Wisconsin Academy Report Recommends Urgent Climate Change Responses – Briefing January 15

Don Behm, WI Green Fire, January 19, 2020

Wenona Wolf (left) at the Jan 15 briefing.
Wenona Wolf (left) at the Jan 15 briefing.

By Don Behm

Pictured: Wenona Wolf (left), legislative director for Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, speaks at a Jan. 15 Climate Change Briefing sponsored by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters. Photo by Don Behm.

The urgent need to respond to our changing climate – whether reducing carbon levels in the atmosphere and mitigating impacts of global warming, or adapting to extreme weather events we’re already experiencing – should be discussed and debated in terms of the other significant benefits those actions will achieve.

Trumpeting such co-benefits, from improved public health to a cleaner and sustainable environment, could boost public support for climate change responses and increase the chances those steps will be taken by the state and local governments, as well as businesses and property owners.

Those were among the views expressed by participants at a Jan. 15 briefing on the Climate Fast Forward report released by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters. The briefing was held at the Park Hotel on the Capitol Square in Madison.

Emphasizing co-benefits associated with reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases or building resilience to a changing climate also was a common theme at the Nov. 8 Climate Fast Forward conference sponsored by the Wisconsin Academy and attended by more than 300 state residents, according to the report. Wisconsin’s Green Fire helped sponsor the conference. The document is available at the Wisconsin Academy website: https://www.wisconsinacademy.org/node/8374.

And citizens at the conference suggested the promise of co-benefits could be tied to decisions on allocating financial incentives for mitigation strategies, the report said. As an example, building solar energy or other renewable energy projects to reduce use of fossil fuels and emissions of greenhouse gases, also improve air quality.

The conference report provides several specific examples of co-benefits on farms.

Planting perennial crops for pastures and using cover crops on agricultural fields could store more carbon from the air in those plants and in soil while rebuilding soil health. Those plants, too, would reduce storm runoff and result in better surface water quality.

In addition, restoring pollinator habitat with flowering plants would sequester carbon from the air while benefiting food crops through higher pollination rates, according to the report.

Chelsea Chandler, director of environmental initiatives at the Wisconsin Academy, summarized the report at the Jan. 15 briefing and moderated a panel discussion responding to the report’s recommendations. The report is a reference for the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change and for legislators and communities seeking climate solutions.

The 31-member task force has an Aug. 31 deadline for providing Gov. Tony Evers with policy recommendations for both mitigating the severity of climate change and helping communities adapt to its impacts.

The task force is scheduled to hold its second meeting on Feb. 10. A location had not been announced as of Jan. 17.

A video of the Climate Fast Forward briefing can be viewed at the Wisconsin Eye website: https://wiseye.org/2020/01/15/wisconsin-academy-climate-fast-forward-briefing/.

Putting a price on carbon as part of a climate action plan for Wisconsin was one other recurring recommendation at the conference, according to Chandler.

One discussion group from the Climate Fast Forward conference suggested a carbon fee and dividend policy for the state. Such a fee on the burning of fossil fuels would identify the full costs of releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by accounting for health, environmental and climate impacts, the report said. Paying the fees would spur utilities and others to cut use of coal and natural gas, as an example.

Returning the dividend to state residents would provide an economic benefit since consumers likely would be paying a higher price for electricity generated by burning fossil fuels during the transition to clean, renewable energy.

Canada established a national price on carbon emissions in 2016.

Another group at the November conference recommended defining carbon as a forest product so that carbon stored in forests could be sold as a commodity.

A third group suggested state agricultural policy should pay farmers for sequestering carbon on the land. Payments could come from a subsidy program or by reducing property taxes.

“Some practices that sequester carbon include reducing soil disturbance (i.e. tillage), increasing soil cover year-round with cover crops or perennial crops, planting trees, and converting marginal cropland to perennial crops (e.g., well-managed pasture) or conservation land,” the report said.

Another recommendation coming out of the conference was the need for the state to legalize third-party ownership of solar energy installations. This could do more to advance solar power in the state than other policies, the report said.

A third party, such as a corporation promoting solar installations, could finance projects in cash-strapped communities and even on farms and then sell the power for distribution on the regional grid.

At this time, more than 140 state communities have pledged to generate 25 percent of their energy needs from renewable energy sources by 2025, as part of the Energy Independent Communities program through the University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension.

Even so, communities need third-party assistance since they are unable to pay directly for such clean energy projects because they face tax levy limits imposed by the state, said Sherrie Gruder, coordinator of the program. Gruder spoke at the Jan. 15 briefing.

Allowing third-party renewable energy generation on farms also would help the landowners reduce or offset emissions of greenhouse gases from farming practices, the report said.

Both Gov. Tony Evers and Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes have been and will continue to push statewide discussion of climate change solutions, said Wenona Wolf, legislative director for Barnes.

The climate change task force is part of this ongoing effort, she said. It plans to hold public hearings around the state in February and March of this year.

Wolf was one of four panelists at the Jan. 15 briefing asked to discuss recommendations from the Climate Fast Forward conference. The other panelists were: Amber Meyer Smith, vice president of government relations for Clean Wisconsin and a member of the Task Force on Climate Change; Dominic Holt, a policy coordinator for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; and Joe Fontaine, a policy advisor at the state Public Service Commission.

In January, Maria Redmond was hired as director of the Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy. Redmond previously served as director of the Wisconsin Office of Energy Innovation at the state Public Service Commission.

Evers created the office last August and it is charged with working with state agencies to meet the administration’s goal of distributing electricity to Wisconsin consumers that is 100 percent carbon-free by 2050.

Among its other tasks are developing a clean energy plan to assist the state “in adapting to and mitigating the harm from climate change by using clean energy resources and technology,” as well as promoting training of a clean energy workforce and fostering innovation within the renewable energy and energy efficiency sectors of the economy.

On the same day as the Jan. 15 briefing, federal scientists from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released the findings of their latest global climate analysis.

First, the past decade (2010s) was the hottest on record. The past five years each ranked among the five hottest years on average ever recorded. Records show 2019 to be the second-warmest as 2016 retained the top spot.

And 19 of the hottest 20 years have occurred during the past two decades, according to the Washington Post’s reporting on the analysis.

A warming atmosphere causes more evaporation of water. More water vapor in the air leads to heavier rainfall and increases the risk of flooding.

Wisconsin’s annual average temperature has risen 1.1 degrees F since 1950 and climate scientists expect it to warm another 4 to 9 degrees by the middle of this century.

So it should be no surprise that the 2010s was the wettest decade on record in the state due to seven consecutive years of above normal precipitation, according to the National Weather Service. Last year, 2019, took over the top spot as the wettest year – ranked #1 out of 125 years of records – with 44.34 inches of precipitation, according to NOAA.

Tied to this, the frequency in Wisconsin of extreme storms with heavy and intense downpours has increased over the last 15 years or so.

The weather service, in its review of the last decade, reminds us of a few of the storms: on Aug. 20-21, 2018, more than 11 inches of rain fell west of Madison in Dane County in less than 24 hours and caused major flooding of the Yahara River chain of lakes; and in July 2016, widespread heavy downpours of 5 to 10 inches of rain across northwestern counties caused catastrophic flooding that washed out roads and resulted in fatalities.


Don Behm retired from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He is a member of Wisconsin’s Green Fire’s Communications Committee and Climate Change Work Group.

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