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Climate change

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has removed language from its public website describing the scientific consensus that human activity is the main cause of climate change, suggesting instead that the cause is uncertain.

Republicans who have controlled state government since 2011 are fighting federal efforts to reduce greenhouse gases that cause climate change, but they have mostly attacked the costs of pollution controls without publicly denying the science until now.

A Madison-based conservation activist who is pushing for the air pollution standards said spreading falsehoods about climate change was dangerous because delays in addressing the problem will worsen the climate-related health hazards faced by future generations.

“The notion that this is a matter of scientific debate is ridiculous,” said Keith Reopelle, policy director at Clean Wisconsin. “The only people who say that are being paid by the fossil fuel industry.”

A series of surveys show that 97 percent or more of working climate scientists agree humans are causing the dramatic changes in temperature and weather.

But a change this week to a DNR webpage asserts that the issue is still “being debated.”

Spokesman Jim Dick described the revision as part of a routine review of the website. He said DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp and other top administrators were unavailable during the holidays to discuss their views.

Language changed

As recently as October, a DNR webpage on climate change in the Great Lakes region said: “Human activities that increase heat–trapping (‘green house’) gases are the main cause. Earth’s average temperature has increased 1.4 °F since 1850 and the eight warmest years on record have occurred since 1998. Increasing temperatures have led to changes in rainfall patterns and snow and ice cover. These changes could have severe effects on the Great Lakes and the plants, wildlife and people who depend on them.”

Last week, that was updated to say: “As it has done throughout the centuries, the earth is going through a change. The reasons for this change at this particular time in the earth’s long history are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.”

On Thursday, Dick argued that the department’s work is guided by science even if “there is still debate amongst the general public” about the causes of climate change.

“We are still using science to protect the natural resources and adapting to the climate challenges that present themselves,” Dick added.

Scientist positions cut

Less than two years ago while cutting 90 DNR positions, Walker and the Legislature eliminated half of the department’s senior scientist positions because they researched “controversial” topics like climate change and pollution from mines.

DNR scientists have worked to adapt forestry and fisheries and other programs to rising temperatures and increasingly frequent extreme rain events, although former department employees say support for those efforts has declined.

The DNR is also responsible for enforcing federal limits on air pollution, although it has been cited for failing to adhere to national standards. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency once took the rare step of beginning formal proceedings to strip the state’s Clean Air Act powers because it wasn’t holding businesses to emission standards.

Clean Wisconsin’s Reopelle said that Republicans who took control of state government in the 2010 elections have exhibited little interest in addressing climate change.

A state law requiring utilities to obtain 10 percent of their power from renewable sources, for example, has become the weakest among 29 states with such requirements, Reopelle said, noting that other states have set the bar as high as 40 percent.

Last year, the state cut $7 million from its renewable and energy efficiency fund, and Walker has signaled he wants to divert more from the fund and send it to internet providers to increase rural coverage.

Some climate info remains

The rewritten webpage is the first result returned in a search of the DNR website of the words “climate change.”

Earlier versions of the page introduced the problem in six paragraphs and included eight links to additional sources of information. The new version is two paragraphs and two links.

Dick didn’t respond when asked if the DNR was revising other references to human causes of climate change on its extensive website. Several webpages still contain information about that, including a description of how landfills can release greenhouse gas and past articles on the topic written for Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.

But seven of the first 10 results of a search of the site, including links to activity guides on climate change for teachers, now lead to the message “Page Not Found.”

Walker’s administration has opposed federal measures to cut greenhouse gases while sidestepping questions on his views about the cause of climate change.

He issued an executive order forbidding state workers from preparing for tighter standards. Walker’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment on the changes to the DNR website.

Republicans skeptical

While 97 percent of working climate scientists agree that rapid climate change has been caused by human activities such as emissions from power plants and automobiles, representatives of the fossil fuel industry and some Republican politicians have sought to cast doubt on the question.

At the DNR, Walker and the Legislature have echoed demands of business operators that pollution permits be issued more quickly. Last month, the department announced a major reorganizationincluding more reliance on businesses in drafting permits — that had been demanded by elected officials under the threat that the agency would face further cuts if it didn’t change.

A nonpartisan audit in June confirmed that budget cuts were contributing to lax enforcement of clean water laws as the EPA continues its own investigation into regulatory deficiencies.

Last week, Walker disclosed a legislative proposal to scatter DNR programs among five separate departments.

The change in the DNR website was first reported by independent Wisconsin journalist James Rowan, who has tracked shortcomings in DNR information on climate change for several years.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.