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Central Library green roof

Madison Central Library's rooftop features a green roof, solar panels and a small outdoor patio area. The Sustainable Madison Committee is recommending spending up to $250,000 to figure out how to make city buildings and facilities more reliable on renewable energy and achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

While the words “climate change” have been eradicated from many state and federal websites, local government leaders in Madison and Dane County are prioritizing efforts addressing climate change.

The city and county are making investments in solar power, setting sustainable energy goals and actively discussing and setting agendas through budgets and committee discussions. These vocal and active efforts contrast with the approach two state agencies and the federal government are taking.

At the end of December, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources removed language from its website describing scientific agreement that human activity is the main cause of climate change and instead cast doubt on that consensus. The state Public Service Commission has also removed any reference to climate change from its website, according to the Associated Press.

However, another state agency, the Division of Emergency Management, released new information on global warming and its effects on the state, the AP reported Monday.

On the federal level, there is no mention of climate change on the official White House website except a page dedicated to President Donald Trump’s promise to eliminate former President Barack Obama’s climate change policies. The changes came within moments of Trump's inauguration, the New York Times reported.

Steve Carpenter, the director of the Center for Limnology at University of Wisconsin-Madison, said climate change policy, which typically shifts with political cycles, is in a "turbulent transition time." 

"In the short term, we may see the United States at the federal level abandon climate change for awhile and that’s a pity, a lost opportunity and probably from the economic projections I’ve seen is probably a net harm to the economy. It’s going to cost us money to back away from climate change," Carpenter said.

Carpenter was one of several UW-Madison scientists who sent a letter to the DNR, asking the agency to embrace climate change science and avoid violating the public trust.

A vast body of peer-reviewed studies, science organizations and climate scientists have concluded that the world is warming, mainly due to increasing levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Most of the rising temperatures have been attributed to man-made sources, such as burning coal, oil and natural gas in addition to deforestation and livestock raising.

Carpenter said it is up to the community, including local government and individual actions, to deal with the effects of climate change such as increased flooding and runoff into the lakes. 

"The momentum is clearly toward some combination of mitigation and adaptation," Carpenter. "We're going to have to adapt because the climate has changed already. There’s a certain amount of climate change that we’re stuck with."

In its 2017-19 state legislative agenda, the Dane County Board of Supervisors included supporting statewide efforts to address climate change as a key concern. These efforts include enhanced funding for action planning, mitigation and adaptation of changes caused by human activity, according to the agenda.

Dane County Board Chair Sharon Corrigan says the county bears the brunt of the impact of climate change. Predicted heavier rainfalls and severe weather due to climate change take a toll on public infrastructure, causes soil erosion on farmlands and costs taxpayers, Corrigan said. 

"It’s something that we’re on the front line of dealing with the impact in the community, but also working on the front lines of trying to address and prevent climate change," Corrigan said. 

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi described the county’s 2017 budget measures as the county's “boldest action yet" on climate change.

Those budget initiatives include tripling the county’s production of solar power and creating a new Office of Energy and Climate Change and a new Council on Climate Change to coordinate the community’s work on reducing carbon emissions. The budget also includes funding to accelerate the county’s conversion of snow plows and other fossil fuel burning vehicles to cleaner burning renewable compressed natural gas.

“Obviously, the state and federal government could be great partners and could help us advance our efforts in a stronger way,” Parisi said. “The fact that they're not there and they’re not going to help, is not going to stop us from moving forward.”

Parisi emphasized mitigation efforts the county is working on, including replacing culverts to handle a greater volume of rainwater.

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“From where I stand, if we do our part in Dane County and if other county and municipal governments do the same thing, we can make great headway,” Parisi said.

Reporting back from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Mayor Paul Soglin said tackling climate change is a goal of “paramount importance” and that local leaders expect the federal government to actively combat global warming.

“Though we may have some folks who are in denial as to whether or not humans have caused these challenges for our planet there’s one thing we think is a universal axiom in dealing with this, which is the fact that there are things that we can do to slow down global warming,” Soglin said at press conference last week. “There are steps we can take and if we don't take those steps the consequences are going to be disastrous.”

Some of those steps may include updating city infrastructure. At the end of December, the city’s Sustainable Madison Committee recommended spending up to $250,000 to figure out how to make city buildings and facilities more reliable on renewable energy and achieve net-zero carbon emissions.

“It certainly doesn’t make our job any easier to know that the state and the federal government aren’t just apathetic and aren't just uninterested, they’re openly antagonistic to efforts to rein in pollution that causes climate change,” Sustainable Madison Committee Chair Raj Shukla said.

Shukla said the resolution illustrates that local government leaders are in tune with their constituents. He said few members attend committee meetings except when climate change issues are on the agenda, emphasizing the interest of residents.

“I hope that what local politicians will take from this and what local citizens will take from this is we can in fact affect change,” Shukla said. “It always starts locally.”

The resolution has been referred to several committees, and the City Council will likely review it sometime in February. Madison’s 2017 capital budget includes $750,000 for sustainability improvements, including renewable energy installations and energy efficiency upgrades.

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.