On August 9, 2021, the Intergovernmental Committee on Climate Change concluded that climate change is “widespread, rapid, and intensifying,” with carbon dioxide emissions the main driver.
Further, the damage already done to the atmosphere, oceans, and land cannot be reversed. Only world-wide decisive and immediate action to reduce greenhouse gasses will stabilize the climate and prevent it from significantly worsening. 2050 is the target date for achieving zero emissions and eliminating use of fossil fuels.
The report confirmed what many Midwest municipal governments already knew: climate change is real and negatively impacts infrastructure, the natural environment, and residents’ lives and well-being. Evidence of climate change in Beloit includes intensive rain events that result in flooding and create challenges for storm water management. And in winter, freeze-thaw weather cycles produce heavy, wet snow, ice, and ensuing paving problems. Are these kinds of events entirely new? No, but their frequency and intensity is increasing.
Is the public concerned? Yes. Here in Rock County, in 2020, consistent with national opinion, 72% of the public agreed that global warming is occurring, while 71% thought it will harm future generations. The data are reported in the Yale Climate Opinion Map.
Proactive municipalities generally pursue two strategies in response to climate change: 1) adapt to what is happening in order to manage and reduce potential damage, and 2) decrease their contributions to climate change.
Climate action is not the preserve of wealthy municipalities. Ann Arbor, Michigan and Madison, Wisconsin are leaders, but so are municipalities with profiles more similar to Beloit’s, such as Dubuque and Racine. And just 18 miles south of Beloit, Rockford is committed to catching up.
Dubuque’s sustainability initiative began when it was losing population and unemployment was at an all time high. Today, sustainability is considered a community value and helps ensure that Dubuque is sustainable, livable, and equitable. Sustainability takes a prominent place on the city’s website in order to facilitate transparency and invite community engagement. There one can find Dubuque’s climate action plan, resources and educational materials, and information on applying for funding for sustainability initiatives. An annual conference brings together sustainability leaders and experts from across the country to innovate, educate, inspire, and collaborate to Grow Sustainable Communities. Dubuque’s targets for carbon emissions reduction are 50% by 2030 and 100% by 2050.
Like Dubuque, Racine understands climate action as key to its economic vitality, resilience, and social equity. Its emissions reduction targets mirror Dubuque’s. Designated a SolSmart city by the U.S. Department of Energy for its investment in solar energy, Racine is introducing electric busses into its fleet, has received grants to advance environmental justice and resilience, and is working hard to rebuild and protect its coastal shoreline, which is both a major asset and particularly vulnerable to climate change. In recognition of these efforts, the LEED for Cities and Communities certification program recently invited Racine to become a participant. LEED recognizes and supports leadership in energy and environmental design, and takes a data-driven approach to help cities become more “resilient, green, inclusive, and smart.”
The City of Beloit has not been idle. In 2007, it declared itself an eco-municipality and has incorporated sustainability principles into its planning and operations ever since. In March 2021, the city council proclaimed an aspiration to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. Sustainability features prominently in the city’s strategic plan and has been added to the purview of the Parks, Recreation, and Conservation Commission. Further, the city is applying to become a GreenTier Legacy Community; this Wisconsin DNR program helps member communities’ advance their sustainability efforts. Information on Beloit’s sustainability initiatives can be found on the city government website.
What’s next in store for Beloit? Will the city enlist stakeholders to develop a climate action plan unique to its challenges, resources, residents, and needs? Enlist external expertise to help with the process? Set targets for reducing its carbon emissions? Hire a sustainability coordinator? Each of these has been key to other municipalities’ success in moving forward.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author. She also writes as chair of the Beloit League of Women Voters’ Sustainability Committee, whose position on climate change reflects those of the state and national leagues.