Climate scientists consider this decade a make-or-break time to avert full-on climate catastrophe. The National Climate Assessment — compiled by 300 experts — outlines the following climate-related threats facing Wisconsin and the Midwest: “Extreme heat, heavy downpours, and flooding will affect infrastructure, health, agriculture, forestry, transportation, air and water quality, and more. Climate change will also exacerbate a range of risks to the Great Lakes. “
Milwaukee faces major challenges from both climate change and racial disparities. It is widely documented that disinvested neighborhoods, often those with high percentages of people of color, face the worst impacts of the climate crisis, pollution and other environmental degradation. This is called environmental injustice. While people of color may experience the worst impacts, all communities have reason to be concerned about the increased risk of extreme storms, flooding, and other impacts of climate change.
Climate scientists urge taking two complementary approaches: reduce the use of fossil fuels, a leading cause of climate disturbance and harm; and proactively plan to adapt to current and looming impacts.
To address these realities, Milwaukee’s City-County Task Force on Climate and Economic Equity has developed a framework for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and addressing racial and economic inequities. City and county officials created the task force in 2019. Interested individuals within nine working groups met throughout 2021 to make recommendations. After the plan is fully developed by a consultant, and further community engagement, it will go before Milwaukee’s Common Council and Milwaukee County’s Board of Supervisors, likely this year.
A Two-Pronged Approach
Proposals focus on reducing community-wide net greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 45 percent by 2030 and achieving net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 or sooner. Efforts to decrease racial and income inequality will strive to ensure that greenhouse-gas-reduction investments and policies “will create the maximum number of permanent living-wage green jobs for people living in Milwaukee’s most impoverished neighborhoods with limited economic opportunity.“
Erick Shambarger, sustainability director for Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office (ECO), is coordinating the planning process on behalf of the task force. Shambarger said that the City of Milwaukee already has implemented numerous energy-efficiency and clean-energy programs. Milwaukee also leads nationally in “green infrastructure” to help manage risks relating to extreme storms. Fortuitously, federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) could help launch new climate-resilience projects.
One overarching goal is to “make sustainability mainstream, to make the environmental choice the easy choice,” Shambarger said. “Climate action can help create a healthy and vibrant community. It does not need to be about scarcity, but rather about using our resources more efficiently. “
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10 Ways to Promote Climate Resilience
The task force has identified 10 essential “big ideas.”
1. Increase Residential Energy Efficiency and Solar Retrofits
Residential energy-efficiency upgrades can lower electric bills and other energy costs while reducing individual carbon footprints. The plan would expand existing programs across a range of incomes and owner / rental situations. It would give more families access to affordable upgrades: high-quality insulation or high-efficiency heating-and-cooling systems, as well as lead-abatement options.
2. Build New Green Buildings
Housing is a critical aspect of Milwaukee’s infrastructure. The task force proposes a model for efficiently and affordably building new net-zero-energy homes. Efficient housing components would be fabricated in a new factory in Milwaukee’s 30th Street Corridor.
3. Reduce Energy Usage in Commercial Buildings
It’s crucial to help owners of commercial buildings reduce their environmental impacts. Requiring them to report annually on energy and water usage will collect benchmark data and support the phase-in of building-performance standards to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
4. Shift to Electric Vehicles
Cars and other vehicles remain greater Milwaukee’s dominant form of transportation. Local governments can lead by purchasing electric vehicles (or hybrids, when applicable) for their fleets, installing infrastructure, and changing codes and ordinances to make EVs easier to buy and operate.
5. Reduce Vehicular Miles
Transportation is a major source of greenhouse-gas emissions. In addition to individuals driving less, emissions also can be decreased through transit-oriented development, new zoning standards, “Complete Streets” practices, and “last mile” solutions that address gaps in safe and accessible public transit.
6. Move to a Net-Zero Electric Grid
A transition to clean, renewable energy is essential to combatting climate-related harm. The task force is advocating for state-level changes, such as net-zero power grids and a proposed Community Energies Program to purchase renewables through the utility. This would give local governments and large nonprofits opportunities to source 25 percent or more of their electric power needs from new large-scale renewable-energy projects built in partnership with the electric utility.
7. Preserve and Restore Nature in the City
Parks, shade trees, environmental corridors, soil restoration and other greening efforts help mitigate climate-change impacts, including “urban heat islands” and extreme flooding. They are also essential to healthy and equitable communities. The “Nature in the City” work group has identified four parcels to acquire for conservation within Milwaukee, and 25 parcels throughout Milwaukee County. The plan also stresses that it is “important to manage and maintain all 110 Natural Areas and Critical Species Habitat Areas that have been identified in the County.” Other proposals include expanding Milwaukee’s Green and Healthy Schoolyards program and increasing tree canopy.
8. Reduce Food Waste and Harmful Plastics
Food waste is a major contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions and energy drains. Proposals to reduce food waste prioritize the two top strategies of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Food Recovery Hierarchy. An educational campaign would offer guidance about reducing food waste at the source level. Other efforts would work to ensure that all people can affordably access safe, healthy food.
9. Accelerate Green Jobs
As the city and county work to combat current and oncoming climate change, ever-more skilled environmental professionals will be needed. A proposed “Green Jobs Accelerator” would recruit, train, and connect people, especially those in disinvested neighborhoods, to new green jobs and contracting opportunities.
10. Rely on Resilience Ambassadors
“Resilience Ambassadors” are neighborhood leaders engaged to help connect existing and new climate-oriented initiatives, such as programs serving residents such as anti-displacement services, weatherization, flood insurance, green infrastructure, and cooling centers during heat emergencies.
Offer Feedback on the Plan
Residents may engage with the Climate and Equity Plan in several ways:
- Complete the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) Public Survey and urge the City of Milwaukee to prioritize climate resilience efforts for the $ 394 million in federal stimulus funding Milwaukee is receiving.
- Sign up for the City of Milwaukee’s ECO Newsletter or follow ECO on Facebook for updates, event information and feedback opportunities.
- Engage on Social Pinpointan online platform open to everyone for sharing ideas and feedback with the task force.
Pitch in to Protect the Planet
Individuals make a difference by contributing to collective positive impacts on the Earth’s ecosystems. Here are some options.
- Take advantage of available climate-friendly programs, such as subsidized weatherization, renewable energy, and native plantings.
- Initiate changes you can sustain. For example, set achievable goals to reduce fuel use, food waste or single-use plastic by a doable amount. Increase targets after achieving those goals.
- Collaborate with others and advocate within your circles. Enthusiastically promote green choices and their benefits within family, school and work settings.
- Urge effective climate action at all levels of government.
- Remember that caring for the planet yields many benefits. Importantly, it can help counter widespread “eco-anxiety.” A new study from the Brennan Center reported that “civic engagement [on climate issues] is good for young people’s well-being and our democracy. “