On Wisconsin: Champion of the Right

Published: 5:28 PM GMT on April 19, 2015

On Wisconsin: Champion of the Right

That was way too easy.

I was a child in the height of the Cold War. My family actually subscribed to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is the magazine that famously publishs a clock set a few minutes before midnight. This clock was the evaluation of those at the Bulletin of how far we were from the, well as my grade-school self understood it, the end of the world. The cause for the grade-school concern for the end of the world was nuclear war.

The magazine had a writing contest on how to eliminate the threat of nuclear war. I intensely wrote that to eliminate nuclear war, we needed to eliminate nuclear war as an option, and that could be accomplished by simply not allowing it to be discussed. This child-like approach to an unpleasant problem is, in fact, pretty common. I have heard it stated many times that we should not talk about or study geoengineering, which is the management of the Earth’s climate with intent. The idea is that allowing geoengineering into the conversation lets it appear as our out from global warming and its consequences.

When there is some large, hulking unpleasant fact that we all decide to not talk about, it leads to contorted dysfunction. In climate change, one of my favorite examples involves climate adaptation. In the 1990s, the word, adaptation, was a bit like geoengineering is in more recent times. If we spoke of adapting to the impacts of climate change, we would realize the possibility, and we would reduce our desires to mitigate climate change by reducing carbon dioxide emissions. In the early 2000s, as those who study climate change started to turn the conversation to adaptation, political resistance joined this, perhaps, conservation ideology, because to study adaptation would be admission of the reality of climate change.

Wisconsin is the latest state to receive notoriety for attempts to control the conversation about climate change by not allowing some employees to talk about it. The source of the story seems to be this Bloomberg report, For Some Wisconsin State Workers Climate Change Isn’t Something You Can Talk About. It is reported that Wisconsin’s Board of Commissioners of Public Lands will not allow employees to discuss how climate change affects the lands that it oversees. The Wisconsin story follows similar stories in Florida and North Carolina’s approach to sea-level rise. The Wisconsin story begat this interesting op-ed in the Chicago Tribune.

One job of the Board of Commissioners of Public Lands (BCPL) is to manage some forest land in the northern part of the state. From the Board’s web page, “Because the BCPL holds its lands and other assets in trust for its beneficiaries, it has a fiduciary duty to prudently manage, protect and enhance the value of its trust lands. To meet these obligations, our staff engage in a range of forest land management activities that include sustainable forestry, and land transactions to enhance public access, timber revenue potential and public access. In our dual role as generators of income for today’s and future Trust beneficiaries, we are committed to a long-term strategy of sustainable forestry.”

As coincidence, I will, soon, be heading to Apostle Islands National Lakeshore to participate in a meeting to incorporate knowledge of climate change into the management options for the park. The Apostle Islands are in the same region as some of the BCPL assets in northern Wisconsin. At Apostle Islands, we are almost certainly going to discuss the sustainability of forests. According to the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Center, in this part of Wisconsin the annual average temperate in this region has risen by 1.6 degrees F since 1950, and winter temperature has increased by 3.4 degrees F. The summer precipitation has decreased by almost 10% and fall precipitation has increased by almost 20%. When numbers of what has happened line up with projections from climate models, that is, to me, a statement that we have actionable knowledge.

I have worked on a few forestry projects, and I am a co-author on this paper Revisiting projected shifts in the climate envelopes of North American trees using updated general circulation models. One of the big issues, if the forest is logged, or there is blow over, or a fire, the climate that the forest will recover in will be different from the one it grew in. In the paper I referenced above, we state that the climate models suggest that by the end of the century the climate envelopes, the water and temperature characteristics suitable for a particular tree, will move by, about, 200 kilometers. Left on their own, trees can migrate less than 10 km per century. This raises the idea of assisted migration, where forest managers plant trees for the current and projected climate rather than the past climate.

Without some sort of forest management, highly disturbed forests will certainly become, first, dominated by invasive species. Invasive species tend to be fast growing, and collectively, able to exploit environmental conditions and hold the water and nutrients needed for productive forests. The fauna associated with the invasive species is, likewise, able to exploit the new conditions. It’s like watching a fallow agricultural field return to the wild with no management intervention. Returning to that part of Wisconsin’s BCPL’s commitment “to a long-term strategy of sustainable forestry,” ignoring climate change is contrary to that mission, perhaps, even, the assumption of a public liability. Minimally, their behavior pushes part of their mission to others who will be taking on strategies for sustainability of forests and forest products.

An irony perhaps: At the bottom of this Apostle Islands web page there is a quote from Gaylord Nelson, “Apostle Islands NL has one of the newest federally designated wilderness area in the NPS (Gaylord Nelson Wilderness, 12/4/04).” According to the article referenced above, it was the words of Gaylord Nelson’s daughter Tia Nelson, which motivated Wisconsin’s Board of Commissioners of Public Lands

On Wisconsin: Champion of the Right

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Ice Caves at Apostle Islands in 2014

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About The Author
I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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