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Lt. Gov. visits campus to discuss climate change effort

March 25, 2022

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes visited the University of Wisconsin-River Falls on Feb. 28 to speak on the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change Report and how the state can better adapt to and mitigate the effects of climate change.

Barnes, who was born and raised in Milwaukee, was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly at the age of 25, where he served two terms. He went on to be elected Lt. Gov. on Nov. 8, 2018. Immediately upon taking his gubernatorial office, Barnes was chosen to be the chair of the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change. The task force was charged with compiling a report that analyzed the state of affairs related to the impacts of climate change in Wisconsin and to put forth policy solutions that addresses the developing concerns identified. The report was published by the state of Wisconsin in December of 2020 and it outlines 55 policy recommendations.

After receiving a warm welcome from students, faculty, and members of the UWRF community, Barnes began making a passionate plea to the audience about the importance of recognizing the various impacts of Wisconsin’s climate crisis and taking action. He commended the work of the diverse coalition of perspectives that aided in the construction of the task force’s vision for tackling climate change and improving equity in Wisconsin.

“We had our farmers, we had the business community, large and small, we had utility companies, we had insurance companies, we had tribal leaders, we had labor unions, some of our youth climate activists showed up,” said Barnes. “We heard from experts, we held public listening sessions, and we had a lot of discussions over the course of the task force’s work,” he added.

Together, the task force composed policy recommendations for their report that spans nine sectors: climate justice and equity, energy, transportation, agriculture, resilient systems, clean economy, education, food systems, and forestry. The report also identifies three pathways for the implementation of their policy recommendations, executive action, 2021-2023 Wisconsin state budget, and legislation, and it lays out which pathways could work for each specific recommendation.

Barnes acknowledged the frustrations of many Wisconsinites in the lack of progress in implementing policy to combat climate change, but he also stressed that the state can still come together and “overcome a lot of what went wrong.”

“I truly believe that because climate change is the biggest crisis that we are facing, we will also see some of the greatest opportunities because of it,” said Barnes.

Working on the task force gave Barnes’ a perfect opportunity to address some of the pillars of his platform as Lt. Gov. He recalled his time spent working as an organizer for an interfaith group that was trying to take on the impact of coal-burning power plants as an influential experience that shaped his political priorities. The group ultimately found that these power plants have been causing a disproportionate rate of respiratory disease among lower-income and black and brown communities. Seeing up close the inequitable and negative consequences of coal-based emissions reinforced his belief that equity and sustainability are truly interconnected.

“When I took the oath of office, I said ‘we’re going to lead with the core principles of equity and sustainability,’ because it was important for us to talk about both because both have been ignored and both should work in tandem with each other,” said Barnes.

As a result of a collective approach of people coming together and demanding change, Barnes announced that coal-burning power plants are starting to go offline, and many have already. Barnes also acknowledged the difficulties facing farmers and their crops as reason for pushing for innovative change. Damaging weather events are becoming more prevalent, and their unpredictability and severity is projected to increase going forward. Be it due to extreme precipitation, flooding, heat waves, or drought, Wisconsin has been hit with detrimental weather, which has accumulated in $100 billion in damages between 2000 and 2020, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters database.

When talking about coming up with solutions, Barnes referenced Wisconsin’s past history of being a leader in renewable energy and conservation as a resource to pull from, and he sees no reason why the state cannot return to the forefront of the climate movement.

“Wisconsin was way behind in tackling climate change, but before we were way behind, we were way ahead. The drive is there, the resolve is there, the will is there, but it had been lost for a while,” said Barnes.

To close his presentation, Barnes challenged students to use their voice to join the fight against climate change. Whether it is by reaching out to local legislators to inquire about their support, or lack thereof, for addressing climate change, or even by running for office themselves, Barnes wants students to realize the crucial and urgent nature of their role in dealing with this crisis.

“For you all who are in the audience thinking deeply about this and wondering what is going on, I encourage you to step up, honestly consider running for office, every level there is some impact we can make on addressing climate change,” said Barnes.

Outside of the work done by the Governor’s Task Force on Climate Change, Barnes and the rest of Governor Tony Evers’ administration have gone about rectifying the state’s course on addressing climate change by joining the US Climate Alliance. The US Climate Alliance is a bipartisan coalition of states across the country that vow to uphold the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Also, Barnes and his cohorts created the Office of Sustainability and Clean energy, which he said, “leads the state’s efforts in fighting the impacts of climate change through programs and policies that support the use of clean energy, resources and technology.” The office is currently in the final stages of drafting Wisconsin’s first “clean power plan,” according to Barnes.

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