With 5.9 million residents, Wisconsin is the 20th largest state in population and, in land area, the state’s 54,310 square miles make it the 25th largest in the nation. The meeting place of three major ecological zones: northern coniferous forests, prairies, and southern hardwood forests, Wisconsin also has wetlands and inexplicable sandstone buttes. It also borders two great lakes and has many smaller lakes itself, most carved by glaciers.
Wisconsinites are already witnessing major change to their state’s climate, especially in regards to rising temperatures, drought, and flooding. Already 2°F warmer than it was in the beginning of the 20th century, and predicted to warm by up to 11°F by mid-century, scientists predict that by 2050 Wisconsin will see two weeks per year with heat indexes above 100°F. Oddly, although Wisconsin is known for its sub-zero winters, extreme heat is actually the #1 weather-related cause of death in the state, accounting for more fatalities than all other weather disasters combined, including tornadoes, floods, and blizzards.
Warmer air holds more water, leading to more precipitation, especially heavy precipitation. It is not surprising, therefore, that 2019 was the single wettest year on record for Wisconsin, along with the rest of the Midwest. Over the last 30 years, the region has seen a 15% increase in annual precipitation compared to the first half of the twentieth century. 2019’s downpours predictably led to major floods, costing the region $6.2 billion and at least four lives.
Although precipitation is expected to increase as a whole, Wisconsin is still facing a serious drought problem. There may not be more droughts than before, but when they occur they’ll be more intense than ever, only getting worse over time.
The heat, extreme rain, and harsh droughts have had a devastating effect on agriculture, one of Wisconsin’s most important industries, contributing more than $104.8 billion to the state economy. Over half of Wisconsin’s agricultural revenue comes from the dairy industry, which is seriously impacted by climate change because higher temperatures cause cows to eat less and produce less milk.
Wisconsin’s ecosystems are also under attack by climate change altering the composition of forests and threatening the habitat of endangered species such as the American marten. Rising water temperatures will shrink the available habitat for cold water fish such as trout and declining ice cover and increasingly severe storms add to fish habitat challenges through erosion and flooding.
Climate change is also affecting the rhythm of Wisconsin’s natural systems, affecting the timing of natural processes such as migration, reproduction, and flower blooming. Migratory birds are arriving in the Midwest earlier in spring today than 40 years ago. Along with range shifts, the intricate web of relationships between animals and their food sources and between plants and pollinators are all being disrupted. Because not all species adjust to climate change in the same way, the food that one species eats may no longer be available when that species needs it (for example, when migrating birds arrive). Some types of animals may no longer be able to find enough food.
Fortunately, Wisconsin is taking actions to mitigate climate change. In 2019, Wisconsin’s governor passed an executive order making Wisconsin the first state in the Midwest to commit to going 100% carbon-free by midcentury. The executive order created novel energy efficiency standards for state facilities, as well as creating a new office, Office of Sustainability and Clean Energy, to find the solutions and technologies needed to execute this proposal. That includes training Wisconsin’s workforce to build the clean energy sector, as the order lays out.
In 2021, Madison, Wisconsin moved ahead and set goals to have 100% of its municipal operations’ run with renewable energy by 2030. In October 2021, Wisconsin joined the other Great Lakes states in a pledge to collaborate on the development and installation of electric vehicle charging infrastructure to help accelerate vehicle electrification across the Midwest.
Wisconsin does not have any fossil fuel resources of its own, so it ships in coal and natural gas, much of which comes from Wyoming and Montana. In 2020, down from a high of 82% in 1997, coal provided far less than half (39%) of Wisconsin’s electricity generation. Natural gas fueled 35% of Wisconsin’s in-state utility-scale generation, almost four times more than a decade earlier. Nuclear power is next at 16%, and 10% of Wisconsin’s energy comes from renewable energy resources, including hydropower (5%), wind (3%), biomass (2%), and solar (0.5%). Wisconsin is among the top 10 ethanol-producing states in the nation due to its corn production. Wisconsin produces about 600 million gallons of fuel ethanol every year, and ships much of it across state lines.
Despite its frigid winters, Wisconsin’s energy consumption per capita is less than that of 2/5 of the states and only slightly above the national average. The industrial sector accounts for one-third of the energy consumed in the state, the transportation sector and the residential sector each use nearly one-fourth, and the commercial sector consumes one-fifth.
Wisconsin is one of twenty four states, and Puerto Rico, committed to the U.S. Climate Alliance, which is working to implement policies that advance the goals of the Paris Agreement.