Connecting the Dots on Climate Change in the Great Lakes

Mayors Satya Rhodes-Conway and Melvin Carter, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, and Dr. Paul Robbins during the online discussion about climate change

With fires raging on the west coast, hurricanes battering the southeast, and a pandemic threatening physical and economic health across the country, local leaders are called on to address the impacts of these devastating and intersecting issues. On September 16, the Mayors Innovation Project and Climate Mayors co-hosted “A Green & Equitable Recovery in the Great Lakes.” Mayors Satya Rhodes-Conway (Madison, WI) and Melvin Carter (St. Paul, MN), as well as Lt. Governor Mandela Barnes (Wisconsin) discussed our current, changing realities. Reflecting on 2020, Mayor Rhodes-Conway, noted, “It’s been a lot. And yet nothing has changed about the fact that we have less than a decade to solve the climate crisis. We do not have time to forget about the climate crisis.”

“The communities that are being particularly impacted by this COVID pandemic are the same communities that are impacted most by the climate crisis,” agreed Mayor Melvin Carter, St. Paul MN. “These issues of climate, race, economics, equity…all these issues really can not be disconnected from one another. So right now is not a time to back off from our climate goals. Right now is actually a time to double down on those.”

The dynamic discussion, moderated by Paul Robbins, Dean of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, touched on relationships between levels of government as a key solution for tackling concurrent crises. Lt. Governor Barnes echoed this urgency as he championed the strong relationships he’s focused on building and maintaining with municipalities, utilities, and local businesses across the state.

The most visible aspects of the climate crisis in the Great Lakes are severe flooding, rock slides, and failing infrastructure (roads, water systems). Panelists discussed how they keep climate front and center in all of their work by connecting the climate crisis to issues like racial justice and public health.

Mayor Rhodes-Conway noted that leading through the COVID crisis has taught valuable lessons for the City’s climate work, including the critical need to break down government silos and work regionally, and to prioritize solutions that address multiple challenges. For Mayor Carter, this has meant investing in and promoting low carbon transportation options that reduce emissions while providing low-income and minority populations in St. Paul with improved access to economic opportunities.

While state leaders and mayors have different tools to address these crises, the panelists agreed that strengthening relationships with and across regions can have an impact, regardless of current resistance to do so at the federal level. Lt. Governor Barnes also discussed the importance of partnerships outside of government as part of this set of solutions. He noted that, “The private sector knows that the majority of Americans want to spend their dollars responsibly, especially the next generation of spenders who are more climate-conscious.” All panelists highlighted the importance of government partnerships, communication with utilities, and plans, and contracts that prioritize and elevate resilience and carbon reduction.

Wrapping up the lively discussion, panelists urged participants watching to vote, and to fill out their Census forms. These tools for the public can support long-term, equitable and green solutions. This conversation was the third in a Climate Mayors event series advocating for national leadership to prioritize recovery policies that are environmentally sustainable and socially just in the time of COVID-19.

Learn more about the regional discussions hosted by Climate Mayors here