While our planet warms and the impacts of climate change are quickly becoming more obvious, politicians of all stripes remain engaged in partisan squabbling.
Meanwhile, young people around the globe are organizing protests and demanding action. They get it. There is no time to waste. Frankly, it’s embarrassing that so many adults don’t understand what’s at stake.
While the news about climate change can seem discouraging, many encouraging steps are being taken by businesses, communities and individuals that are already making a real difference. The bottom line is, yes, we need to be worried about climate change — but there is reason for hope. The key is immediate, coordinated action on all fronts. As author Paul Hawken notes in his 2017 best-seller “Drawdown,” the actions needed to slow and even reverse global warming will save us billions of dollars while improving our overall health and well-being.
Here in Wisconsin, we can pursue aggressive approaches to head off the devastating impacts of global warming while also boosting our economy and reducing medical costs. So, in honor of Earth Day founder, the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson, let’s dedicate Earth Day 2019 to implementing a “Wisconsin Climate Action Plan.”
Wisconsin has tried before to pass a comprehensive climate change initiative. In 2008, Gov. Jim Doyle’s Global Warming Task Force issued a report recommending 60 policies to reduce in-state greenhouse gas emissions. The report was approved by a near-unanimous vote of those serving on the task force, including all of Wisconsin's electric utilities and state environmental groups.
Unfortunately, the Wisconsin Legislature failed to pass the “Clean Energy Jobs Act” that would have implemented the recommendations of the task force, dealing a blow to those who realized climate change was already having an impact on the state. By 2011, the Walker administration removed the Global Warming Task Force report from the Department of Natural Resources website and the state buried its head in the sand by pretending the greatest environmental challenge of our era did not exist.
Since then, the issue of climate change has devolved into an almost purely partisan issue where many people’s views were based on political allegiance and talk radio rants rather than accepted science.
Fortunately, some rationality is finally coming. There is now overwhelming consensus among scientists that climate change is real and driven by human activity. In Washington, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican chair of the Senate Energy Committee, and Sen. Joe Manchin, the ranking Democrat on the committee from the coal-mining state of West Virginia, joined together this March to say that climate change is here and action must be taken by Congress.
Closer to home, all of Wisconsin’s electric utilities are voluntarily taking steps to reduce their emissions. Many businesses are stepping up and making major commitments to reduce emissions. This includes leading corporations like Miller Brewing, Kohler Corporation, Mercury Marine, Gundersen Health System, Oshkosh Corporation, Land's End and most of our paper companies. Similarly, many communities have embarked on major sustainability initiatives, including Bayfield, Egg Harbor, Appleton, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Madison, Milwaukee and Dane County.
At the same time, the cost of renewable energy has dropped beyond all expectations and customers are demanding cleaner power. Electric vehicle sales are rising and charging stations are becoming more common. There is a new focus on reducing food waste and supporting sustainable agricultural and forestry practices that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, capture and sequester carbon and protect our groundwater.
An important step for Wisconsin must be to continue moving away from burning coal as a primary way to produce electricity. Not only does coal burning release more heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, particulate emissions contribute to heart, asthma and other lung diseases. This is particularly important given the magnitude of the health care costs facing Wisconsin.
While policymakers in Wisconsin have done little to change course, our neighboring states have moved forward and are gaining a competitive advantage. They have invested in energy efficiency and renewable resources and reaped the manufacturing and service jobs that come with those investments. Skilled young people, whom the state badly needs to attract, put a high value on environmental sustainability and recognize the importance of addressing climate change. If Wisconsin doesn’t get its act together, we will continue to see the best and brightest vote with their feet by locating in states that are implementing new climate change strategies and creating high-paying jobs in the process.
So, let’s get moving on a Climate Action Plan for Wisconsin before we fall further behind. Here are 10 components that should be part of the plan, playing off the foundation already laid out by the task force nearly a decade ago:
1. Establish explicit and aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals by sector and track and publish progress.
2. Reinvigorate the Wisconsin Climate Change Initiative, a collaboration between the Nelson Institute at the University of Wisconsin and the Department of Natural Resources, focused on identifying the likely impacts of climate change on our state and strategies for adaptation.
3. Leverage the Wisconsin Idea to harness the scientific research at our great university system to support voluntary and innovative efforts from our businesses, farms and communities.
4. Reinvigorate and create new state programs to support local communities in their efforts to adopt and implement comprehensive, money-saving sustainability programs.
5. Build on initiatives such as Green & Healthy Schools, enabling our schools to reduce energy costs through conservation and renewable projects and to educate their students about climate change and what can be done.
6. Adopt a state energy policy implemented by all departments and the Public Service Commission that makes Wisconsin a model in sustainable management, modernizes our building codes, promotes energy efficiency improvements to existing buildings and facilitates substantial growth in our renewable resources, including community solar farms.
7. Work with our utilities to develop the smart grid infrastructure needed to support a safe and reliable electric system that is customer-friendly, integrates new technology and enables the development of clean, distributed energy as well as large utility-scale renewable installations.
8. Develop mass transit infrastructure and carbon-neutral biofuels, while linking our utilities’ renewable energy with a rapid ramp-up of electric vehicle charging facilities.
9. Enhance the substantial carbon sequestration capacity of Wisconsin's agricultural lands and forests through healthy, efficient and cost-effective management practices.
10. Incorporate environmental justice policies into any new utility projects to ensure that our most vulnerable communities do not bear the brunt of pollution.
These are very important and attainable steps that can put Wisconsin on the path toward a brighter and cleaner future. We call on Gov. Tony Evers, working with Wisconsin business leaders, environmentalists and legislators from both parties, to accept this Earth Day challenge and promptly develop and implement a Wisconsin Climate Action Plan. It is time to put political partisanship aside and protect all our grandchildren.
Tia Nelson is managing director of climate at the Outrider Foundation. Roy Thilly is the retired CEO of WPPI Energy. Nelson and Thilly were the co-chairs of Gov. Jim Doyle’s Global Warming Task Force.
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