WI Environmental Advocates Turn to Local Govts. for Action in the Age of Trump

Former Vice President Joe Biden has upgraded his plans to fight climate change in Wisconsin and elsewhere.



By Julian Emerson

September 18, 2020

Biden has beefed up his proposals to add green jobs, and help diverse communities benefit from addressing climate change in Wisconsin.

The reality of climate change in Wisconsin hit Kate Beaton full force on June afternoon in 2017, just hours after she had learned President Donald Trump had announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement, a landmark global effort to address climate change.

As she traveled through the rolling hills of Buffalo County in western Wisconsin under dark, cloudy skies, Beaton — an Eau Claire City Council member who works for Wisconsin Conservation Voters — thought about how the impending storm would wash away topsoil from the farm fields she passed. 

“I remember having this moment where I thought ‘We are taking a massive step backward regarding climate change,’ “ Beaton recalled. “It felt like a microcosm of what was happening globally, and I was going to experience it firsthand.”

Environmentalists and many others across Wisconsin and the rest of the country have felt similarly since Trump was elected president in November 2016. In addition to withdrawing from the landmark Paris Agreement, Trump’s administration has enacted numerous rollbacks of environmental protections and enacted policies that have furthered this country’s dependence on fossil fuels, prompting further adverse climate change impacts. 

Trump’s challenger in the Nov. 3 presidential election, Democratic candidate Joe Biden, has proposed a decidedly different climate change plan, one that would invest $2 trillion during the next four years in a wide array of projects intended to reduce America’s negative impact on the environment while adding jobs.

Included in the Biden campaign’s Build Back Better agenda to address the economy is a climate plan that would target numerous climate-friendly initiatives, such as achieving net-zero emissions by 2050; making the electricity sector carbon-free by 2035; mandating that all new US-produced buses are zero-emission vehicles by 2030; and ensuring that socioeconomically disadvantaged communities receive 40% of benefits from clean energy and infrastructure spending. 

The Biden plan released in June sets a more ambitious timeline for reducing emissions than his previous one, which would have spent $1.7 trillion on climate change initiatives over 10 years. The updated plan includes standards for reducing emissions and calls for the creation of more solar- and wind-powered energy, efforts that would create additional jobs, he said.

Biden said he plans to pay for his proposed improvements by raising the corporate income tax rate, increasing taxes on wealthy Americans, and using stimulus money.    

As part of his plan, Biden aims to create millions of jobs related to new energy sources while the US reduces its carbon-based energy dependence. The proposal includes the creation of green energy jobs in rural parts of Wisconsin and the rest of the country, along with having the US rejoin the Paris Agreement. 

“These are the most critical investments we can make for the long-term health and vitality of both the American economy and the physical health and safety of the American people,” Biden said of his proposal

Supporters of measures to address climate change said such actions are overdue. They praised Biden for strengthening his climate change platform and said his proposals could not only boost the economy but lead to a healthier environment. 

“We need to make climate change a priority, and Biden’s plan includes many ways to do that,” Beaton said.

Climate advocacy organizations say Biden’s latest proposal to address climate change is an improvement from his original plan released in June 2019. However, some have expressed concerns it doesn’t include a carbon tax or address fossil fuels more directly. 

Approaches that would create good-pay jobs while reducing pollution that leads to climate change will be key to adopting such measures on a broader scale, Wisconsin environmental organizations told UpNorthNews.

Ryan Billingham, Wisconsin Conservation Voters communications director, backs that initiative, noting that Wisconsin lags much of the nation in so-called green jobs. He said he hopes Wisconsin lawmakers of both political parties would be willing to support green-energy initiatives that could improve economic conditions, particularly in the state’s rural areas where good-pay employment can be hard to come by. 

“Both (political) parties want safe economic development,” he said. “That is what climate-friendly jobs can do. 

Republicans in Wisconsin have generally balked at clean energy initiatives, saying they worry the cost of those plans outweighs the benefits and that reducing current jobs related to fossil fuels could hamper the economy. At the national level, Trump has repeatedly denied human-caused climate change, and he and others have criticized Biden’s plan as too costly and said added environmental regulations would hinder businesses.

However, environmental advocates and others said the expansion of such energy forms as wind and solar power could help fuel the economy and add much-needed jobs during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Jennifer Western Hauser, policy liaison for Wisconsin Wetlands Association, said she hopes for additional legislation as more people recognize the growing impact of climate change on their lives. A Pew Research Center study released earlier this year showed two of every three Americans believes too little is being done to address climate change. Similarly, a 2017 University of Michigan survey showed a majority of Americans believe strongly in climate change. 

She pointed to the passage last year by the Legislature of Act 157, which provides $150,000 to develop natural flood management demonstration projects in Ashland County, as an optimistic sign that state lawmakers may be willing to work on climate change issues.

“There is a lot of interest on both sides of the aisle for nature-based solutions to these (climate change) problems,” Western Hauser said. 

Beaton’s Eau Claire City Council colleague Andrew Werthmann, a proponent of measures to address climate change in Wisconsin and elsewhere, said he believes as more people and communities support climate change, public pressure on state government will build, prompting the Legislature to enact policies to address climate change, he said.

“As we see more impacts of climate change, more people are going to demand that politicians address it,” Werthmann said. “When water fills up people’s basements when it floods, when farmers can’t get to seeding their crops, they’re going to turn to leaders who are offering solutions.”

When lawmakers have not taken up climate change-related proposals, Billingham said, his organization has in some cases gone directly to local governments to see if they are interested in enacting legislation. Increasingly, that is happening, he said.

Cities such as Green Bay, Milwaukee, Madison, River Falls, La Crosse, and Eau Claire have committed to generating 100 percent carbon-free energy by 2050, and they and others are taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint.

“It’s at the local level where we’ve been able to have some success,” Billingham said. “Some of those communities see where an investment in clean energy can lead to jobs. And it’s better for the environment too.”

For Beaton, the impetus for backing environmentally-friendly initiatives in Eau Claire started on that stormy drive through Buffalo County three years ago. She and other Eau Claire City Council members subsequently pledged not only that the city be carbon neutral by 2050 but that all of the city’s energy be produced by renewable sources by that year. Earlier this year council members discussed funding for green energy infrastructure improvements.

“We decided we can’t control what Trump does,” Beaton said. “We can’t control what state government does either. But if everyone in the country takes action cumulatively, we can do even better than what the Paris Agreement lays out. We can all make a positive difference.”


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