Changing climate prompts Wisconsin communities to seek solutions

There is no doubt that Wisconsin’s climate is changing, and communities across the state are feeling the effects.

While new statewide and global data are grim, local Wisconsin communities seeking climate solutions–some through partnerships with the UniverCity Year program on UW-Madison’s campus–are a reason for hope.

“Climate change is happening, and our communities are working to figure out how to adapt and change their practices to mitigate the impacts,” UniverCity Alliance Managing Director Gavin Luter said.

Lake Pepin. Photo credit: Aaron Carolson

A new report from the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI), which builds on a 2011 assessment, shows that the state has continued to experience warming, increases in precipitation and more frequent extreme rainfall events. 

In the last decade, “nearly every region of our state has experienced extreme rainfall events that led to flooding of roads, homes, businesses, and farm fields,” the report states, noting that many of these trends will continue.

Following the release of the statewide analysis in early February, a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body of experts convened by the United Nations, released Feb. 28 concluded that nations are not doing enough to protect cities from the hazards of climate change.

But in Wisconsin, communities are coming together to protect themselves from future changes and become more equitable and climate-resilient.

Steve Vavrus, WICCI co-director and senior scientist, said there are “hopeful signs and examples of communities taking action on climate change.”

“Many of these are ‘win-win’ strategies that offer co-benefits for the economy, public health, air- and water quality, etc.,” Vavrus said. “The most realistic game plan is for communities to start small and then scale up their efforts over time, rather than expecting communities to plunge deeply into climate change adaptation and mitigation all at once.”

Luter echoed that solutions can be complicated. Partnering with resources through UniverCity Alliance could benefit communities grappling with climate change-related issues.

“Working with UniverCity Year can help communities think through these tough subjects in a safe space where we can help them brainstorm solutions,” Luter said. “This can be a sensitive topic in some communities, so dipping their toe into the work through UCY can be the right move.”

UniverCity Alliance, through its hallmark UniverCity Year (UCY) program, has worked with multiple communities who have recognized the hazards facing their residents and decided to seek more information and pursue solutions. Currently, UCY is working with the City of Appleton’s airport through its partnership with Outagamie County to plan for sustainability.

Throughout UCY’s past cohorts, communities have requested projects related to climate change, sustainability planning and “green energy.”

During a partnership with Green County from 2017-2020, UW-Madison engineering students partnered with the Juda School District to design a renewable energy system that has offset energy consumption costs by 25 percent.

The project started prior to the UniverCity partnership when a Juda School District teacher working on “real world” problems with his students started doing an analysis of the school’s electrical usage and other energy resources.

“The county began working with UniverCity and we thought this would be a great project to put forth for the students to work on,” Superintendent Traci Davis said. “The students from UW-Madison did an excellent job. I believe that it really impacted the students that were involved.”

Other projects include:

Through a UCY partnership in 2020 with support from the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, a UW-Milwaukee Zilber School of Public Health student researched the disproportionate effects of climate change–challenges recuperating financially after flooding, higher risk of respiratory illnesses, negative health effects from extreme heat–on communities of lower socioeconomic status.

This work is in line with WICCI’s assertion that environmental and climate justice have to be included in climate change response discussions because “historically disadvantaged communities bear a disproportionate burden and suffer the greatest harms and risks from climate impacts such as flooding, worsening air quality, heat waves, and drought,” the report states.

The WICCI report also highlights the work of local agricultural communities in the Driftless Area and coastal communities coming together to address issues like rapidly fluctuating water levels and eroding bluffs affecting the Great Lakes region.

Vavrus said the report provides practical adaptive recommendations in addition to scientific guidance to help communities identify opportunities.

“We hope Wisconsin communities will be inspired to draw from the report by taking proactive steps to deal with climate change however they see fit,” Vavrus said. “Each community has its own circumstances, resources, and vulnerabilities, so there can be no one-size-fits-all approach.”

For community leaders who want to start taking action, Vavrus recommended taking stock of how climate change is affecting their area and recognizing lessons learned from recent extreme weather events. This could include certain roads and neighborhoods that flood during heavy rainstorms.

“These experiences and internal discussions within a community can form the basis for a climate change vulnerability assessment or ‘opportunity assessment,’ especially if they are done in partnership with members of WICCI who can lend their expertise and engage in constructive dialogue with community leaders and residents,” Vavrus said.

—By Abigail Becker