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City launching efforts to fight climate change as federal and state efforts falter or go backwards

The climate has changed along the Lake Michigan shoreline as the lake moves beyond its banks more often.

“It’s very emotional to have water come into your home,” said Green Bay Chief of Staff Celestine Jeffreys. “Everybody knows about Hurricane Katrina. And yet, we’re having those same kind of emotional, family-taxing, neighborhood-destroying events all over the United States — not as dramatic and as quick as Hurricane Katrina — and yet, if there’s six feet of water in your basement, you might as well be in the ninth ward (of New Orleans).”

With water levels headed for record highs in Lake Michigan — of which the bay of Green Bay is a part — it’s likely that flooding will continue to be a prevalent issue this year. And between President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and Republican state legislators’ stonewalling efforts, the fight against climate change has moved to places where small communities can begin to take action to mitigate current problems and avoid making things worse.

Green Bay — Wisconsin’s third-largest city, but a small 105,000 by national standards — is in the midst of launching sustainability efforts to coincide with a commitment to moving to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. In response to persistent flooding that culminated in massive damage to Green Bay’s east side last March, the city is on track to hire a full-time resilience coordinator by late spring to help guide the Sustainability Commission. The commission has been laying groundwork for eco-friendly efforts since its formation in late 2018.

“Even if we were to go to 100 percent green energy tomorrow, which would be fantastic, we’re still going to be dealing with impacts of climate change,” said Seth Hoffmeister, an east-side floodplain resident and chairman of the Sustainability Commission.

The resilience coordinator will be dedicated to securing grants for green and gray infrastructure that both reduces Green Bay’s carbon footprint and minimizes the impact of climate change for city residents, Jeffreys said. The city has already secured grants to hire a consultant and partially fund the resilience coordinator’s salary. 

Jeffreys said she would like to borrow from the city of Hampton, Virginia’s model of mitigating flooding effects. Hamptom has “a beautiful marriage” of green and gray infrastructure, neighborhood preservation, and realistic expectations, she said.

“You will have water in your street, but it’s not going to come into your house,” she said. “It’s going to go into this sort of natural infrastructure.”

Thirty-seven homes were condemned during last March’s floods in Green Bay, and numerous residents were evacuated. Flood victims called on the city to enact change. 

Celestine Jeffreys, Green Bay chief of staff, uses Google Earth to show areas of the city most affected by climate change-fueled flooding. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

So far, city staff has done so. The Sustainability Commission has been active, Jeffreys said, working with local groups and businesses to install new solar panels on public buildings, ban coal-tar pavement sealants and replace the solar array in Leicht Memorial Park. Once the resilience coordinator is hired, the commission will have more guidance and expertise to put further projects forward.

“We’re not really thought of as a community that would be doing that,” Hoffmesiter said, noting how big cities typically get attention for their eco-friendly efforts and that cities of Green Bay’s size don’t generally have full-time resilience coordinators.

On the western side of the state, Eau Claire is a leader in the climate change fight. The City Council set sustainability goals as far back as 2009 and is poised to formally adopt a Renewable Energy Action Plan, or REAP, by the end of the month, said associate planner Ned Noel. Green Bay officials have been in contact with Eau Claire as they implement sustainability efforts.

“Local communities need to take greater action and can’t rely on the political winds or the uncertainty with Congress and presidential figures, whether they’re left or right,” Noel said. “We can’t turn a blind eye to it. It would be irresponsible risk management.”

Hoffmeister said he hopes Green Bay’s efforts have an effect on the greater region. The Green Bay School District Board and area municipalities have been in talks with the city, he said. While action is needed on a state, federal and global scale, change must happen from bottom up, he said.

“The frontlines of climate change are at the local government level,” Hoffmeister said. “We want to prove that these solutions are realistic and attainable.”

This story originally appeared on UpNorth News.