Milwaukee not a bad city for climate change, report finds

The city scores well on a national survey while local officials grapple with climate preparedness

By: - April 8, 2022 6:30 am
Banner at Milwaukee climate march 2019 (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

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

How might Milwaukee fare as the climate changes, and parts of the country experience more intense weather? A new analysis by Policygenius, an independent insurance broker and online marketplace, found that the city may actually fare pretty well. The Policygenius analysis, which assessed urban cities across the country, ranked Milwaukee at #6 on the list of best-suited cities.

The city that is Wisconsin’s economic engine, the analysis noted, made the list “thanks to its below-average number of days with extreme heat predicted for 2050 — just nine days versus the average of 44 days for the rest of the cities in this study.” Still, Milwuakee and much of the state aren’t immune, and will still experience rising humidity and heat. For the Badger State, climate change means increased temperatures, more rainfall over a shorter period of days, and increased risks of flooding.

Marchers gather for the Poor People's Campaign mobilization tour in Madison. This sign focused on tar sands and climate change. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Marchers gather for the Poor People’s Campaign mobilization tour in Madison. This sign focused on tar sands and climate change. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

 A late 2020 report by UW-Madison and state health workers warned that health effects due to the changing climate are already evident. More flooding, for example, could mean more exposure to contaminants and diseases. Increased temperatures could lead to more heat strokes, and increase the risk of wildfires which ultimately affect air quality.

Nevertheless, Policygenius found promise in some of the more localized trends in Milwaukee. “While you’d expect a city situated on Lake Michigan to see an above-average threat of flooding,” the analysis read, “that’s not the case. By 2050, just shy of 5% of Milwaukee properties will be in 100-year flood plains, an increase of only 0.35% over today. But its air quality isn’t quite the breath of fresh air you’d expect — just 58% of days in 2021 were considered ‘good’ air quality versus the 63% average for cities in this index.”

In this light, the analysis found that Milwaukee may seem more prepared for climate change than most cities. While it has some favorable traits, the city also had a high “vulnerability score” in the analysis. “The city scores four times lower than the other cities on this top 10 list,” the report reads, referencing Milwaukee’s vulnerability score for the analysis. It points to civil unrest that followed the killing of George Floyd, and increasing violence as potential factors. Still, the report notes that a low vulnerability score “may be indicative of how quickly residents would bounce back after a climate-related disaster.”

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

Early last month, Milwaukee’s City-County Task Force on Climate and Economic Equity presented a set of recommendations to the Milwaukee Common Council. The recommendations, and the task force’s work was also compiled in a Powerpoint presentation which was presented to the council in March. The city faces several climate-related risks, including extreme storms, heat waves which cause pockets of urban heat islands, and other issues that extend beyond the city limits.

In the late summer of 2021 intense storms bombarded the city, knocking down more than 600 trees. While some residents experienced property damage and disrupted roads for days on end, others struggled to clear debris which the city had missed. Conditions were even worse for unhoused Milwaueeans, with residents of a tent community describing having to crawl out of water and find momentary shelter. Residents challenged with food insecurity, housing insecurity, and other effects of poverty will also be more vulnerable to the effects of climate change on society. From season to season, extreme or unusual weather is becoming ever more common.

The march on the DNC in Milwaukee, August 20th, 2020. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Activists from Extinction Rebellion stage demonstrations during the March on the DNC during 2020. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

Mid-December of 2021 saw temperatures of 61 degrees in Milwaukee, and 64 degrees in the capital of Madison. These were some of the warmest temperatures ever recorded during the month of December for the two cities. Meanwhile, the national guard warned of brewing storms which could bring 40 mile per hour winds and tornadoes to southwestern Wisconsin. Just a week prior, at least 39 tornadoes broke out across the Midwest, causing at least 88 deaths and costing millions of dollars in damage. Recently, climate scientists from across the globe have joined groups like Extinction Rebellion in civil disobedience actions to push for urgent climate action by governments.

By 2025, Milwaukee aims to draw 25% of its energy from renewable sources. The city-county climate task force has also set a goal of reducing greenhouse emission 45% by 2030, and to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Green jobs are also a goal for climate activists and elected officials seeking to rejuvenate Milwaukee’s industrial sectors. According to statistics from 2018, about 31% of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions came from residential buildings, 22% from industrial sources, another 22% from commercial buildings, and 21% from transportation.

The task force has recommended promoting  green jobs.  Other recommendations include establishing community-benefits agreements for publicly funded projects, helping  employers to meet climate-related goals, supporting homeowners in converting to renewable energy sources and incorporating energy efficiency strategies into the construction of new homes. Green jobs and climate resilience were a talking point on  the campaign trail by recently elected Mayor Cavalier Johnson as well as his  opponents including Ald. Marina Dimitrijevic.

Natasha Winkler, Extinction Rebellion (Photo by Isiah Holmes)
Natasha Winkler, of Extinction Rebellion during the 2020 Democratic National Convention. (Photo by Isiah Holmes)

The expansion of bus rapid transit routes, street cars, and improving the efficiency of public transportation are also goals of  the task force. Protecting bike lanes and promoting the use of zero-emissions transportation is also a recommendation, along with  major changes to major roadways in Milwaukee like 27th street, Fond du Lac Avenue, Capitol Drive, and 35th Street.

Fostering the use of electric vehicles, and developing a city ordinance requiring electric vehicle charging infrastructure in parking lots by 2023 is also recommended. So is increasing the number of multi-family residential buildings, and the promotion of electric vehicle policies with Wisconsin utilities.

Currently the city is seeking a consulting firm to compile many of the task force’s findings into a final report. The report will be made available for public review, and additional analysis will need to be conducted. Meanwhile,  Milwaukee will also need to seek funding to get the strategies off the ground.

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.