Political whiplash takes Wisconsin from skepticism to activism

Source: By Daniel Cusick, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, December 8, 2019

Wisconsin’s chief executive once believed climate change was an unproven theory instead of a public priority. Times have changed.

In 12 months, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers has rolled back the science-squelching policies of Scott Walker, the former Republican governor who questioned climate science and briefly ran for president in 2016.

The state that helped catapult President Trump into the White House has adopted an unapologetically progressive agenda aimed at understanding climate change while preparing its 5.8 million citizens for the environmental changes ahead.

“The vast majority of people in the state of Wisconsin — or scientists — understand that climate change, not only do we believe in it, it’s here and we’re seeing it almost daily across this country playing out,” Evers said during a gubernatorial debate with Walker last year. “We’re going to bring back science to the state of Wisconsin” (Climatewire, Nov. 1, 2018).

Evers made good.

In October, he issued an executive order forming a 30-member climate change task force led by Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and the heads of three state agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources. Under Walker, the department had scrubbed its website of most references to human-induced climate change.

Katie Grant, DNR’s digital media coordinator, said yesterday the agency is putting the final touches on a new website detailing the administration’s climate change policies.

The advisory group, which includes utility executives, business leaders and the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, is charged with holding public meetings across the state, consulting with academics and other climate experts, and producing recommendations to “meaningfully address the effects of climate change and create a clean energy economy” by Aug. 31, 2020.

The order also requires DNR to work with the standing Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts and the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies to update and reissue an assessment of climate impacts and adaptation strategies published in 2011.

“For too long we’ve been ignoring science, and frankly, we can’t afford to do it any longer,” Evers said in a statement announcing the task force’s responsibilities. “It’s time for us to deliver on the promise to our kids that we’re leaving them a better life and world than the one we inherited.”

For most of the last decade, the Walker administration declined to recognize climate change as a problem, even as the state experienced greater temperature variability and extreme weather events.

Extensive flooding caused by a two-week string of late summer storms put much of Wisconsin under a state of emergency this year. Roads, bridges and property disappeared in the floodwaters. Last year, parts of southern Wisconsin saw more than 50 inches of precipitation, three times more than normal, according to the National Weather Service.

This April saw record-low temperatures across much of the state, including a historic blizzard in northeast Wisconsin, followed by record-breaking highs the following month when temperatures soared into the mid-90s over Memorial Day weekend. Experts have also noted the effects of flood, drought and rising temperatures on Wisconsin’s $100 billion agriculture sector.

The threats were widely recognized in the early to mid-2000s, but climate change’s role in making them worse was tempered by a Walker administration that refused to make the connection.

Jack Williams, professor of geography and past director of the Center for Climatic Research at UW Madison, said the state’s position on climate change during the 2011-2019 period affected climate research.

“There’s always been great opportunities to do research related to climate science and climate impacts,” Williams said in a telephone interview. “One of the unfortunate aspects of the previous administration was the partnerships between the university and the various state agencies were inactive.

“What seems to be happening [under Evers] is a rebuilding of these research and policy interactions so we can make better policy decisions and adapt to the changing environment around us,” he added.