Following through on the climate strike in Madison and Wisconsin

Activists push for a state and local response that matches the urgency of the climate emergency.

Activists push for a state and local response that matches the urgency of the climate emergency. (Photo: Participants in the September 2019 climate strike rally near Madison Gas & Electric’s headquarters, with an MG&E power plant’s smokestacks in the background. Photo by Michael T. Sullivan.)

We’re living through a climate emergency. Lots of people understand that, including several thousand who gathered for a protest outside of the Wisconsin State Capitol and the downtown offices of Madison Gas & Electric on Friday, September 20 as a part of a global climate strike. There were roughly 10,000 climate strikers throughout Wisconsin. Worldwide, it’s estimated that four million people attended more than 2,200 climate strike events in 125 different countries, all recognizing our current disastrous trajectory. It was the largest climate protest in history. 

Across the country and around the globe, 1,145 local governments also agree that what’s happening is a crisis and have responded to activist pressure to declare a climate emergency, including in London, Sydney, New York City, and Miami Beach.

But whether city governments or protesters mark the occasion or not, the fact that we’re barreling toward environmental disaster  becomes more obvious every day. It’s been a year since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released the terrifying Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, which essentially gave us 12 (now 11) years to dramatically reduce carbon emissions to limit global warming to 1.5°C. If we don’t, we will face the very worst consequences of catastrophic climate change—extreme heat, floods, droughts, and the resulting displacement and suffering of hundreds of millions of people. But as many of us are aware, the extreme weather, as well as the suffering and displacement, have actually already begun, though not to the degree we can expect if we don’t pull the brakes on the runaway climate train. 

In August, 57 people in Japan died as a result of an extreme heat wave, and 18,000 more were hospitalized. Supercharged by the climate crisis, Hurricane Dorian obliterated the Bahamas in early September, leaving thousands of people homeless, 53 dead and 1,300 still missing, many of them likely drowned. Most recently, millions of people in California sat in the dark when Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility company responsible for causing the deadliest wildfire in California history, has begun cutting off customers’ power rather than risking another fire due to the combination of dry, windy weather and PG&E’s terribly maintained power infrastructure. In this latest round of power outages, people have been forced to flee fires in the dark at the last second, because the outages themselves have disrupted California’s emergency response system and residents’ ability to receive advanced warnings. 

I recently spoke with Cassie Steiner, Campaign Coordinator for the Sierra Club in Wisconsin, about whether the climate emergency is already affecting us closer to home, here in Wisconsin. Steiner noted that weather and climate aren’t the same, but brought up this summer’s July heat wave and last fall’s flooding, which killed one person and caused $154 million in damages. Then she added, “I think about how much snow there was when I was a kid growing up and how little snow I see in winters here now. I know a lot of people who talk about how they might be the last generation to see snow in Wisconsin. When I first heard that, it sounded alarmist.”

But now, not so much. And Steiner is in good company. The Madison climate strike—like probably all  the climate strikes around the world that day—was a bizarre mix of jubilant and grim. There was excitement about the turnout, the marches were energized and loud. There were also a lot of depictions of the earth, dead, dying, or on fire. People expressed fear and grief. One group of students traveled to Madison from Viroqua and led the march from the Wisconsin State Capitol to Madison Gas & Electric dressed in black and carried an open casket with a paper-mache earth in flames inside. Another teenager carried her own version of a sign that’s been popping up at climate actions all over the world, reading: “You’ll die of old age. I’ll die of climate change.” 

Photo by Michael T. Sullivan.

Photo by Michael T. Sullivan.

In Wisconsin, there are now a number of youth-led climate activist groups, including the Youth Climate Action Team (YCAT), which started in March of 2019 and led organizing for the September 20 climate strike. Max Prestigiacomo, a founding member now in his first semester at UW-Madison, explained that it’s the anxiety about the climate emergency and uncertainty about the future that drives him to act.  

“Speaking for myself and lots of other organizers, we really don’t want to do this,” Prestigiacomo says. “It’s not something that we should have to do. It’s not something that we like doing. It’s a stressful thing that puts us all in an uncomfortable position, but we feel galvanized.”

Growing pressure from activists, as well as the ouster of Scott Walker, means that we’re finally seeing some movement on this issue from state and local elected officials, too. Governor Tony Evers recently announced his intention to make Wisconsin 100 percent carbon free by 2050 and launched an advisory climate change task force. In March of this year, the Madison Common Council voted in favor of a resolution calling for federal Green New Deal legislation and agreed to begin taking steps towards 100 percent renewability by 2030

Even Madison Gas & Electric, one of the targets of the September 20 climate strike in Madison, has a plan, promising to be carbon neutral by 2050 and even setting some intermediate goals for 2030. 

But before anybody breathes a sigh of relief, we should ask ourselves if this really is good enough. For YCAT—made up of people who will presumably outlive the governor, the mayor, the CEO of MG&E, and most of the Common Council—the answer is no, especially when it comes to MG&E and the state. They say that 2050 isn’t soon enough. Their preferred target is 2030, which feels safer and more appropriate for one of the wealthiest countries on the planet and one of the greatest contributors to carbon emissions worldwide. 

“What do you want from us?” Prestigiacomo says, addressing the question to MG&E. “We’re telling you what the science says, we’re telling you what needs to happen. You can’t just say to us that you’re with the youth and that you’re trying. You’re literally destroying the future.”

The youth aren’t wrong to be skeptical. In the case of MG&E specifically, it’s important to note that “carbon neutral,” which they have promised, is not the same as converting to 100% renewable energy sources. It’s also hard to feel confident about MG&E’s plans given how difficult it is to pinpoint exactly what percentage of our power comes from burning fossil fuels right now. While the utility’s 2030 and 2050 commitments are displayed prominently on their website, it’s harder to find this pie chart that illustrates the current sources of our electricity, which is itself misleading in its mysterious reference to “purchased power.” Steiner, who has been closely involved in Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, explained to me that the power they’re purchasing comes from coal, which means that 88% of the energy MG&E currently provides is sourced from fossil fuel, 63% of it from coal alone. 

“If more people knew that the majority of our power is coming from one of the dirtiest fossil fuels and that we’re running on twice the amount of coal as the average utility nationwide, people in Madison would be upset about that,” Steiner says. You can see these numbers for yourself by entering your zip code into the Environmental Protection Agency’s Power Profiler.

When it comes to elected officials, their decisions make it clear they’re not taking the climate threat as seriously as they should.

For example, in the weeks following the international climate strike, while teenagers went to more organizing meetings, berated world leaders for their inaction at a UN climate summit, and contemplated their possible early deaths in a climate disaster, Democrats and Republicans in the statehouse have been working together to pass a bill that would expand legislation making it a felony to trespass on or damage property owned by electric or oil companies. The bill passed the Assembly earlier this month, over the objection of more than 20 environmental groups as well as the Bad River Band Of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa. This special legislation to protect energy companies from protesters is especially reprehensible when you consider that it is Enbridge building unwanted pipelines on indigenous people’s land in Minnesota and Wisconsin. When Democrats pass legislation backed by the American Petroleum Institute that gives special protection to energy companies—more protections than apply to any of our own homes—its difficult to imagine they’ll be helpful in shutting down the fossil fuel industry.  

Meanwhile, in Madison, many of the same common council members who sponsored and voted in favor of the resolution to support a Green New Deal would not support a resolution to oppose the beddown of F-35 fighter jets at Truax Air Base, including Common Council President Shiva Bidar and Alders Sheri Carter, Keith Furman, Barbara Harrington-McKinney, Paul Skidmore, and Michael Tierney. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, who spoke at the climate strike, cast the tie-breaking vote for a weak resolution over an initial resolution firmly opposing the jets. More recently, an overwhelming majority of legislators in the Wisconsin State Senate and Assembly voted in favor of rushed resolutions outright supporting the F-35 project, with the exception of just a few Democratic leaders from Madison. I’m not a climate scientist, but I suspect that at a time when we should be dramatically cutting carbon emissions, adding warplanes to the mix doesn’t make a lot of sense. 

In Middleton, Isthmus has reported that city officials are considering a long-term plan for the Middleton Municipal Airport, which could include adding hangars and extending runways to make it possible for more private, corporate jets to fly into the area and cater to the local business class, carbon footprint be damned. 

Developments like this are exactly why calling on Governor Evers to declare a climate emergency makes sense to members of the Youth Climate Action Team. 

“The fact that he isn’t declaring a climate emergency in the first place is perpetuating the idea that we still have time, that we still can be solving this crisis with today’s means of policymaking,” Prestigiacomo says. He explained that in reality, leadership at every level needs to not just declare a climate emergency, but also to adopt an emergency mindset. “They need to recognize that every decision they make needs to be looked at through a lens of sustainability. They need to be thinking seven generations ahead. Even if it seems that is has nothing to do with the climate crisis, it usually does.”

Heidi Wegleitner, Dane County Supervisor for District 2, spoke with me on the afternoon of the climate strike.  She made a similar observation about current practices. “We do not think about all of our work through the lens of a climate emergency and how it impacts our climate,” Wegleitner told me. “And I think this does need to be declared an emergency and we need to think about all of our priorities through a lens of the climate crisis because it’s going to take that.” 

I asked Steiner about other opportunities for elected officials to make good choices, and she listed a number of steps that could be taken. For example, the state could raise the bar for utilities, and require that a greater percentage of the energy they provide come from renewable sources (the current requirement is just 10 percent). Local leaders could make more thoughtful zoning decisions, like recognizing that the location of big employers has an impact on the number and distance of commutes made in single-passenger vehicles. Transportation is currently the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States.     

But Steiner also emphasized the need to bring social justice and an intersectional approach into the conversation. 

“I don’t think we’ll halt our carbon emissions if it’s something only white, wealthy people can afford to do. That’s not a solution,” Steiner says. “If it’s buying more things, that’s also not a solution. I think the solutions that are going to increase equity across race and class and gender are also the solutions that are going to be the most environmentally friendly.”

This justice-oriented focus matters in Wisconsin, too. Throughout the state, but in Dane County in particular, we have some of the worst racial disparities in the entire country. The city of Madison recently declared racism a public health crisis. When we’re looking for ways to cut carbon emissions, we have to reject options that exacerbate systemic racism, violate the autonomy and self-governance of indigenous people, or require the people least responsible for environmental degradation to equally front the costs of solving the problem. In fact, we should be making changes that prioritize and empower marginalized groups and frontline communities. 

To take just one concrete example, while expanding Metro Transit service is an environmental win, Mayor Rhodes-Conway’s proposed $40 wheel tax, which would be applied equally to every car owner in the city, isn’t a just way to fund it. Most individual drivers don’t require 10,000 people to commute to and from work in Dane County every day. But some businesses in Madison do. Some also require thousands of their employees to travel by air multiple times a month, adding up to tens of thousands of flights a year, and a massive carbon output. These are the entities that should be funding the kind of transit system that would make it easy for everyone to live sustainably in Dane County, with a focus on dramatically expanding service to currently underserved neighborhoods.

But these things won’t happen without sustained pressure from people who care about the climate emergency. A just transformation of our community and our state towards sustainability contradicts business interests, like the kind who convince state leaders to pass anti-activist legislation to protect energy companies, or like the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, which played a leading role in derailing opposition to the F-35s at the Common Council. Further, even if city and county officials are prepared to take progressive steps forward—collecting money for transit from the companies adding the greatest number of commuters to our roads, for example—Republicans in the state legislature have done serious damage to local control, and have enacted a number of barriers to progress. 

We can’t afford to submit to this reality, and our local governments shouldn’t either. Activists and local leaders throughout the state have to prepare to take on the fossil fuel industry, business interests, and the state legislature itself, and finally buck the austerity it’s imposed on cities that aren’t actually broke. Living in a climate emergency means there is no time for Midwestern politeness about who exactly is standing in the way of the changes we must make.

“If we can think about getting out that corporate power and building the people power and the transparency and the democratic tenets that we need to hold the government accountable to the people and to the planet, that’s how we can address this crisis,” Supervisor Wegleitner told me at the climate strike. 

And to leaders who are unprepared or unsure of how to take action?

“This is our legacy of service and our time to step up,” Wegleitner says, “and if you’re not going to step up, step out of the way and let some motivated young person who is ready to lead do that work.” 

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