Environmental Justice: New state office will address climate disparities and help chart a cleaner future
Every year, Wisconsin is forced to spend hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding and repairing infrastructure damaged or destroyed due to extreme weather conditions. This is growing worse because of climate change and unfortunately, these impacts are felt first and worst by communities of color, tribal nations and low-income communities.
On Earth Day, Governor Tony Evers established a new Office of Environmental Justice, which is currently seeking a director. Supported by a chief resilience officer, the new office will specifically address climate disparities and help chart a stronger future for Wisconsin.
Between 2000 and 2020, across Wisconsin there were 19 severe storms, two floods and six drought-related billion-plus-dollar disasters that took a toll on our state to the tune of $100 billion. These impacts are not simply a financial burden. For many tribal communities, climate change and weather extremes represent both monetary damages and disruption of cultural lifeways and traditional food systems that have been intact for centuries. Every community in our state is at risk due to climate extremes.
With extreme weather disasters brought on by climate change becoming the new normal, our state’s infrastructure and building requirements are no longer sufficient to protect against weather calamities. Because of this, when a community is forced to rebuild, it’s often without the information and policies necessary for their new construction to stand up to future extreme storms and flooding.
That was why Tony Evers established the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change. This task force, which we were proud to serve on, brought together a diverse coalition of farmers, environmental advocates, indigenous leaders, business executives and others. It was charged with examining our state’s vulnerabilities and to come up with ways to improve our infrastructure’s climate resiliency.
We ultimately developed 55 recommendations to better adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change, including the aforementioned Office of Environmental Justice, recently enacted via Executive Order by Governor Evers and announced at the Indian Community School in Franklin.
As the first position of its kind in the Midwest, Wisconsin’s chief resilience officer is expected to play a key role in facilitating collaboration between agencies, integrating resilience planning across state agency programs, and assisting local government and tribal nation leaders in implementing climate resilience programs and projects in their communities.
Currently, critical information such as climate modeling, flooding and other risk considerations and cutting-edge mitigation practices are fragmented across state government. By combining everything under one roof, Wisconsin would have a clearinghouse for local governments to be able to assess the risks on all future activities and investments. Resilience offices in other states have developed interactive tools for the public and practitioners alike to understand where future risks lie and help guide decision-making to reduce exposure to disaster.
Just as importantly, the chief resilience officer will work to address disparities that many Wisconsinites face from environmental disasters. Last year, the EPA reported that under-resourced communities often bear the brunt of climate change. In particular, rural areas, communities of color, agricultural-based communities, tribal nations, and low-income populations tend to lack the resources to recover from or prepare for weather disasters.
Governor Evers’ new officer will directly engage with stakeholders and organizations most affected by climate change to ensure they have the tools and resources necessary to rebuild after a disaster and to update existing infrastructure before tragedy strikes.
Last November President Joe Biden signed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, making billions of dollars available specifically for climate resiliency projects. Some of those projects aim to prepare communities for the more intense and frequent flooding that experts predict is coming.
Wisconsin is only one of 13 states, and the first in the Midwest, to have a chief resilience officer. Having one person in charge of resiliency projects across the state gives Wisconsin an advantage in going after this federal funding, potentially bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars and employing thousands of Wisconsin residents in high-paying construction, engineering and other related jobs.
Climate change is here and is doing billions of dollars of damage to Wisconsin. We applaud Governor Evers’ use of executive order to establish a chief resilience officer because we cannot afford to wait any longer to protect Wisconsin’s businesses and families from extreme weather-related disasters.
Anna Haines and Dylan Jennings
Originally published on the Wisconsin Examiner as Governor Evers’ Office of Environmental Justice is a boon to Wisconsin communities and businesses
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