EAU CLAIRE — The realization hit Joe Knight this summer: extreme weather events are happening more frequently, including in Eau Claire County, and action must be taken to address them.
Knight, an Eau Claire County Board supervisor, watched as wildfires and triple-digit heat affected western states and flooding impacted the southern and eastern parts of the U.S. There were also local challenges like severe thunderstorms and harmful algae blooms on lakes, which led to Knight fully internalizing the urgent challenges caused by climate change.
“This summer has really driven it home,” Knight said. “This is the greatest threat facing our generation.”
For County Board Supervisor Jim Dunning, it was a gradual understanding that began with his work related to energy. As Dunning learned more, he better understood ways to use transportation and energy to slow climate change.
Knight and Dunning were two of the speakers at a Wednesday press conference who discussed the need to invest in clean energy jobs to better address extreme weather events caused by climate change. Speakers pushed federal legislators to pass a plan to provide funding to help local municipalities to make those long-term investments.
“The climate crisis is here in Eau Claire and everywhere,” said Eau Claire City Councilwoman Kate Beaton. “We have no more time to waste, and the people of Eau Claire need bold investments in climate action.”
Clean energy investments are part of a proposed federal bill intended to improve infrastructure and the economy. The bill, spurred by President Joe Biden and commonly referred to as the “build back better” plan, could cost $3.5 trillion over 10 years. It is currently being considered in Congress.
Local speakers on Wednesday mentioned several ways to address challenges caused by climate change. Those include modernizing the transportation industry by transitioning to electric vehicles, building electric vehicle infrastructure and supporting mass transit.
“Eau Claire County is willing and able to do its share,” Dunning said. “We need Congress to support bold investments in clean energy to protect our communities from dangerous extreme weather.”
The County Board passed a resolution in 2019 setting goals of 100% carbon neutrality and renewable energy by 2050. The county has taken several actions to meet those goals, including studying its greenhouse gas emissions, promoting recycling and hiring a sustainability coordinator.
Dunning noted that the new county highway facility being built will use solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling and have the capacity to serve electric vehicles. He is also involved in creating a public transit passenger rail from Eau Claire to the Twin Cities that could reduce motor vehicle pollution.
Action has occurred, but Dunning said more money is needed for the county to make additional progress. That is where the federal “build back better” plan, by providing additional funding, could add local value.
“Making any major changes to current operations requires additional funding,” Dunning said. “We could use this money to take steps to expand existing operations to reach our goals.”
The same is true for the city of Eau Claire. The City Council passed a resolution in 2017 to transition to clean energy, and the city developed a Renewable Energy Action Plan to be 100% carbon neutral and use 100% renewable energy by 2050.
Councilwoman Beaton noted the personal effects climate change has had. She often rides her bicycle to support her physical and mental health. But Beaton said she biked less this summer because of poor local air quality caused by wildfires in Canada, and she expressed concern about potential impacts on future generations.
“As a young person, I worry a lot about the climate crisis,” Beaton said. “I worry about whether or not I should have children, and if I do decide to have children, whether I’ll be able to share with them my joy of being outside on my bike, or if they too will have to stay inside because the air isn’t safe for them, just like I had to this summer.”
Knight, Beaton and Dunning believe the federal plan presents a unique opportunity for the Eau Claire area to invest in its future, and they hope national lawmakers feel the same way.
“We see what’s happening, and we have ways that we can solve it,” Dunning said.