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Wisconsin's presidential primary and spring general election is April 2, 2024. Here's a guide on Milwaukee-area candidates and information on how to vote.

Here's how Milwaukee elected leaders are addressing climate change

Solar panels at Mitchell Airport
Susan Bence
The expansion of this solar field adjacent to Mitchell International Airport and new solar installation Racine County will signal Milwaukee reaching its 25% renewable energy by 2025.

We’ve been asking Milwaukee area residents what they have on their minds in this year loaded with elections. Lots of people are thinking about climate change and environmental issues. On April 2, Milwaukee residents will vote for mayor and common council members. So, how much power do those local officials have to effect environmental policies and practices?

Last year, Milwaukee adopted a climate and equity plan. Its seed was planted by then county supervisor Supreme Moore Omokunde and then Milwaukee Common Council president Ashanti Hamilton. The plan lays out sweeping initiatives intended to move Milwaukee to net zero emissions by 2050.

The person charged with leading that work is Erick Shambarger, head of Milwaukee’s Environmental Collaboration Office.

Erick Shambarger on the job at Milwaukee's Environmental Collaboration Office.
Susan Bence
Erick Shambarger on the job at Milwaukee's Environmental Collaboration Office.

“The biggest thing that’s within city and [local] government’s control is their own operations. So we have to focus on what we can do in our own buildings, within our own municipal fleets and so we have adopted policies to reduce energy use, fossil fuel use within our own operations,” Shambarger says.

Milwaukee has taken steps toward using renewable energy in place of fossil fuels. Twelve years ago, the city installed its first and so far only wind turbine next to the port authority building along Lake Michigan.

The city recently announced it will be adding two large solar power installations. “This past month the common council approved a new arrangement called the Renewable Pathway Program that we helped negotiate with We Energies and the Public Service Commission,” Shambarger says.

With those projects, Shambarger says Milwaukee is expecting to meet 25% of its energy needs with renewable energy by 2025. That’s a stepping stone to the city’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 45% by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions citywide by 2050.

How much power does the common council and mayor exert in shifting from fossil fuel to renewable energy?

Shambarger says, “They play a huge role. The community goals, the 45% carbon reduction goal that was established by the common council. The 25% by 2025 goal was a resolution passed by the common council and so my job is to figure out how to make that happen.”

Shambarger says elected officials have the power to keep the plan and its urgency front and center.

Take the city’s Finance and Personnel Committee, “Alderwomen Dimitrijevic has been a very vocal and supportive leader of this work. Her work on the Finance Committee encouraged basically us to put climate action in all of the budget requests for city departments. So that's a chance for every single city department to think about how they and their operations can be part of these climate solutions,” Shambarger says.

Right now, Milwaukee is in the position to execute parts of its climate and equity plan thanks to funding from the federal Inflation Reduction Act.  “A tangible example of that is the solar project I just mentioned — the cost of that got cut in half because of the federal tax credits,” Shambarger says.

More than anything, Shambarger says sustained climate action is going to be critical.

“We can’t have a situation where one political leader pushes it and then four years later we undo all that. That stop and start is really a problem. So we have to have sustained action on climate change and think of this as a core function of government and our private sector that we are just going to reorient ourselves to be a low-carbon economy,” Shambarger says.

The mayor and council members that Milwaukeeans elect on April 2 will be tasked with continuing to make progress toward the city’s ambitious environmental goals. Environmental groups are watching, including 350.org.

Julie Enslow serves on the Milwaukee chapter’s steering committee. "It shouldn’t be taking years and years to implement. We don’t have years and years. That’s, I think, the concern of a lot of environmental activists," Enslow says.

While local government plays an important role in championing environmental initiatives, their power is geographically limited. Much rests in the hands of state and federal government.

In future stories, we’ll explore the power people we elect to state and national offices have on environmental policy.

Your feedback will help inform our election coverage.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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