Climate Change and Common Sense

Tia Nelson.

I am honored to write the first Climate Corner Column for the Pulse. It is not surprising that this grassroots effort is coming out of Door County, where so many choose to live because of the beauty of its farms and forests, the majesty of Lake Michigan, the unique biological diversity of The Ridges and the recreational opportunities of its many parks. Home to one of the strongest land trusts in Wisconsin, it is clear Door County residents care deeply about the environment, regardless of their political leanings.

Recently, on a trip to northern Wisconsin, I talked with a member of our timber industry. I could tell the gentleman was skeptical of the notion of climate change. “I bet we agree on a lot more than you think,” I said, and asked if he’d take a few questions.

I started with the easy stuff – “Do you believe the earth is round?” “Yes,” he said with a chuckle.

“Do you believe the earth is surrounded by a layer of atmosphere that makes the planet inhabitable?” “Yes.”

“Do you believe that I am inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide (CO2) and that plants do the reverse of that through the process of respiration and photosynthesis?” “Yes,” he played along with good humor.

I touched a tree and asked him if he agreed it was made of carbon molecules that, when burned, become a gas released into the atmosphere largely as CO2? He agreed with a groan and stopped me. He knew I had the facts on my side. Humans release a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every single hour by burning wood, coal, gas and oil. That this human activity is affecting our atmosphere, and thereby our climate, is simply common sense.

We’ve argued for too long about climate science, when there is indisputable evidence the primary driver of the changes we’re seeing is human activity. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s climate scientists agree that climate change – shrinking glaciers, rising sea levels, severe weather, and increasing average atmospheric temperatures – is occurring and we are bringing it on ourselves. To ignore this consensus would be imprudent and costly.

Wisconsin has a long history of environmental leadership. Our nation’s natural beauty has been protected by the activism of Wisconsin pioneers like John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Frances Hamerstrom, and Gaylord Nelson. In the early 1960s, Wisconsin initiated the groundbreaking Outdoor Recreation Act Program (ORAP) to acquire and develop land for all forms of outdoor recreation. Its successor, the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program, continues today with strong bipartisan support. In 1986, Wisconsin passed landmark acid rain legislation, helping protect our precious northern lakes and forests and leading the way for national legislation in 1990. Ours was the first state to ban DDT, pass groundwater protection laws, and create a Rail to Trails program. As my dad knew, change does not arise in Congress; it is driven by citizens who, caring about their community and quality of life, engage and demand political leadership. The first Earth Day in 1970 is proof of the power of grassroots action.

Today, while politicians are focused on their next election, young people recognize the seriousness of climate change and have little patience for political infighting. Brett McNeil, president of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside Republicans, has called on politicians to focus on addressing the climate problem, instead of gamesmanship. In an op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last October, McNeil wrote: “We can dispute atmospheric physics and claim 97 percent of the peer-reviewed scientific literature is a conspiracy. That’s nuts…Our peers want answers.”

It’s heartening that young people, like Brett, want to solve the problem of climate change, not deny it. Shifting to a less fossil fuel dependent energy system is a challenge, but it’s doable. The most important, least expensive, thing we can do is waste less energy and increase investments in energy conservation. The more energy efficient we are, the more money we save and the more productive and competitive businesses will be, while simultaneously slowing the detrimental impacts of climate change. It is that simple. And companies in Wisconsin are helping show the way.

After discovering that its energy costs were increasing to more than $350,000 annually, in 2007 Gunderson Lutheran Medical Center in La Crosse committed to achieve energy independence through conservation and renewable resources. It expects to reach its goal this year. Gunderson’s decision will save millions of dollars, lower health care costs and uphold its values as a health care provider.

Other Wisconsin companies, including Virent, an innovator in biofuels, and Johnson Controls, a leader in energy efficiency, are creating jobs and proving that combating climate change is good for both the economy and the environment.

Individuals are playing an important role too. A homeowner in Gills Rock is averaging less than $30 per month in total energy costs thanks to passive solar and other efficiencies in the home’s LEED Platinum design.

Our economy and environment are inextricably linked and opportunities abound to improve both. We owe it to our young people, and our grandchildren’s grandchildren, to stop arguing, find answers and move forward together.

Tia Nelson has served as executive secretary of the Wisconsin Board of Commissioners of Public Lands since October 2004. She was appointed co-chair of the Governor’s Global Warming Task Force in 2007. Prior to returning to Wisconsin in 2004, Tia worked for 17 years for The Nature Conservancy in Washington, heading up TNC’s climate change program for 10 years.