By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
Milwaukee is impacted by climate change, even if people don’t realize it. In recent years, Milwaukee has seen some extreme weather conditions from flooding to extreme heat to an increase in insects such as ticks. Those disasters aren’t just coincidences, but a result of a rapidly changing climate.
“We know that climate change is real,” Mayor Tom Barrett said during a kick-off event hosted by the Milwaukee Environmental Collaboration Office. “In Milwaukee, we’ve experienced first-hand the extreme weather related to climate change. We can’t sit on our hands. The time to act is now.”
Last week, the Milwaukee Environmental Collaboration Office launched the Milwaukee Climate and Equity Plan during a virtual kick off meeting on Thursday, June 24. The conversation was moderated by Rep. Supreme Moore Omokunde and featured elected officials from all levels of government.
While everybody is impacted by climate change, not everyone is impacted equally. Some neighborhoods and communities experience the dangers of the climate crisis more than others.
The task force, which includes city and county officials, isn’t just addressing climate change, it’s also looking at the role social justice plays when it comes to saving the planet.
The actions taken now impact future generations, Omokunde said, and actions can be taken that address climate change and social justice.
Pamela Ritger de la Rosa, the Milwaukee program director and staff attorney at Clean Wisconsin, spoke on climate change and equity in Milwaukee.
“Understanding the causes and effects of climate change in Milwaukee will help us to plan for both addressing climate change and creating a climate resistant city,” she said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the average temperature in Milwaukee is increasing and it’s impacting seasonal weather patterns, Ritger de la Rosa said.
For example, in 2010, a heavy rainfall caused flooding throughout Milwaukee; the 30th Street Corridor sustained $32 million in damages, Ritger de la Rosa said.
Aside from the initial damage flooding causes, the secondary effects include contaminated drinking water, an undermined structural integrity and the potential for mold and mildew development.
Milwaukee is also experiencing extreme heat, which can trap polluted air, slow transportation, cause blackouts and more.
“While heat waves may impose an inconvenience for people with access to air conditioning, it can be deadly to others,” she said. “Heat kills more people in the U.S. every year than any other natural disaster.”
A map of Milwaukee County shows that the dense urban areas are more vulnerable during heat waves due to limited green space, Ritger de la Rosa explained. The pavement absorbs the heat, causing higher temperatures and a heat island effect.
“These impacts are experienced to a greater degree by those living in the underserved communities,” she said, adding that there is a correlation between redlined communities and the presence of heat islands, areas that experience higher temperatures compared to the surrounding area.
“Climate change will have the greatest impact on those who did the least to cause it and who have the fewest resources to deal with it,” Ritger de la Rosa said. “It’s important for us to be aware of the human cost and to take action that will protect future generations.”
Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes noted that when it comes to talking about sustainable measures, equity has to be a part of the conversation. The most impacted communities are often the ones experiencing the worst racial inequities.
“We decided to focus on equity in environmental justice, because this work means nothing if we don’t lead with equity in mind,” Barnes said. “If we’re going to talk sustainability, we have to talk about the number one partner, which is equity.”
Barnes, who served as the chair for the governor’s task force on climate change, said this is Milwaukee and Wisconsin’s chance to be a leader in the fight against climate change.
The proposed ideas include investments in green jobs and clean water.
“These proposed investments are historic,” Barnes said. “This is the most ambitious agenda to combat climate change in the history of our state, but we need them in order to turn the corner on this crisis.”
Barnes encouraged residents to reach out to their lawmakers and demand climate action.
Ald. Nik Kovak (District 3) is the co-chair for the city-country task force on climate and economic equity. The task force reviews the work done by the following sub-groups: finance, jobs and equity, land use, education and outreach, greening the grid, transportation, adaption and climate resistance, green building residential, commercial and industrial, and waste and sustainable consumption.
The task force is working on its final report which will include its 10 ideas to combat climate change.
“We’re not just working on creating pieces of paper,” Kovak said. “We’re creating actionable recommendations immediately.”
Racial and economic structural inequality has been an ongoing crisis for a long time, he said, and the climate crisis is making it worse. These two crises present an opportunity for a better city, country and world, he said.
“In these two crises there is an opportunity,” Kovak said. “We have to solve the climate change crisis on humanitarian grounds we have to do it, we have no choice, if we want to have a great future for our children. We also can’t expect a good future for our children if we continue to live in such an unequal society.”
Erick Shambarger, the director of environmental sustainability for the City of Milwaukee, showed a chart that explained Milwaukee’s greenhouse gas emission in 2018. According to the chart, the emissions are caused by residential at 31%, transportation at 22%, commercial at 23%, industrial at 22% and waste at 2%.
The goal is to cut greenhouse emissions in half by 2030 and be net zero by 2050, he said.
He discussed the task force’s 10 ideas to combat climate change: residential efficiency, new green buildings, commercial building standards, electric vehicles, reduce vehicle miles, net zero electric grid, nature in the city, food waste reduction, green jobs accelerator and resilience ambassadors.
Brenda Coley, the co-executive director of the Milwaukee Water Commons, closed off the kick-off event. These are complicated issues, she said, and racism is often in the background. Because of climate change, Black and Latino people are experiencing more respiratory issues, which are being further compounded by the pandemic, Coley said.
“We are called as policy makers, as community activists, as community members and leaders to move beyond the first step of awareness,” Coley said. “We are called to figure out how our road maps, needs assessments and roundtable discussions will really effect change. Awareness is the first step and now we need to figure out what the next steps are.”
Intersectional environmentalism is attempting to amplify the injustices marginalized communities experience and the injustices the planet experience, she said.
“For the solutions to be sustainable, it must be done without erasing the contributions of people of color and Indigenous communities,” she said. “This can be done by transparent community engagement and by listening…Our communities need us to lead, but we must listen.”