Town hall participants discuss Wisconsin’s climate crisis

By: - July 31, 2020 6:30 am
Banner at Milwaukee climate march 2019

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

The climate crisis was the focus of a virtual town hall on July 29 featuring Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin), Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes and others leaders who stressed the urgency of climate adaption in Wisconsin. Climate change has major consequences for the Badger State, from the increase in severe weather events to the upcoming election.

Baldwin noted that the nature of Wisconsin’s climate crisis “is such that it requires bold, urgent, and transformative action. And that action has to happen at every level of government.” Although Gov. Tony Evers has made climate adaptation and renewable energy a cornerstone of his administration, that’s not the case with President Donald Trump. The president has consistently denied that climate change is a problem, while boosting the fossil fuel and coal industries. Meanwhile America is experiencing the impact of a world changing faster than its policies.

LT. Gov. Mandela Barnes in his office. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes in his office. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

In Wisconsin, heavier, record-setting rain events are occurring with greater frequency. The state’s once-lustrous agricultural sector is increasingly hampered by interrupted grow cycles, more pests, and crops damaged or destroyed by what used to be rare weather events. “It’s an epic crisis, right now,” said Baldwin, “it’s existential. And it’s why it’s so vital that we prepare for the first moment where we can change laws and change the direction of this country and our state.”

Many of the effects from a changing climate also cause other cascade events which weaken Wisconsin’s environmental integrity, and harm low-income communities. Barnes described these communities as being at the forefront of climate and environmental issues.

They “bare the burden of climate change,” said Banes, “but have so little to do with impacting climate change. They have had so little to do with contributing to climate change. I think that’s one of the most unfortunate parts … another instance where the strongest among us, who create the problems and leave the problems for the most vulnerable communities, and they get away with it. And our low-income communities continue to suffer.”

Climate change is a much more complex issue than weather patterns changing around the country. Some of the driving factors for carbon emissions, including  coal-burning power plants, also disproportionately  affect low-income communities. High rates of asthma and cancers, for example, or lack of access to uncontaminated drinking water, are problems created by fossil fuel production. These same communities bear the brunt of worsening weather events, particularly catastrophic flooding. Barnes feels these effects, as well as closely linked problems like lack of healthcare access, are quickly becoming human-rights issues.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin headshot
Sen. Tammy Baldwin

“A Green New Deal is not far outside the realm of possibility,” said Barnes. “Especially given the economic catastrophe that’s been brought on by COVID-19. That means we need a real recovery to address and combat both the economic concerns and the environmental concerns.”

Barnes feels that any conversation around what he calls “a green recovery” should center for low-income and minority communities. “We have to think about the communities that have been impacted, and how they should be restored given having to deal with the challenges brought on by climate change. But also they should be at the front of the line when it comes to seeing the economic benefit of implementing green economic policy.”

Climate change is a problem for the entire state of Wisconsin. Kriss Marion, a candidate for District 51 of the State Assembly, confessed that, “those of us in rural Wisconsin, and really rural America, feel very left behind in this discussion.”

In Marion’s eyes, “farmers should be the climate warriors of this moment,” she explained during the town hall. “And unfortunately a narrative has been spread, and perpetuated, and divided us so that there’s a sense here, out in the country, that climate protection — environmental protection —and agricultural prosperity are on two sides of a battle. When, in fact, they should be one and the same.”

A child sits with a sign at Milwaukee's climate march 2019.
A child sits with a sign at Milwaukee’s climate march in 2019. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

As chair of the Governor’s Climate Change Task Force, Barnes has worked to include agricultural communities as a key asset in climate adaptation. Due to the pandemic, the task force has moved from traveling around the state to holding virtual town halls, which are seeing increasing levels of public participation. Farmers and Wisconsinites from rural and agricultural communities often have crucial insights into how to reduce livestock pollution, maintain the land and also test the waters for renewable energy sources. Nearly $60 billion in economic activity is generated annually by Wisconsin’s farming communities.

Denying the issue, Baldwin says, “costs lives” — not only literally, due to worsening weather events, but also in the way climate impacts can disrupt normal life. “Clean and renewable energy sources create more jobs than do fossil fuel electricity generation,” said Baldwin. “So we’ve seen those opportunities for good paying jobs go away. We’ve also lost recreational opportunities.”

Wisconsin tourism and recreation thrives on the Great Lakes and on inland lakes and rivers, as well as the natural habitats which surround them. Badger State climate change has increasingly eroded the shores of the Great Lakes and warmed the water, affecting aquatic life. Shoreline erosion is a pressing issue as  houses and buildings have to be relocated. The Trump Administration’s roll-back of Obama-era climate policies has impeded the state’s ability to tackle these issues.

“I’ve done those storm damage tours before,” said Barnes. “I’ve had a chance to talk to farmers along the road who are cleaning up after what should be a 100-year storm. They should probably expect it to happen again next year. And they’re concerned whether they’re even going to rebuild, or even if they should rebuild. Even if they’re able to.” For urban communities, Barnes noted, “you think about increased levels of heat stroke, chronic illness, vector-borne diseases like lyme disease that people are contracting.”

Barnes was among the dozens of U.S. elected officials who attended the 2019 climate conference in Madrid, Spain. Although he returned home in renewed confidence, Barnes couldn’t ignore the conspicuous absence of Trump Administration officials at the conference. Democracy Now reported that the U.S. essentially had no official presence at the conference. “That’s why we have to stand up wherever we are to continue to talk about this issue,” Barnes says, “continue to shout about climate change, because this is a very unsustainable path.”

Marchers at Milwaukee's People's Climate March. Photo by: Isiah Holmes
Marchers at Milwaukee’s People’s Climate March. Photo by: Isiah Holmes

The town hall represented another step in Wisconsin’s journey to adapting to climate change. Under an executive order issued by Gov. Evers, Wisconsin has a goal to move to 100% renewable energy by 2050.

Despite the current presidential administration’s denials, policies continue to be developed at the state level. The more people experience the impacts, the more public consensus of the issue shifts. “Wisconsin has an opportunity to build a great, great green economy,” said Darrol Gibson, managing director of Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT). “We’re at a true turning point for our country, with everything going on.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.