Midwest Leadership in the Climate Fight

America’s heartland is stepping up to do what’s best for their people, their states, and their country.
Waves break on the shoreline of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin
Credit: Kenneth Keifer/Pond5

America’s heartland is stepping up to do what’s best for their people, their states, and their country.

If the 15 upper Midwest and Great Plains states were a country, it would kick out 1.5 billion tons each year of the carbon pollution that’s driving global climate change. Only four countries—China, the United States, India, and Russia, in that order—emit more carbon emissions than our nation’s industrial heartland. We won’t beat this widening scourge without climate leadership from the great Midwest.

Fortunately, the region’s leaders are moving forward. This part of the country has made enormous progress in shifting to cleaner, smarter ways to power our future. Now midwestern leaders are ready to build on those gains by working together to express common concerns, share lessons learned, and help each other address urgent needs.

That was the theme of an important regional climate dialogue last week in Chicago, where I joined other environmental leaders with Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker; senior energy and environmental policy advisers to Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer; Minnesota governor Tim Walz; and Wisconsin governor Tony Evers. These leaders are ready to roll up their sleeves and do what’s best for the people of their states, their region, and their country—so NRDC, League of Conservation Voters, and Sierra Club convened a gathering to ensure that officials from those states could meet each other to discuss smart climate solutions they are undertaking within their own borders and ways they could amplify those impacts by working together.

Speaking with Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker during the regional climate dialogue
Credit: Angela Guyadeen

The first discussion in a decade among Midwest climate leaders, this dialogue came at a key moment: As Pritzker pointed out to the group, climate change is taking a rising toll across the nation’s productive middle.

Rising temperatures have combined with pollution to turbocharge Great Lakes algae growth in ways that have threatened regional drinking water supplies. Epic flooding has washed away more than $12 billion worth of crops, livestock, and property across much of the nation’s Midwest breadbasket. And low-income communities, people of color, tribal nations, and other at-risk groups are becoming increasingly vulnerable to heat stroke, asthma attacks, vector-borne disease, and other maladies associated with a warming climate.

A truck caught in floodwaters in Plain, Wisconsin
Credit: Walt Jennings/FEMA

As regional leaders confront the growing dangers and mounting costs of climate change, they’re recognizing opportunity in the solutions.

Cutting the Midwest’s carbon footprint means investing in efficiency so we do more with less waste. It means building, right in the heartland, some of the best hybrid and all-electric cars anywhere. It means getting more clean, homegrown power from the wind and sun. And it means strengthening our forests, wetlands, and farms so they can capture carbon from the atmosphere and lock it up in healthy soils.

Doing all that is real work for some 737,000 people across the Midwest, where clean energy jobs are growing at 4 percent a year—even faster than the national average. Smart policies at the city, state and regional levels can help generate even more investment and job growth for the region, even as efficiency improvements cut energy costs for consumers and businesses and strike a needed blow against climate change.

It’s important, though, that climate progress be grounded in just and equitable solutions that benefit all our people.

That’s why it was so vital—and so heartening—that this dialogue included regional environmental justice champions Kim Wasserman and Juliana Pino of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization and Cecilia Martinez from the Center for Earth Energy and Democracy, on behalf of the broader Midwest Environmental Justice Network.

It’s not enough, Wasserman told the group, for community concerns to come into play once the policy sausage-making is all but complete. Community voices need to be heard up front, when decisions are being made about what policy choices are in the mix, whose interests are being served, and what purpose and goals are being pursued.

If there’s one thing I’ve seen time and again in environmental advocacy, it’s that community concerns form the heart and soul of any national movement. The climate solutions we seek must be grounded in what works for our communities—including those who have struggled in the past with a lack of political power and voice. This midwestern climate dialogue was an important step in the right direction.

It’s no secret that President Trump is doing all he can to roll back the climate gains we’ve made at the national level. He’s trying to weaken or repeal standards and protections meant to clean up our dirty power plants, cars, and trucks. He’s trying to open up public waters and lands to rapacious mining and drilling for coal, gas, and oil. And he’s trying to withdraw U.S. participation from the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement.

We’re fighting him every step of the way.

In the meantime, though, the country needs leadership from the nation’s great middle, the industrial and agricultural heartland upon which we all depend for so much. That leadership is stirring. That leadership is strong. And it can help show the way for the rest of the nation in a fight we can’t afford to lose.

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