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Promoting Science-Based Management of Wisconsin's Natural Resources

Climate Fast Forward

Don Behm, November 15, 2019

Climate Fast Forward Conference Nov 8, 2019. Photo by Don Behm
Climate Fast Forward Conference Nov 8, 2019. Photo by Don Behm

“Action is needed now.”

In expressing that urgent call to respond quickly to the Earth’s changing climate and its increasingly disruptive and destructive impacts, Dan Vimont captured in a few words the shared commitment of more than 300 Wisconsin residents attending a Nov. 8 Climate Fast Forward conference in Madison.

Vimont, director of the Nelson Institute’s Center for Climactic Research at UW-Madison, was joined by Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway and several other officials and scientists in speaking to participants before they broke into five large groups with the task of creating a storm of practical ideas to take on climate challenges.

Rhodes-Conway called for “all hands on deck” to boost local resilience to the impacts of our changing climate.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary-Designee Preston Cole joined the call for action. “Now is the time. Not tomorrow,” he said.

“Wisconsinites of all stripes agree, climate change affects our natural resources and our community, and it’s a grave threat to our health, safety and economic well-being.”

The conference was hosted by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters and a summary of proposed recommendations will be released publicly at a Jan. 15, 2020 meeting from 8 to 9 a.m. inside the Best Western Premier Park Hotel on the Capitol Square in Madison at 22 S. Carroll St.

Video of two panel discussions at the start of the conference is available at the Wisconsin Eye website, https://wiseye.org/player/?clientID=2789595964&eventID=2019111024 and https://wiseye.org/player/?clientID=2789595964&eventID=2019111025.

Conference participants selected one of five topic groups to join for the day – energy generation, energy use, resilience and adaptation, natural carbon sinks, and governance – and they fulfilled their task with an energetic delivery of dozens of recommendations.

Large sheets of paper on the walls of each group’s meeting room became ledgers of enthusiasm as volunteers wrote summaries of a nonstop flow of ideas. Then participants voted in support of their top priorities.

Proposed Solutions

Proposals were aimed at reducing emissions of greenhouse gases from all sources, storing carbon in soils and forests, growing renewable energy resources and adapting to the climate changes already upon us.

All recommendations were practical and could be accomplished today without waiting for promising technologies, such as hydrogen fuel cells, Wisconsin Academy Executive Director Jane Elder said. “We can do this,” she said.

Support of the science linking steadily rising concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to the record-setting and extreme weather of climate change was central to the day’s discussions of what to do about it.

Three of the five groups found common ground in selecting as one of their priorities the need for a state carbon pricing policy that would provide financial incentives to reduce emissions.

Achieving a state carbon policy “would be a home run” in the effort to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change, said Fred Clark, Executive Director of Wisconsin’s Green Fire.

A successful policy model already is in place out East.

Wisconsin and other Midwest states could embrace the success of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) of ten New England and Mid-Atlantic states, according to Gary Radloff, principal of the Radloff Group, an energy policy research and consulting firm. Radloff is co-chair of the WGF Energy Work Group.

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is a mandatory program to cap and reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by issuing the states a limited number of allowances that can be traded on the regional market. Each allowance represents the emission of one ton of the pollutant that can be bought and sold at auctions to achieve compliance with steadily tightening caps on pollution.

In that way, the market determines the most cost-effective methods of reducing emissions and the states invest proceeds in energy efficiency, renewable energy and other programs benefitting consumers.

The RGGI states cut more than 100 million tons of carbon pollution – a 50 percent reduction in emissions – from 2005 through 2017, the most recent information available from the multi-state group.

Three members of Wisconsin’s Green Fire – Clark, Radloff and Curt Meine – were co-leaders of the three small group discussions that picked carbon pricing as one of its priorities.

Clark and Diane Mayerfeld, the sustainable agricultural coordinator for UW-Extension, led discussion of how to get the most carbon storage possible with soils and forests, known as natural carbon sinks.

The group recommended a state carbon policy that would both define carbon as a forest product and pay farmers for sequestering carbon on the land.

Such a policy would enable state utilities that emit carbon from power plants to offset those emissions by investing in tree planting, renewable energy projects and measures to store more carbon in forests, such as extending length of time between timber sales.

Our Changing Climate

Vimont, who is co-director of the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impact (WICCI), gave conference participants a quick review of what we know about changes in the state’s climate to date. Generally, Wisconsin is warmer and wetter on average than in the past and the trends will continue.

Statewide, annual average temperatures are expected to increase 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050, according to the Center for Climactic Research.

Precipitation is up between 10 and 20 percent since 1950 and those totals will continue to climb, especially in spring and winter, Vimont said.

Mic Isham, executive administrator of the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, followed Vimont and discussed “what do we know” without the use of such scientific measures.

Isham said he sat down recently with an 84-year-old Ojibwe elder from the Bad River reservation to learn about his climate change observations. The elder set each story of change within one of 13 moons in the Ojibwe calendar.

The fourth moon, or maple sugar making moon, coincides with April. In recent years, however, Bad River residents have finished making maple syrup before the fourth moon arrives because sap is flowing earlier than usual, Isham said in telling the elder’s story.

The third moon, or hard crust on snow moon, coincides with March but in recent years the snow has been melting during this moon, he said. For that reason, snowshoe hares and weasels that wear white fur in winter are highly visible to predators when snow melts during the third moon before their coats have a chance to darken and blend into the brown vegetation around them.

So, if your old neighbor or a native tribal elder tells you that it is warmer and wetter in Wisconsin now than in their youth, you can believe them.

But temperature and precipitation figures or observations do not describe the destructive impacts of extreme weather caused by climate change. Among those costly events in recent years:

  • A federal disaster declaration covering 31 state counties after severe storms in June 2008 storms caused record river flood levels.
  • Widespread drought in 2013.
  • July 2016 severe storms dumped 8-12 inches of rain in 24 hours on northwest Wisconsin and resulted in flooding that washed away sections of major highways and other roads and caused four deaths.
  • The August-September 2018 floods in 14 counties of southern Wisconsin.
  • The July 19 2019 derecho – a squall line of severe thunderstorms – that raced across northern Wisconsin and leveled forests and damaged buildings and power lines with downdraft winds of up to 100 miles per hour.

Resilience and Adaptation

It is within that context that nearly one-third of conference participants crammed into a meeting room to discuss resilience and adaptation to a changing climate.

Nadia Vogt, a senior projects manager with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, and Matt Mitro, a fisheries scientist with the state DNR led the group.

Communities can become more resilient to extreme weather by first assessing the risks and then taking steps to deal with them, according to Vogt.

One of the group’s recommendations was to provide state government support for local resiliency projects by establishing an Americorps style program just for that purpose.

Americorps members could help communities assess the risks, plan and implement local projects to build up resilience.

This group also recommended the use of so-called microgrids that could be disconnected from the larger regional electrical distribution grid in the event of destructive storms and other natural disasters, Vogt said.

Communities or even urban neighborhoods with local solar energy projects and energy storage technology could set up a microgrid to ensure it has a reliable source of power while the regional distribution grid is being repaired.

See https://www.wisconsinacademy.org/fastforward for more information and to engage with Climate Fast Forward ideas and participants.

 

Don Behm is retired from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and is a member of Wisconsin’s Green Fire’s communication team. He may be reached at dbehm@outlook.com.

 

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