As the World Burns

Activists fight to keep climate change on the agenda amid a swarm of other crises

Written by Laura Schultz

Wisconsin is almost as far as can be from the parts of the U.S. where the effects of climate change are most visible. But remnants of a tropical storm fell here in June for just the fourth time in recorded history and by September, plumes of smoke from the western fires drifted into the state. The crisis is at our doorstep, with no way to pause it. 

There is no shortage of pressing crises in the U.S. in 2020 — most apparent are the coronavirus pandemic, racial injustice and historic levels of political division. So with all of these issues competing for our attention, it would be understandable for climate concerns to fall to the wayside for the average citizen this year.

A discarded mask lies covered in sand on Bradford Beach in Milwaukee on Oct. 23, 2020. Photo by Brian Huynh

But the climate emergency looms. In October 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report declaring that the world has until 2030 to cut human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. With that deadline now less than a decade away, and the intensity of this year’s hurricanes and fires so apparent, 2020 is starting to seem like a climate tipping point, with the New York Times recently reporting that “decades of growing crisis” are now irreversible.

Despite the numerous obstacles that this year has presented, there are still Wisconsinites pressing on to continue the fight for a livable planet.

Stephanie Salgado was in the thick of activism when COVID-19 hit the U.S. in March. The UW–Madison sophomore, an organizer with the Wisconsin-based Youth Climate Action Team, was giving three speeches a week, planning events connected to Earth Day and lobbying legislators — all while still working and keeping up with school. 

And then,” she says, “there’s a huge stop.”

For Salgado, the sudden end to climate activism as she knew it at first brought anxiety and panic attacks. But slowly, she began to understand that 2020 was going to be a year of change no matter what — a feeling solidified by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement later in the spring.

“COVID changes all,” Salgado says. “Activism has to look a lot more like online petitions, a lot more donations and showing support by sharing important information about protests, and that’s why I admire so much all the leadership or the planning or energy that it took to make all the protests for the Black Lives Matter movement.” 

Though traditional climate activism did take a hit — the Youth Climate Action Team’s planned April actions, including another mass school strike, were canceled — other climate work continued on. Salgado continued her role virtually as a representative on the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change, led by Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes. The group, which Democratic Gov. Tony Evers established in 2019, delivered formal recommendations at the end of October to help the state reach 100% carbon-free energy by 2050. 

While Salgado says many of the original recommendations the task force discussed were deemed too expensive by legislators when so much immediate community investment is needed in the wake of the pandemic, its progress has not been completely stalled. 

Protestors march down East Washington Avenue to the Wisconsin State Capitol on Sept. 20, 2019. Photo by Laura Schultz

Task force member Dylan Jennings, a Bad River tribal member of the Lake Superior Anishinaabeg and the director of the public information office at the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission in Odanah, Wisconsin, is positive about the task force’s achievements in light of 2020.

“We had a lot of different community sessions online, and we were able to reach quite a wide swath of people from throughout the state to get input from them. We’ve met multiple times throughout the year,” Jennings says. He also values the diverse backgrounds and expertise of other task force members, which helped with analyzing data and information to make policy decisions for climate mitigation and adaptation, and how receptive the task force was to the tribal-centric recommendations he helped develop. 

In state government, Maria Redmond, the director of the Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy, is responsible for coordinating with state agencies and utilities to reach the state’s 2050 carbon-free energy goal. Redmond, who started the job in January, is currently the only member of the office. But she doesn’t work alone.

“I’m working with a ton of people who have a ton of subject matter expertise, and it’s a matter of connecting the dots and bringing the people together and bringing different perspectives, different communities together to have the conversation to figure out the path forward,” Redmond says. 

The sudden switch to virtual work so soon after beginning a new job was definitely not easy, she says, especially with three children at home and a firefighter husband still working as an essential employee. Redmond had hoped to launch a clean energy planning process for policy options in April, which would focus on clean energy workforce development in the state. But with so many state workers focused on other core duties and the pandemic, the planning process has been moving along more slowly — but is still coming.

For others, the switch to primarily virtual work was not too much of a challenge, especially in academia. Greg Nemet, a professor of public policy in the LaFollette School of Public Affairs at UW–Madison and a lead author on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s upcoming Sixth Assessment Report, had already decided that he was traveling and flying too much for someone working on climate change. 

“It gives a blueprint for how to continue in the future to not be traveling as much,” Nemet says, noting the writing and collaboration tools that have sprung up. “But in terms of actually sitting down with people and getting on the same page and brainstorming ideas together — boy, I think that really helps to be in person.”

Despite so much public attention focused on the pandemic, Nemet doesn’t think that means people care any less about the climate. In fact, he remains optimistic both for his work writing about low-carbon policy solutions on the assessment report and the ability of the planet to tackle the climate crisis. 

“There’s co-benefits of opportunities to grow businesses to have more jobs; and then co-benefits of cleaner air and more active lifestyles that come out of this transition that we can look forward to, and not be afraid of as a sacrifice — it’s a good thing,” he says. 

UW–Madison student and Youth Climate Action Team organizer Crystal Zhao tells the story of her awakening to the urgency of the climate crisis at the Madison Climate Strike on Sept. 20, 2019. Photo by Alissa Herring

Nemet also finds optimism in the youth movement for climate action and the shift of young Republicans calling for climate action to be incorporated into their party’s platform. However, Salgado and Crystal Zhao, also a UW–Madison sophomore and Youth Climate Action Team organizer, hope to see more progressive and less traditionally conservative avenues of political climate action pursued following this year’s election.

“I think the most important thing for us right now is to get people out to vote,” Zhao says of the group’s pre-election priorities. She added that the prospect of President Trump’s reelection was especially concerning for the Youth Climate Action Team, saying that another four years of his administration would make it very hard to reverse climate damage. However, neither Zhao nor Salgado were able to vote, as Zhao is an international student from China and Salgado immigrated to Madison from Honduras four years ago. 

But both emphasize the importance of voting to elect candidates with climate-friendly political views at all levels of government. Salgado also served as a Spanish translator at her local polling place on Election Day, despite her risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 as an asthmatic.

East Madison pediatrician Andrew Lewandowski, a non-voting member of the Healthy Communities & Strong Economy subcommittee of the governor’s task force on Climate Change and several other health and medical organizations devoted to climate action, agrees with the need to elect climate-friendly politicians. But he says it’s also critical for the public to value information they get from public health experts on issues from pandemic response to climate issues and racial inequities.

“We need to find a way to let people know that they shouldn’t be upset when public health recommendations disagree with their political candidates. And instead, we need people to understand that they should be upset with their political candidates when they disagree with our public health recommendations,” Lewandowski says.

Youth protestors rally inside the Wisconsin State Capitol rotunda on Sept. 20, 2019, during the second international climate strike of 2019. Photo by Laura Schultz

Climate activists and policy advocates also acknowledge the need to incorporate justice and racial equity more fully in climate action moving forward, which was already a priority for the Governor’s Task Force, because there is a growing recognition that communities of color are often on the frontline of climate changes. While environmental justice was a focus of the group’s first meeting last December, it’s spreading to environmental advocates everywhere as a result of the reckoning over racial injustices in the U.S. this summer. 

“What 2020 has done, if anything, for the better, is it’s really propelled the idea of a climate justice movement,” Lewandowski says.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death in May and the ensuing protests across the country, “racial justice is climate justice” became a common rallying cry for climate activists seeking to center racial equity in the climate movement. Historically, the mainstream American environmental movement often excluded people of color and could be explicitly racist. In July, the Sierra Club’s executive director posted an essay acknowledging for the first time the racism of its founder, famed naturalist John Muir, and the harm that the group has caused Black and Indigenous communities throughout its history.

Addressing these concerns of environmental racism is particularly important in Wisconsin. Coincidentally, Muir spent much of his youth in the state and attended UW–Madison briefly before heading west. The Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club is named in his honor, and reportedly is considering changing its name in an effort to acknowledge Muir’s racism.

Climate justice uses a “human rights lens” to look at the climate crisis, because the impacts of the warming planet are not borne equally among us, as defined by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals blog. Globally, temperatures tend to rise fastest and extreme weather events tend to take a worse toll in developing countries, especially those in Africa and Asia.

Though the U.S. is not a developing country, climate injustice still exists here. It’s often people of color who live in the most environmentally hazardous locations, whether that means in the shadows of toxic chemical plants or in rapidly warming cities with little vegetation to cool the areas where communities of color live.

In Wisconsin, an estimated 10% of the population lives within one mile of a hazardous chemical facility — the majority of which are people of color. Changing seasons and temperatures have made subsistence living more difficult for Wisconsin’s Indigenous communities.

None of those challenges or others of climate injustice can be easily resolved, though public awareness of them increased so quickly this year. But 2020 may prove to be the best opportunity for change in a generation.

“I do think that COVID and racial justice incorporated into climate justice will be everlasting,” Salgado says. “If we take the whole idea and actually solve the problem from the root.”

Now listen to Laura Schultz talk to a youth activist about the challenges of fighting climate change in 2020 in her podcast, Mad City Strikers.

Finally, test your knowledge on climate change in our state

Wisconsin’s not the first place to look to see dramatic, harrowing examples of climate change’s impact on our physical world in 2020. But just because the state isn’t burning up in massive wildfires or facing inevitable sea level rise doesn’t mean that Wisconsin isn’t also experiencing dangerous transformations to our climate. Take this quiz to get an idea of what Wisconsin in a warmer world looks like.

1. What is the biggest “climate risk” that the state faces?

A. Extreme rainfall

B. Water stress

C. Extreme heat

D. Wildfires

2. Climate change will ease burdens on Wisconsin’s dairy industry and might end the current crisis in the dairy industry.

A. True

B. False

3. Which is not a way that continuing climate change could impact Wisconsin’s tourism and recreation industry?

A. Beach closures because of disease pathogen buildup from stormwater runoff

B. Declining lake water levels, resulting in less attractive beaches

C. Longer and colder winters that will shorten the tourist season

D. Damaged fisheries from wetland loss and increasing erosion

4. Wisconsin’s intensifying water cycle will make droughts in the state worse.

A. True

B. False

5. Which threat to human health is not an increasing problem in Wisconsin due to climate change?

A. Distribution of ticks and mosquitoes carrying disease (like Lyme or West Nile virus)

B. Life-threatening heatwaves

C. Flooding

D. Food insecurity

Answer Key

1. (B) According to data compiled by the New York Times and sourced from climate risk assessor Four Twenty Seven, 61 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties are most threatened by water stress, which refers both to stress on water demand and change in drought-like conditions. Ten counties in the western area of the state are most threatened by heat stress, and Door County is most threatened by extreme rainfall.

2. (B) This is false — climate change makes the dairy crisis worse because cows don’t deal well with heat and more intense rainfall floods both cow pastures and roads that dairy farmers need to get around, making their work more difficult.

3. (C) Wisconsin’s winters are actually going to get warmer and shorter due to climate change. (As they say, the globe is warming.) But summers will also get longer and hotter, so the impact on the length of tourism season may be a wash. As for the other options, all are tangible threats to Wisconsin’s tourism industry. You can read about them in this Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts report.

4. (A) As paradoxical as this might sound, it’s actually true. An intensifying water cycle means that wet places get wetter and dry places get drier. Wisconsin will overall get wetter, resulting in more rainfall and more floods. However, in the gaps between rain events — as there normally are in the summer — intensity of drought will also increase because of higher temperatures drying out soil moisture, as explained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

5. Finally, this is a trick question: All of these health threats are going to get worse and likely cause more deaths, according to this report recently published by UW–Madison’s Global Health Institute. Vector-borne diseases will spread further, heatwaves will be more frequent and intense, floods will drown more but also spread more disease, and a suffering agriculture industry will increase the food insecurity of our most vulnerable populations.

Climate change is no minor issue for any place, especially Wisconsin. If you don’t want your quality of life in America’s Dairyland to decrease, consider what you can do to help urge climate action in Wisconsin today.