “The first listening session will highlight local sustainability champions and include presentations from the City of River Falls, the City of Milwaukee, and representatives from the UW System. While presentations will be focused on local leadership, commentary on any issues related to climate change is welcome during group discussion.”
Zoom Link: bit.ly/37C7dyM OR Call: 1 (312) 626-6799 Meeting ID: 365 565 6200 and Password: 219745
Saturday, June 27, 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. (Register: bit.ly/3dcxQLT)
Session 2: Details about presenters will be announced soon.